What John McEnroe & Others are Getting so Very Wrong

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If you haven’t heard by now, on Sunday while lauding Serena Williams as the best female tennis player of all time, legendary American player John McEnroe also said that if she had played on men’s circuit she’d probably only be “like 700 in the world.” This of course prompted an outcry from many who took issue with McEnroe creating rankings out of thin air and many who believe Williams’ talents would place her higher than 700. For her part, Williams remained a regal as ever and politely asked McEnroe to keep her name out of his mouth. Despite the clamor, we didn’t get an apology from McEnroe. Instead, he doubled down on his comments and suggested that rather than speculating about how men and women tennis players match up; players should start engaging in more battles of the sexes.

You might recall that in 1973 Bobby Riggs opined that the women’s tennis game was far inferior to the men’s game and that he, at the time a 55-year-old retiree, was still too much for the top women players of the time. These comments led to the famed Battle of the Sexes which pitted Riggs against Margaret Court, Riggs against Billie Jean King and, later in 1992, Jimmy Connors against Martina Navratilova. The matches were entertaining and proved that women produced quality sportsmanship. But the thing is, they never should have happened.

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Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs

Throughout sports history, women have always been compared to men. The comparisons initially and often had their source in men like Riggs who aimed to degrade the efforts of women. Their style of warfare against women was to compare the speed, size and strength of men and women. Because women would undoubtedly average slower times, display smaller frames and exude less strength; women’s sports would always be inferior to men’s (or so their rationale went). Those arguments continue today. Men use the same excuse not to watch women play basketball because the game they produce isn’t as fast as the men’s and doesn’t involve high-flying dunks and other theatrics. Women’s hockey and baseball (for instance) don’t receive support because they’re supposedly men’s games that women just can’t play as well.

Over time, in an effort to defend ourselves and earn equal pay, women have adopted the comparison model too. We fight long and hard to prove the sports product we produce is just as good as the men’s. In fact, the fight for equal pay in tennis, soccer and hockey are prime examples of women arguing that we should be paid equally to men because we we’re just as good. We win just as much (if not more), we bring in just as much (if not more) revenue and we work just as has hard (if not harder) as the men. In women’s basketball we’re constantly trying to prove that the WNBA provides quality basketball just like the men’s game and trying to convince the world not to be turned off by UConn’s dominance.

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But here’s the thing, there is no comparison. Men and women are different. We are different anatomically, physiologically and socially. We’re different for good reasons like procreation, diversity and good old fashioned excitement. These differences lead us to produce and express ourselves differently. Our differences mean that women are going to play sports and be athletic in ways that are different than men. Men will be able to do things women can’t do and women will be able to do things that men can’t do. And you know what, that is ok. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being different. Different doesn’t mean inferior or superior. It just means different.

Rather than appreciating and celebrating that men and women are not the same kind of athletes, men and women place too much energy into comparing apples to oranges. Men and women in sports have shown us greatness in their own rights. Serena Williams is great regardless of how many points she can win off Novak Djokovic. Britney Griner is a master at her craft even if she never dunks against on Russell Westbrook. And there’s nothing anyone can do to take away the legacy that is the US Women’s soccer team. Women play sports with our own form of power, grace, elegance, strength and strategy. How about we celebrate that instead of comparing us to something we’ll never be, men.

Oh, and in case you forgot…Serena is Queen. 😉

The Lady Trainers

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Earlier this week Sue Falsone announced via twitter that she was resigning from her position as the head athletic trainer (AT)* of the LA Dodgers.  In 2011, Falsone had become the first female head AT of a major league male professional team in the United States.  It took until 2011 to have the first ever (smh) we’ve got a long way to go, ladies.  Falsone’s exit means that there are no longer any female head ATs in major professional sports; none in the NFL, none in the NBA, none in the MLB and none in the NHL.  That the resignation of one head AT would mean that there are no longer any female head ATs in all of major league sports is incredible…in a bad way. 

What gives?  Why aren’t there more female ATs in professional sports?  It can’t be that there is a shortage of female ATs.  The National Association for Athletic Trainers (NATA) reported that half, 15,000, of its members are female; so there are plenty of willing and able bodies available to do the work.  It also can’t be that women aren’t as capable as men of rendering medical services.  There are too many successful, female physicians for me to ever believe that.  So why is there such a discrepancy between the number of available female ATs and the number of female ATs in professional sports?  If you guessed gender-bias, you guessed right. 

Back in 2010, a study out of North Carolina State University** (NC State) on NCAA Division I football players showed several things:

  1. Male football players were more comfortable with male athletic trainers for treatment of BOTH general medical conditions and sex-specific injuries and conditions.
  2. With respect to care for depression, players preferred female athletic trainers. However, the players indicated similar levels of comfort with both male and female athletic trainers for overall psychological conditions. 
  3. Players exhibited a greater level of comfort with male athletic trainers and perceived female athletic trainers to fit into more stereotypical gender roles, which are characterized by traits that are incongruous with those perceived to be necessary for a leadership position, i.e. compassionate, nurturing, submissive.
  4. While most NCAA schools had head athletic trainers, only 15.2% were female.

Prior studies had shown that athletes (male and female) preferred same-gender ATs when dealing with gender specific injuries.  But this study showed that, with college football players at least, there was a preference for treatment from male ATs unless they were being treated for depression.  In other words, it was ok for a female AT to be consulted for a mental health issue, but not for a dislocated shoulder (for example).  The study theorized that these preferences were a result of stereotypical gender-role expectations and resistance to women in the male locker room. The gender-role assumptions and stereotypes that echo with players and administrators alike, that women are nurturers who don’t really belong in the rough and tough sports arena or in positions of leadership, has kept women out of the locker room and out of high level administration roles. 

While the NC State study may have focused on college sports, the study’s results most certainly are indicative of the sentiments and practices in professional sports.  Many professional athletes were once college athletes, and if their beliefs about females as ATs and leaders were developed in a chauvinistic environment and were left uncorrected, those beliefs continue with them in the professional arena.  The data suggests that that’s just what happens.  According to the NATA, of its 15,000 female members, only 61 ATs held positions in women’s professional sports, and only 2 held positions in men’s professional sports.  Those numbers are astounding and disheartening.  Less than 1% of NATA female ATs work in professional sports.  If working with professional athletes is the pinnacle of an AT career, that means that only an inkling of female ATs are reaching their dreams.

While the figures and results paint a bleak picture for female ATs, I think the future will in fact be brighter.  As women’s sports grow, so will the demand to place women in higher positions of authority and expertise.  And as those women are successful, they will undoubtedly open doors for others like them.  That’s the hope that I spoke of in my article about NCAA administrators.   Falsone may be gone for now, but I truly believe that other women will be given similar opportunities.  Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another decade before it happens. 

*To be clear, an athletic trainer is defined as an allied health care professional trained in prevention, assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal injuries and illnesses. 

**This report the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Football Players’ Perceptions of Women in the Athletic Training Room Using a Role Congruity Framework, is accessible at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2902033/.  All facts cited in this article were gathered from the NC State report.

CONDI COMES TO PLAY

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Yesterday Executive Director Bill Hancock announced who would sit on the 13-member College Football Playoff (CFP) Selection Committee.   The committee, which will pick the four teams that will vie in the playoff for the national championship next year, undoubtedly needed to be filled with heavy hitters who know and appreciate the game of football and the system of college athletics.  Well, one thing is for sure, the committee has no shortage of heavy hitters. Here’s a brief introduction:

Jeff Long, Chairman, 54, University of Arkansas-Athletic Director (AD)

  • AD at Pittsburg and Eastern Kentucky; Played football and baseball for Ohio Wesleyan

Barry Alvarez, 66, University of Wisconsin-AD

  • Former Nebraska football player; Coached Wisconsin for 16 seasons as the winningest coach in school history

Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, 60

  • Former superintendent and football player at the US Air Force Academy

Pat Haden, 60, University of Southern California-AD

  • Played QB for USC and the LA Rams; Rhodes Scholar and former TV analyst

Tom Jernstedt, 68

  • Former NCAA Vice President; Oversaw the men’s Final Four & selection committee; 38 years with the NCAA

Oliver Luck, 53, West Virginia-AD

  • Former West Virginia & NFL QB; Former President of NFL Europe and the Houston Dynamo

Archie Manning, 64

  • Former Mississippi & NFL QB; Member of the College Football Hall of Fame; Father to Peyton and Eli Manning

Tom Osborne, 76

  • Former Nebraska football coach; Won 3 National Titles; Former member of Congress; Former Nebraska AD

Dan Radakovich, 54, Clemson University-AD

  • Played football at Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Former AD at Georgia Tech & American University

Mike Tranghese, 69

  • Former Commissioner of the Big East

Steve Wieberg, 59

  • Former college sports reporter for USA Today

Tyrone Willingham, 59

  • Former coach of Notre Dame, Stanford & Washington; Played Football at Michigan State

Condoleezza Rice, 58, Stanford University professor

  • Former Secretary of State & National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush; Former provost at Stanford

As you can see, I saved the most interesting, controversial pick for last.  The committee’s only woman is none other than former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  While I may not agree with this woman or her President’s politics, you must admit, she’s pretty effing amazing.  From educator, to politician, to athlete; this woman does and has done it all.  But despite her accomplishments, and even before the committee was officially announced, Rice’s place on the committee was questioned. 

One of her most outspoken naysayers was former Auburn coach, Pat Dye.  When asked about Rice’s possible position on the committee, Dye gave us this gem: “All she knows about football is what somebody told her, or what she read in a book, or what she saw on television. To understand football, you’ve got to play with your hand in the dirt.  I love Condoleezza Rice and she’s probably a good statesman and all of that but how in the hell does she know what it’s like out there when you can’t get your breath and it’s 110 degrees and the coach asks you to go some more?"  On the surface, Dye’s comments appear to express a legitimate concern that the committee member’s be experienced in football; but things rarely are as they appear.  Once you scratch the surface you see that Dye’s comments are actually an expression of his gender bias and probably the gender bias that exists in sports (especially male dominated sports) in general.

Had Dye really been concerned that committee members have legitimate football playing experience, he would have also directed his comments at two others on the committee—Mike Traghese and Steve Wieberg—neither which ever played football.  Yet their qualifications weren’t questioned.  I guess Traghese’s and Wieberg’s status as men exempts them from needing to actually play football in order to be viable candidates.  I think it’s worth noting that one of the most prolific leaders in football history, former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, never played football.  Playing football is not a criteria for thoroughly understanding and knowing the game.  The committee members have not been asked to coach the four playoff teams, but merely to select them based on teams’ records, level of competition, talent, etc.; all of which can be considered based on one’s knowledge of the sport. 

Like the other members of the committee, Rice brings a unique perspective backed by an esteemed career.  No, she never played football, but she hired one of the other members of the committee, Tyrone Willingham, as head coach during her time as Provost of Stanford.  In that capacity she oversaw the entire athletic program of a large Division I school.  She knows how the NCAA works and she knows how a large football program works.  Her background as “probably a good statesman,” Secretary of State of the most powerful country on the planet proves that she not only is a team leader and player but has experience making tough decisions and compromising.  If diversity and the ability to make decisions under pressure is what the selection committee needed, Rice provides that without a doubt. 

Dye’s comments, however, are less about Rice’s abilities and more about the gender gap in college sports administration. While very few would blatantly admit to having biases against women, statistics (and comments like Dye’s) suggest that women have been shut out the sports administration process because of beliefs that women can’t handle sports management, especially when it involves male dominated sports.  Out of the 125 FBS schools, only 8 eight have athletic directors who are women.  I did the math, that’s only 6.4%.  There are also only a few female directors of football operations, and it’s a fact that most sports administrators at the college level are men.  Yes, it’s crystal clear that women have a long way to go before they are accepted as men are in sports administration.

I am hopeful, however, that as women progress in sports as players and managers, more doors will open for them to be administrators.  I could be wrong, but I truly believe that the lack of diversity in sports administration isn’t solely attributed to a belief that women are inferior sports managers when compared to men.  I think some bias exists, but I also think there is a fear of the unknown and an unwillingness for women to apply to higher level administrative positions.  As more women are successfully placed in positions like Rice’s, more institutions will feel comfortable placing the reins of their athletics departments in the hands of women.  And as more women see that it’s possible for women to be selected as sports administrators, more will apply, thereby diversifying the applicant and administrator pool.  At least that’s what I hope.

Women are just as competent as men in understanding business and sports.  But what female administrators will offer is more meaningful than mere competence.  They have the potential to bring a fresh, diverse prospective to college sports.  A diverse outlook will allow programs to develop creative ways to solve problems and innovative approaches to improving the experiences of college athletes and fans.  The same diversity that was important in the decision to choose Rice for the CFP Selection Committee is the same diversity that can improve on college athletics and women’s perception in sports. 

GRINER’S NEW TEAM

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3,283 points. 748 blocks. 18 dunks.  3-Time AP All-American. You know her name, get to know her stats.   Brittney Griner.  Over the past four years we’ve been privileged to watch this women single-handedly dominate basketball.  Her presence electrified fans and disheartened opponents.  Her voice in the media was not loud and boisterous, but her talents on the court were.  We’ll never see Griner in all her glory on court as a collegian, but the future is bright for her.  She now has the opportunity to set more records and be the best player women’s basketball has ever seen. 

With the opportunity for further glory come opportunities to become the face of the sport, redefine female athletes, and make millions.  Her on-court prowess will afford her the opportunity to create a unique brand that celebrates her and encourages the celebration of female athletes.  To best maximize her potential, Griner must choose her team wisely.  When I say team, I’m not referring to her future WNBA team; but the management team that will help her traverse the world of professional sports.  A great team can make Griner a successful businesswoman and basketball player.  It can help her build a brand that influences the world and makes her a household name.  The wrong team can lead her to bad business decisions and heartache.  So Griner must choose wisely.  In picking her management, she should keep three things in mind, and cut people from her team who don’t support her. 

Number 1: Be Herself

Shakespeare wrote it best, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”  If Griner can’t be herself when promoting herself or someone’s product, her promotion endeavors won’t be successful.  To build a successful, long-lasting and profitable brand, Griner has to be believable to her fans and to consumers, and that’s not possible if she is pretending to be someone’s she isn’t. 

The media repeatedly promotes female athletes in a feminine, sexualized manner in an attempt to maintain gender norms of male dominance and female subservience under the guise of selling products.  I’ve seen it happen time after time when an athlete goes from cornrows and sneakers to straight hair and heels to try to fit “the mold” and become more marketable.  If Griner isn’t a make-up, stiletto wearing type of lady, she shouldn’t feel compelled to conform to be that (or anything that isn’t a reflection of her) just to improve her marketability.  I’m not saying that Griner needs to be willing to put the feminist struggle on her back and change the way we view female athletes (unless of course she wants to), but she should be able to be successful being just who God made her.  If her team can’t find a way to package her that is a both marketable and honest reflection of her; they shouldn’t be a part of her team. 

Number 2: Watch for the Glitter

There’s an old saying, “All that glitters is not gold.”  I hope that Griner either already knows or quickly realizes that every shiny person and every offer aren’t golden no matter how much they glitter.  Otherwise she could find herself learning the hard way that shiny deals can obscure ulterior motives.

Case in point: Mark Cuban’s recent offer to select Griner in the NBA draft.  The offer to be one of the first woman ever drafted into (and perhaps play for) the NBA seems alluring, but a wiping off the glitter shows that this really wouldn’t be a stellar move for Griner.  Participating in the NBA draft would demean Griner’s talents.  Instead of basking the rightfully earned glory of being one of the best female players the sport has ever seen, Griner would unnecessarily be subjected to criticism that she isn’t strong, fast or good enough for the man’s game.  Whether that statement is accurate is immaterial.  Griner should not be compared to men.  She’s a woman and a magnificent ball player.  Such comparisons won’t elevate her, only tear her down and detract from her accomplishments.  The one who truly stands to profit from Griner’s participation in the NBA draft is Cuban.  The coverage and potential ticket sales that Cuban would receive at the expense of Griner’s legacy would be enormous.  I suspect that Cuban’s offer as more to do with his profit margins and less to do with making Griner one of the most successful basketball players ever.  Hopefully Griner surrounds herself with a team that can successfully assess the genuine and long-term effects of partnering with various brands and endeavors. 

Number 3: Ignore the Haters

My third point doesn’t come with a quote but it’s paramount to the success of points one and two.  Ignore the Haters.  Griner has plenty of haters.  For instance, Griner’s success has been subjected to the cruel commentaries, from people who will never accomplish half of what Griner has accomplished in her less than twenty-five years on this earth, filled with overt sexism and gender biases that unnecessarily question her sexuality.  Despite the ignorance, Griner has remained classy and continued to dominate in her craft. 

It’s imperative that she continues to ignore the incessant commentary.  If Griner falls victim to the haters, she may feel the need to compromise in efforts to silence the hate.  Griner must know that silencing haters is an impossible challenge.  She’ll always have haters, so trying to please them will only cause her to lose herself.  In selecting her team she should choose management that is equipped to ignore haters and think outside of the box.  If Griner and her team feel pressure to conform she might tragically be convinced that compromise is a necessary evil on the road to success. 

Brittney Griner has the world ahead of her.  She will have many opportunities and her success will be based on how true she remains to herself and how smart and creative her team is.  I hope she chooses wisely.

Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3, Line 78.  

Not Woman Enough

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Shortly before the start of the 2012 Olympic games in London two of the world’s largest and most powerful governing athletic bodies; the International Association of Athletics Foundations (“IAAF”), responsible for regulating international track and field competition, and the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”), the governing body of the Olympics, enacted new rules that may significantly alter women’s sports.  The organizations enacted rules that target women with hyperandrogenism (see below for definition) after the world embarrassingly questioned the sexuality of Caster Semenya, a young South African runner, pictured below.  In August 2009, Semenya raced in and won the 800-meter event at the Berlin World Championship in Athletics by a margin of 2.45 seconds.  Her competitors immediately vocalized their concerns about her sexuality.  These concerns sparked a media frenzy which led to the extensive testing and the release of embarrassing details about Semenya’s sexuality.  The scrutiny was so intense that it forced Semenya into hiding and to seek counseling.  After the IAAF banned Semenya from competition while it conducted its investigation, the IAAF eventually let Semenya’s victory stand.  Her victory was upheld because Semenya was not cheating, nor was she a man.  She was diagnosed as having a condition known as hyperandrogenism.  With the damage done to Semenya’s privacy and her career, the IAAF and IOC set about devising rules that would prevent such public humiliation and maintain the integrity of female competition.  Unfortunately, the new rules have missed the mark.  The rules on hyperandrogenism are based on unproven scientific assumptions and limited views of gender and sexuality.  This essay attempts to expose the new rules and calls for their appeal.

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The Rules

In our quest for what is fair and righteous, lawyers like to start with the law.  So start with the law I shall.  The IAAF establishes two methods by which hyperandrogenic women come under the purview of the new rules.  Either a woman who knows she is hyperandrogenic can report herself to the IAAF, or another party who is suspicious that an athlete is hyperandrogenic may report the suspected athlete. In order to compete, athletes who are known to have hyperandrogenism must submit to medical treatments designed to “normalize” testosterone levels.  If the athlete declines such treatments, she is banned from competition.  If IAAF officials believe that an athlete is hyperandrogenic, the athlete must submit herself to any combination of three tests that analyze the athlete’s androgen levels and overall physical and mental health.  These tests and the results are submitted to a panel of medical “experts” for review and determination of eligibility. If an athlete’s testosterone levels are found to be “below the normal male range” or “within the normal male range but [she] has androgen resistance,” then she is allowed to compete.  If not, however, the athlete is ineligible to compete unless she is willing to subject herself to medical treatments designed to bring her body under conditions suitable for competition.  The full codification of the rules can be found here.  IOC’s rules are similar to the IAAF’s, and maybe found here.

The Science…or Lack Thereof

Before delving into the problems with IOC and IAAF’s new rules, it’s important to understand the science, or lack thereof, behind the new rules. 

Hyperandrogenism (hy-per-an´dro-jen-izm) refers to a condition in which a person experiences excessive androgen secretions.  (From here on, HA will be used to refer to hyperandrogenism) Androgens are steroids that control the development and maintenance of masculine characteristics.  For purposes of this discussion, HA refers to the condition where a female naturally produces excessive amounts of testosterone.  The increased amounts of testosterone cause hyperandrogenic females to have features commonly associated with males, but there is no question that they are female.  So what’s the big deal?  Why are there new rules for women with HA?

Many have been taught that testosterone gives males athletic abilities that are superior to females.  Supposedly, it allows them to throw farther, jump higher, and run faster.   Following that train of thought, if a female naturally produces more testosterone then most females, as do females with HA, the theory is that they will display athletic abilities that are superior to other females.  The new rules seek to prevent females with naturally elevated levels of testosterone from competing against females with normal testosterone levels.  Well, one big, better yet HUGE, problem with this theory is that the link between testosterone and athleticism, especially in females, has not been proven.  Stated another way, there is no evidence that shows that successful athletes have higher testosterone levels than less successful athletes.  That is not to say that there is no evidence that testosterone does not help individuals increase their muscle size, strength and endurance, because there is. But no study has shown that testosterone makes people more athletic.  Athleticism requires more than strength.  Think about the extra buff, body builders who are strong but not necessarily athletic.  What has been proven is that individuals have different responses to the same amounts of testosterone, females do not react to testosterone the same way that males do, and that testosterone is just ONE component in the complex neuroendocrine feedback system that may affect athletic performances.

In an effort to prove my point let’s consider females with two different diseases that relate to testosterone.   First, there is Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS).  Females with CAIS have tissue that is completely unresponsive to testosterone.  Despite this, females with CAIS are overrepresented among elite athletes.  Testosterone plays absolutely no role in their athleticism, but they dominate their sports. [See hurdler María José Martínez Patiño]  Second, there is Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH).  Females with CAH have high levels of testosterone; however, they are disproportionately affected by short stature and obesity, the antitheses of athleticism.  These conditions support the arguments that while testosterone functions similarly in females and males, testosterone’s effects on athletic abilities are different in males and females and testosterone probably is not what makes one female more athletic than another.  In sum, relying on testosterone to determine athletic ability, especially in females, is not supported by actual science.  At least until science supports the theory that increased testosterone in females provides a competitive edge, I think the rules should be repealed.

99 Problems

My analysis of the rules could have stopped at the fact that they are based on incomplete science, but that just wouldn’t drive my point home strongly enough.  The problems with the rules add up…

First, there are two justifications for the new rules, both of which are unsupported.  One justification is health.  The IAAF’s preface to its rules suggests that the rules were designed out of a concern for the health of athletes who have HA.  Actually, there are many instances where there are no clear health risks for females with HA.  If a hyperandrogenic athlete competes successfully, chances are that her condition is not negatively affecting her health at all.  Furthermore, after an athlete is diagnosed with HA nothing in the rules suggests that the IAAF will offer any financial aid towards medical treatment.  The rules’ second and most publicized justification is competitive fairness.  The IAAF and the IOC both use competitive fairness as one of the main motivators behind the new rules; however, as I have already explained there is no evidence that testosterone is solely responsible for providing athletes with a competitive edge.  The IAAF and IOC seem to suggest that HA gives females superwoman-type of abilities; however, the facts just don’t support this line of thought.  For example, while Semenya’s Berlin results showed an improvement over her earlier times, her performance only ranked 26th overall for women and 7th for girls.  Plenty of females had run faster than Semenya, and her times did not even rank on the men’s or boy’s lists.  Her HA certainly did not turn her into a super-competitor.  The legitimacy of the IAAF and IOC’s motives for the new rules just don’t withstand a rational test.  After analyzing the organizations’ weak arguments for the new rules, it becomes more apparent that the rules are a danger to female sports.

Another issue of significant concern is the blatant sex discrimination that the new rules sanction.  HA affects both females and males.  If increased of testosterone gives females with HA a competitive edge, why would the same not be true for males?  Why not enact a similar series of rules, tests, and bans for males?  After all, it would be no fairer for “normal” males to compete against hyperandrogenic males than it is for “normal” females to compete against hperandrogenic females, right?  That females are held to a completely different standard than males is quite disturbing, especially when the rules are supposedly based on fact and science.

Not far removed from the issue of sexual inequality in testing, is the fact that the IAAF and IOC have somewhat arbitrarily decided on an acceptable range for testosterone levels in female competitors.   The rules require that female competitors have testosterone levels lower than the “normal” male range.  The “normal” male range is ≥10 nmol/L.  The rules simply require that the females’ testosterone levels be less than 10 nmol/L without providing an actual range for normal female testosterone.  Supposedly, the average female has testosterone levels that are one-tenth of the average male levels, or 1 nmol/L of testosterone.  If, as the rules suggest, above average testosterone gives females a competitive edge, why are females who register at 9 nmol/L, for instance, more worthy of competing than females who register at 10 nmol/L?

The legtitimacy of the rules is again questioned when other genetic defects are taken into account.  Though not commonly known to the masses, many elite athletes are born with exceptional biological variations that give them athletic advantages.  Some runners and cyclists have rare mitochondrial variations that give them extraordinary aerobic capacity and resistance against fatigue.  Some elite athletes have variations in genes that affect muscle growth and efficiency and blood flow to skeletal muscles.  In fact, many speculate that Olympian Michael Phelps has Marfan’s syndrome, a rare genetic mutation that results in exceptionally long limbs and flexible joints, that helps to make him an exceptional swimmer.  These are just a few examples that show that there are many elite athletes who have genetic variations that give competitive edges.  These athletes are, however, allowed to compete.  HA, if it gives a competitive advantage at all, is no different than any other genetic variation.  Hyperandrogenic females have not introduced any foreign substance into their bodies and should not be banned from competition or be forced to endure treatments to alter their natural biology as if they have.  99 problems lead to the question: Why such different treatment for HA?

Gender: Not Woman Enough

I believe that gender discrimination is at the heart of the new rules.  The new rules are solely about gender and discriminate against females who phenotypically appear to be less female than many of their counterparts.  Gender refers to the psychological and behavioral traits that are designated as “masculine” or “feminine,” i.e., traits considered more common for or appropriate to boys and men versus girls and women.  Sex, on the other hand, refers to the biological and anatomical traits that are used to label a person as female or male.  IAAF and IOC rules are not aimed at sex testing.  Both organizations accept the fact that athletes with HA are in fact female, and that they have not introduced any foreign substance into their bodies.  The rules target females who look like males, not those who have the athletic abilities of males.

When Caster Semenya was forced to undergo tests for HA, the tests were driven, not by her performance, but by concerns for her image.  In speaking of Semenya following her now famed Berlin run, writers referred to her as “breathtakingly butch” and a “hermaphrodite.”  Her competitors called her a man saying, “these kinds of people should not be allowed to run with us.”  She was placed under the microscope not because she had done some remarkable feat, but because her look, too masculine for some, made competitors uncomfortable.  Remember, her times were nothing extraordinary.  The rules, prompted by the Semenya incident, which allow athletes and coaches to report females they believe have HA opens the door for females to have to submit themselves to testing simply because they do not fit into the socially accepted norms of femininity; not because of a legitimate concern about fair competition.  Attacks on the outward appearances of female athletes will not ensure a fair playing field, but will reinforce paternalistic definitions of what a female should be.  Instead of giving female athletes the freedom to be themselves and compete to the best of their abilities the rules pressure them to conform to popular notions of gender or shy away from competition all together to avoid scrutiny.

Attacks on gender have the potential to seriously detract from the growth and prominence of female sports.  Instead of focusing on performance, the rules encourage debate about femininity.  For years women and girls have fought to have their athletic accomplishments legitimized.  The rules open the door for athletes and the public to challenge the legitimacy of athletic performances simply because a competitor does not fit the mold not because legitimate evidence of competitive unfairness exists.  They condone boxing athletes into arbitrary perimeters of what a female should look like, and promote fears about those who do not fit some image of the “model women.”

The image of a woman as feminine and docile has been defined from a largely white, male perspective that leaves little room for acceptance of different definitions of womanhood.  Confined definitions of womanhood promote discrimination when a female does not fit the mold.  Compare the public’s reaction to Semenya’s victory to that of Nadzeya Ostapchuk, the Belarus shot putter. Ostapchuk, pictured below, won the gold medal in the shot put in the 2012 Olympics in London.  While arguably Ostapchuk looks no less masculine than Semenya, none of Ostapchuk’s competitors questioned her sexuality.  However, after testing positive for steroids, Ostapchuk was stripped of her gold medal.  Ostapchuk’s tests were not a result of a public outcry about her appearance as too masculine, but as a result of the testing that every athlete must submit themselves to after winning an Olympic medal.  Here we have a situation where a complete new set of rules was established because a South African runner, who had introduced no foreign substance into her body, did not look the part while no one questioned the woman from Belarus who too lacked the feminine touch but was in fact cheating.  Could it have been Semenya’s skin color, dark like her ancestors from Africa; her hair, braided in a style less embodied by Europeans; or her build, strong and chiseled, that made her susceptible to public scrutiny?  If any one of those things led to the disparate treatment between Semenya and Ostapchuk, it shouldn’t be so.  One individual’s athletic performance should not be scrutinized based on her appearance, and the IAAF and IOC rules allow for just that.

 

Conclusion

I do not doubt that the IAAF and IOC had admiral intentions when enacting the new rules on HA in female competitors.  I believe however that engrained ideals of masculinity and femininity drove the organizations to rely on incomplete science to silence public outcry.  While the rules have the potential to harm female sports and female athletes who do not fit the accepted norm of womanhood, it is not too late for the rules to be repealed.  No one thing makes us females.  Females come in all shapes, sizes and colors; with different athletic, mental and social abilities; and should not be hindered by antiquated beliefs about what they should do and how they should look while doing it.  The new, and unjustified, rules on HA lack scientific backing, they discriminate against females and athletes with unusual genetic mutations, and they promote gender discrimination.  With so many problems and no solutions, we have to ask, what’s taking so long for the rules to be repealed?

Scientific Source

Karkazis, Katrina. Out of Bounds. The American Journal of Bioethics, 12(7): 3–16, 2012. Available here.