While transgender athletes have been competing for some time (the NCAA established its policy on transgender athletes in 2010), they have recently been dragged into the culture wars. In 2020, only Idaho had restrictions on transgender athletes. By 2023, 23 states had put restrictions in place.
When politicians and pundits argue in favor of such restrictions, they usually make an appeal to fairness rather than openly appealing to prejudice. In many cases, they seem to be arguing in bad faith—they only seem to be concerned about women and girls being treated fairly in this specific context. State legislatures could have, for example, ratified the Equal Rights Amendment during the same session they passed their restrictions on transgender athletes. As such, it is reasonable to infer that these laws are not about fairness. But can a good faith fairness argument be made for restricting transgender athletes?
The obvious place to begin in making such an argument is by pointing out that sports have well-established competition categories that are at least partially based on facilitating fair competition. For example, high school teams do not compete against college teams or professional teams. Such competition would be unfair. As another example, running has established age-based competition categories. This is because people generally decline in their athletic ability as they age, so the average 65-year-old runner will be slower than the average 20-year-old runner. As a final example, some sports have categories based on the size and weight of the athletes. It would generally be unfair if a 100-pound athlete had to wrestle or box a 220-pound opponent. While imperfect, such categories do seem to be morally justified in terms of their goal: they do make competition fairer. These categories are gender-neutral, but the concern about transgender athletes is obviously about gender.
In general, sports have two gender categories: male and female. While there are various reasons for these categories, it can be argued that fairness is an important one. In general, male athletes have an advantage over female athletes, and not having these categories would put female athletes at a disadvantage in terms of earning a place on a team or in competition. As would be suspected, few athletes are in favor of getting rid of these categories. But what about athletes being able to change their category?
Transgender athletes are athletes who do just that. Given that male athletes have an advantage over female athletes, there is a reasonable moral concern that a male athlete who transitions to being a female athlete will thus have an unfair advantage. Parents, seemingly in good faith, express the worry that their daughters will be unable to get on a sports team or will lose out on awards and scholarships because transgender athletes will take their place, their awards, and their scholarships.
On the face of it, this concern might not seem unreasonable, and most people who express it also claim they otherwise support the rights of trans people. One obvious practical question is about the likelihood that this will happen. While the exact percentage of people who are trans is unknown, it is likely to be very small. Given that most students are not competitive athletes, the number of trans athletes will presumably be tiny. There is also the fact that the trans athlete will need to be better than the parent’s daughter. Considering all these factors, the chances that a trans athlete will take a spot, award, or scholarship from a concerned parent’s daughter is vanishingly small. They are vastly more likely to lose that spot, award, or scholarship to an athlete who is not trans but is a better athlete.
While the parents who are concerned about trans athletes taking from their daughters would presumably be upset if their daughter lost out to a non-trans female athlete, they would generally not claim that this was unfair. While this seems reasonable, it also seems a bit inconsistent. After all, they believe that if a trans athlete is better than their daughter, then it would be unfair for them to compete against their daughter. But if a non-trans athlete is better than their daughter (even because of her superior anatomy and physiology), then this would be fair. As such, the parent must hold that it is not having an advantage in anatomy and physiology that is unfair but having that advantage for a specific reason—being a trans athlete.
Imagine, if you will, two athletes who are identical in their abilities, but one, Sally, is trans, and the other, Ann, is not. Imagine that Sally and Ann beat Jane, who is not trans. It would seem odd to claim that Ann beating Jane was fair but that Sally beating Jane was not, simply because Sally is trans. After all, she has the same abilities as Ann. One could reply that the source of the advantage does matter—that Sally got it from being born with certain advantages that began as belonging to a male and that Ann got the same exact advantages, but they arose from a person who was born female. The challenge is, of course, making a case for this. A second reply is to switch back to the general: that even though individual athletes will vary, in general, trans athletes who were male will have a significant advantage, and thus it would be unfair to allow them to compete because of the harm that would be done to non-trans female athletes.
In the case of the worry about being bumped from the team, there is an easy solution at the K-12 level: teams can be expanded to include everyone who wants to compete and who can meet the basic requirements of the sport. Many teams already work this way. The concern about awards and scholarships is a bit more challenging, but the NCAA already addressed these worries back in 2010 with their policies. These are designed to address concerns about the fairness of competition, and while they are imperfect, they do seem to ensure that the competition is as fair between trans athletes and non-trans athletes as it is between non-trans athletes and non-trans athletes. After all, some non-trans athletes have anatomical and physiological advantages over their non-trans fellow athletes, and this is accepted as fair. There are also policies in place at the Olympic and professional levels that address the concerns about fairness.
In closing, it is reasonable to be concerned about fairness in sports. But in the case of transgender athletes, this is a matter that was already addressed before politicians and pundits decided to make it into a new front in the culture wars. As such, while a person might make the fairness argument in ignorance, if they persist in the face of the facts then their concern is not about fairness.