The last century has seen steady evolution of public views on gender and sports. Women have increasingly become competitors and fans. Through high school and even at higher levels, women are readily accepted when they compete on men’s teams. In 1992, hockey goalie Manon Rhéaume became the first woman to play in an NHL game. Major League Baseball’s enthusiastic promotion of Mo’ne Davis, who pitched a shutout in the 2014 Little League World Series, suggests that baseball would love to see a female player rise through the ranks.
More so than almost any other realm, we think of sports as having a strictly defined set of rules that ‘level the playing field’ and establish a fair competition. Sports is also one of the last aspects of society in which we have strictly segregated the sexes—we divide the boys and girls, men and women. But we are also moving, rightly, into a society that recognizes that people should be allowed to express who they are—and to live a life as who they believe they are.
These examples suggest that trans males will eventually be accepted on male-only teams. However, due to the fact that, on average, a 17-year-old male has 15 times more testosterone than a 17-year-old female, there will be ongoing controversy in cases where trans athletes dominate female-only events.
Local league officials have had to manage lawsuits, booing crowds, eruptions of social media anger and news media attention— sometimes on an international level. This puts local coaches, school administrators and league officials in the hot seat.
In March 2020, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed into law a bill prohibiting transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports. In August, a federal judge issued an injunction to stop the state from enacting it. Look for this cultural clash to continue playing out in the courts—and
Report: The Future of Youth Sports
10 in-depth topics from recruiting to brain development to esports.
We take a deep look at the best and worst-case scenarios for the future of youth sports as parents, coaches, futurists, industry experts—and former youth athletes.
Terry Miller of Bloomfield High School was one of two male-to-female transgender high school sprinters in Connecticut—one of 17 states that do not require medical or legal intervention to prove a gender transition. Miller set a girls’ state indoor record of 6.95 seconds in the 55-meter dash at the 2019 state open indoor track championships. The second-place finisher, Andraya Yearwood of Cromwell High, who is also transgender, finished in 7.01 seconds.
Chelsea Mitchell of Canton High, who is not transgender, placed third in 7.23 seconds. In February 2020, the families of Mitchell and other female athletes who competed against Miller and Yearwood filed a lawsuit, backed by a conservative political nonprofit, intending to bar male-to-female trans athletes from competing in women-only events. However, at a track meet two days after the lawsuit was filed, Mitchell turned the tables and beat Miller by .2 seconds, 7.18 to 7.20. Miller applauded Mitchell’s victory—a win which probably didn’t help the cause of plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The case of Miller and Yearwood is just the beginning of what will surely be a tumultuous road to normalcy in an age of gender fluidity. But it’s not the only direction these issues will turn. Consider the case of Mack Beggs.
Gender identity options on Facebook
Mack Beggs began the transition from girl to boy in his midteens and began taking testosterone injections. Because the testosterone came from a physician, Texas’s University Interscholastic League did not regard it as a banned substance. Although Beggs stated a preference for competing in the boys’ wrestling division, the UIL required athletes to compete against the gender that is listed on their birth certificate. Competing for the Dallas-area Trinity High, Beggs dominated 36–0 in 2018, the unbeaten state champion for the second straight year in the women’s 110-pound class. Beggs was booed at events and viciously attacked in social media.
Who can Play Where?
The recent rise in the visibility of children identifying as transgender or gender nonconforming will increasingly become a hot-button debate in the world of youth sports. The tricky issue of how to decide who can play on which teams in traditionally gender-divided sports won’t easily go away. The controversy will be particularly heated when trans athletes compete in women’s sports.
The Current Patchwork Solution
Reacting to the controversy, politically conservative states often force youth athletes to compete based on the sex on their birth certificate. More liberal states have mostly allowed athletes to choose where they compete based on personal gender identity. Other states have required young athletes to prove their transition by undergoing surgery, hormone treatments or legally changing their sex assignment on their birth certificates. Unfortunately, all of these approaches lead to mismatches, aggrieved athletes and angry parents.
In conservative states, trans boys who are taking testosterone will have the advantage when they are forced to compete in girl-only competitions. In more liberal states, trans girls who are not taking estrogen will have the advantage in girl-only sports. While they identify as female, on average, they will still be competing in a body with higher levels of testosterone, more lung capacity and greater strength and bone density.
Pressure for Unisex Participation
Sports programs will increasingly emphasize gender neutrality in team sports. All-gender sports—particularly at the non-elite level—will increasingly become the standard up to 12 years old. After that, it will become increasingly common to see women and trans women continue playing on teams that are primarily made up of young men.
Evolving rules coming from the International Olympic Committee will likely influence local and regional rules. In the fall of 2020, the committee signaled its intention to rely on testosterone levels in a legal battle with the runner Caster Semenya. Although Semenya is a non-trans female, she has been excluded from defending her 800-meter title unless she undergoes hormone treatments to bring her testosterone down to more average female levels. For now, placing testosterone limits on those with “disorders of sexual development” that cause hormone level differences is the standard for determining who can compete in international women’s events.
Unfortunately, enforcement of hormone-based rules across youth sports will require frequent, widespread testing. In the short run, it is unlikely that local school districts and sports organizations will want to take responsibility for such testing. Current tests must be administered randomly and over time, and even then are often inaccurate. However, advances in mobile testing kits or always-on wearable sensors will provide new ways to pinpoint hormone levels.
Regardless, because of the social media attention paid to trans athletes, youth sports organizations will increasingly find themselves at the center of this difficult cultural debate.
Hormones Affecting Sports Performance
- Luteinizing Hormone
- Somatotropin (HGH)
The Stakes are High
Having a place to express yourself and have fun is important for all kids, whether it’s sports, theater or anything else. However, it is arguably more important for transgender kids. According to a study published by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, “30 percent of transgender youth report a history of at least one suicide attempt, and nearly 42 percent report a history of self-injury, such as cutting.” Meanwhile, a University of Vermont study found that being physically active four or more days per week resulted in a 23 percent reduction in suicidal ideation and attempts in bullied students. Finding a way for trans children to become accepted on the playing field may indeed be a matter of life and death.
The Future Is Already Here Dep’t
In 2018, the Youth Olympics featured mixed-gender competitions in tennis, equestrian disciplines, pentathlon, swimming, golf, sailing and table tennis. More than 450 teams in 39 countries are playing Quidditch, which has a “four maximum” gender rule to maintain an equitable gender mix on the field. US Quidditch specifically “welcomes people of all identities and genders.” A group of Middlebury College students in 2005 devised a real-world version of the broom-riding coed contact sport depicted in the Harry Potter series.
The first steps toward a mixed-gender sports future were taken by youth organizations that started more all-gender leagues to avoid the pressure of dealing with gender issues with young kids. A broad coalition of youth sports organizations announced that all teams would be mixed-gender up until age 12. This allowed kids to grow into their identities with less confusion, and paved the way for shifts in society that led to broader acceptance. In 2023, Connecticut’s high school sports commissioners announced that the state’s high school sports teams would no longer be divided according to gender, but rather by the International Olympic Committee’s standard for allowing competition in women’s sports: a maximum of 10 nanomoles of testosterone per liter of blood. States across the country followed suit, with some adopting the more stringent limit set by World Athletics (formerly known as the IAAF) of 5 nmol/liter. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but an uneasy truce held for a while.
As time passed, sports organizations used data collection and devices to create handicap systems to make an end-run around gender performance differences. Individual events such as track and field became instantly mixed and gender-neutral. These sports followed the example of golf, which has a proven handicapping method that allows any player to compete on a given day with the best in the world. Handicap structures promote personal improvement and reward extraordinary individual performance during a single event or outing.
Birth gender became an increasingly irrelevant issue as leagues began to create multiple divisions where athletes are matched for weight, muscle mass and testosterone levels, among other metrics
Courts followed the lead of conservative states and issued a spate of rulings against gender inclusiveness in sports. Being forced to compete under the gender on their birth certificate drove transgender youths to steer away from sports. Organized youth sports became decreasingly relevant to the inclusivity-minded Gen Z and Generation Alpha, causing participation to wane dramatically.