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Breakthrough Research to Assist Transgender Sport Policymakers

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Photo: NARIMAN EL-MOFTY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

By Bonnie Tiell, Ed.D. |

As America marks 48 years since the passage of Title IX, controversy persists on the subject of what to do with Male to Female (MTF) transgender athletes. The maintenance and promotion of female athletics is as relevant as ever, and yet the year 2020 is also a time where President-elect Joe Biden indicated, “let’s be clear: transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.”

Transgender inclusion is at the forefront of conversations relative to high school, college, and Olympic sport participation. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) are both facing increasing scrutiny since operating under dated translgender regulations. No less than 20 legislative bills have been filed in 17 states seeking to regulate transgender participation in schools. Connecticut laws are facing heavy public scrutiny after two biological male track athletes won fifteen state high school championship events in the girls’ classification.

What has been primarily missing from the conversation has been a robust body of objective research. Gabriel Higerd, a doctoral candidate at the United States Sports Academy and head strength and conditioning coach for football at Azusa Pacific University, is answering the call. Higerd is collecting data that will be useful to those seeking to make informed, evidence-based policy decisions. Specifically, Higerd is investigating the statistical probability of high school state champions in selected female track and field events hypothetically being biological male.

The tension between inclusion and fairness is at the heart of the policymaking efforts, according to Higerd, and credible research is necessary for an evidence-based framework to analyze and draft the rules governing transgender participation in sport.  Higerd’s study is a quantitative evaluation of an estimated one million high school track and field performances that explores biologically driven performance differences and potential consequences of transgender sport policies. The research focusing on interscholastic sports hopes to provide the scientific probability that a transgender biological male would outperform the top female competitor in states with self-identification and no hormone intervention requirements for athletic participation. Using UCLA’s Williams Institute transgender population estimates for 13-17 year-olds to assess representation statistics, the study will draw a sample from eight track and field events, over three years, in five different states. A Monte Carlo random number simulation will generate the probability of a transgender impact at the top of the female field.

At a critical time where local, state, national, and international governing bodies are considering transgender policies and the cultural conversation over the issue is high and contentious, a need exists for objective, evidence-based data. The extent and degree of the impact transgender participation has in female sport will provide valuable insight for legislators and policymakers tasked with deciding the future of gender boundaries in athletics. Higerd’s research will be available in early 2021. For more information or to receive an executive summary of the research, email gahigerd@students.ussa.edu.

Dr. Bonnie Tiell is a professor of sport management at Tiffin University and the United States Sports Academy. She is editor and co-author of Sport Governance: Analysis and Applications (Human Kinetics) and has extensive experience with international sport educaton programs.

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