Transgender athletes
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - October 29, 2018 - 12:00am

Fallon Fox has been a controversial figure in mixed martial arts, but didn’t start out that way. The featherweight Championship Fighting Alliance fighter became a lightning rod for intense criticism after revealing to the media in 2013 that she used to be a man and had gender reassignment surgery in Thailand in 2006. This ignited a huge debate over whether she should be fighting as a woman or not, a debate that has sharply divided the MMA community.

Fox only came out to the media (Sports Illustrated and OutSports) in March of 2013, causing confusion about the licensing procedure in states of the US where she had competed. Before that, she had never informed promoters, state athletic commissions, matchmakers or anyone that she had been male. 

Some of the noise was quieted by Fox’s first loss as a pro in 2013. After three abbreviated, first-round wins (by knockout, TKO and submission, respectively), Fox suffered a third-round TKO defeat at the hands of Ashlee Evans-Smith in their bout in Florida on October 13 of that year. This laid to waste much of the argument against Fox, who, as a man, had military training, served on the USS Enterprise, then quit college due to psychological issues regarding her gender. Fox had also become a father at age 19. 

But the opposition to the 5’7” Fox’s competing as a woman was met with immense contradiction by many mainstays of the UFC and other MMA pros. In a long rant salted with expletives, UFC commentator Joe Rogan called her names and insisted that she had all the advantages of being a biological male. UFC president Dana White, on the other hand, said Fox wasn’t good enough to be in the UFC, anyway. Former champion Rhonda Rousey said fighting Fox was not a problem for her, but transgender fighters should be taken on a case-to-case basis.

The fire flared up again in September of 2014, when Fox demolished Tamika Brents in just over two bloody minutes. Brents suffered a concussion and a broken orbital socket. She said it felt “unfair” and “never felt so overpowered.” (As a side note, NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon also suffered a broken orbital socket after just one elbow to the face from Bill Cartwright.)

Perhaps the first high-profile transgender professional athlete was tennis player Reneé Richards, who was born Richard Raskind. After the 6’1“ Richards underwent sex-change surgery in 1975 and applied to play in the US Open as a woman in 1976, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) started requiring gender screening for its athletes. Richards challenged the change in policy, and the US Supreme Court ruled in her favor. Although some competitors complained because she was so tall, she was allowed to play. Richards once reached number 20 in the USTA rankings. Upon retirement, she coached Martina Navratilova to Wimbledon championships, then became an ophthalmologist.

Some people are uncomfortable with transgender athletes (particularly male-to-female transgender persons), because of supposed physical advantages like bone density, bigger joints, denser muscles, greater strength, and so on. But there are many instances in several sports that non-transgender athletes with unique or exceptional athletes come along, anyway. That’s what rules are for. Was it considered unfair when Jack Dempsey fought Jess Willard, who was forty pounds heavier? (Dempsey won.) Was it considered unfair when 6’1” Tommy Hearns was fighting opponents six inches shorter? Fighters duck other fighters regularly, for whatever reason.

It is up to regulatory bodies to decide if the rules need to be changed now that transgender athletes can openly compete, but that would be unfair. There is no concrete proof that transgender athletes are overwhelmingly better than everyone else, or that they have any clear advantage over anyone. Every so often, outstanding athletes come along and cause changes in the rules, as when George Mikan’s dominance propelled the widening of the three-second area in basketball.

Changing the rules for transgender athletes would be a form of punishing them for who they were. Everyone has a right to live as they want, as long as they don’t harm anyone. Freedom is a God-given right, regardless of your beliefs, orientation or origin. Just as sports now make room to allow for religious beliefs on modesty in dress, accommodation for athletes who have made physical changes to complete their identity should be made.

The spirit of sport celebrates becoming. Let ‘em play.

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