Transgender Women and Rugby

The day started petty much like any other, then I saw a seemingly random Tweet from a person I follow saying that he would not discuss the subject of trans women playing rugby with anyone who had not read a thread that he then referenced. Now I have virtually no interest in rugby and certainly have no intention of ever playing the game, but I do find the subject of trans women playing women’s sports both intellectually interesting and challenging. I therefore decided to dive into the rabbit hole and read the thread.

It turns out that there has been something of a controversy in the rugby world due to the governing body of rugby having discussed, as a result of a conference held in February, the possibility of an outright ban on transgender women from the sport. It seems that whilst The Guardian reported on this sometime ago it is only now starting to gain traction.

The thread my Twitter friend referenced was by a sports scientist, Ross Tucker. He asserted that those people who opposed the ban because of a claimed lack of specific research into the issue of transgender women playing rugby were wrong because there are a number of peer reviewed studies that

‘identify both performance determinants and risk factors for injury in rugby. Dozens of studies identify when injury occurs, and thus what the significant risks for injury are. Similarly, performance is multifactorial (sic) but is KNOWN (his emphasis) to be significantly influenced by a handful of testable/measurable factors. In fact, these measurable factors are so crucial and “robust” that teams actually have minimum standards for them and select or drop players based on achieving these targets. They’re not “guesses”. Then second, you have a number of peer reviewed studies that have examined and described both the performance AND biological differences between M(ale) and F(emale). So performance differences in tasks ranging from running to jumping to kicking to punching to throwing are known, and so too are biological factors underpinning the differences. For instance, it is known that throwing, kicking, punching, jumping, hitting etc are 20% to 160% better in males, elite & untrained, as a result of biological variables that include muscle mass, levers, tendons etc’

He went on to argue that if you know the outcome (the performance metrics) and you know the factors that contribute to that outcome (the physiological and biological variables) then you can determine what performance outcomes would result should the contributory factors change.

He then asserted that ‘T(estosterone) suppression only removes a very small part (or none) of the muscle mass, volume, or strength advantages, and doesn’t change skeletons’ in transgender women athletes. He therefore argued that if testosterone suppression only reduces slightly the physiological advantages gained by a transgender woman due to her having undergone a testosterone fuelled adolescence, then you can conclude that the effects on the known performance indicators would similarly be negligible and that to assert otherwise is to assume an ideological rather than scientific approach to the problem.

He then asserted that ‘in rugby, injury is the result of excessive energy transfer to a player… This is a function of mass, speed and force exerted, along with the ability of a player to absorb that force/torque.’ At the risk of oversimplification, injury is the result of an excess in the momentum and strength of a player acting on another player versus the second player’s ability to deal with that momentum and force. This is a function of the second players own strength and momentum.

So, in Tucker’s words, ‘there are DIRECT (his emphasis) links between these risk factors and the “inputs”, which are speed, mass and force applied in contacts.’ He then went on to explain that

‘we can take mass, just to *ILLUSTRATE* (his emphasis) a point, and ask “What would happen in a typical male-bodied mass tackled a typical female bodied mass?”. In the elite game, we know the mass disparity, so we can model “typical vs typical” and we discover that the RISK FACTORS (his emphasis) are 20% to 30% higher based ON MASS ALONE. Remember that injury is three variables – mass, strength & speed (or rate of force application, perhaps more accurate). So if we factor in strength disparities, plus speed, might the risk go up even more? Yes. Each may be additive.’

He thus concluded that allowing transgender women to compete in rugby will result in increased injury risk and an unfair performance advantage for the transgender women.

Here is a link to his thread if anyone wants to take a look and check for themselves that I have not distorted or misrepresented his argument.

After that lengthy introduction, here is my critique.

Firstly, it is my opinion that safety is of paramount concern in any and all sports. Participants must be safe and protected at all times from all reasonable and foreseeable risks. Sport is intrinsically risky, but that does not mean we should expose people to undue risk. Secondly fairness is a fundamental sporting principle, without it the underlying basis for sport is negated. I would also like to point out that I am not qualified to take issue with any of the research he alludes to. I am therefore happy to take it at face value and defer to his greater knowledge of both rugby and sports science.

The first point I would like to make is that Tucker freely acknowledges and admits that performance outcome metrics and the variables that constitute the inputs for these outcomes are both knowable and known. In fact, he points out that an individual athlete’s metrics in relation to these factors are what gets them selected for a team. This is true of both men’s and women’s rugby. I found a research paper, Physical Fitness Profiles of Elite Women’s Rugby Union Players by NM Hene, SH Bassett AND BS Andrews, published in the African Journal for Physical, Health Education, Recreation and Dance in June 2011. This paper recorded research conducted on 32 elite South African women’s rugby players at a training camp. Various physical metrics were recorded that in summary included height, weight, strength, speed, and oxygen utilisation (VO2Max) — a proxy for ‘cardiovascular fitness’. So, these metrics are certainly ‘knowable’ for both men and women. It is thus entirely conceivable that a transgender athletes physical metrics could be determined.

And here is where I start to diverge from Tucker’s perspective. The underlying assumption that Tucker makes is that transgender women are identical to men. This is fallacious. Whilst I agree that there are real physical differences between men and women in general and I am even prepared to accept that testosterone suppression may not have a material effect on these differences, in general; the fact remains on an individual level you can determine a particular athlete’s unique physical profile.

For example looking at the elite South African women’s rugby players from nine years ago and comparing their ‘stats’ to my own it seems that whilst I am 6% taller than the average forward and 9% taller than the average back, I am 20% lighter than the average forward and the same weight as the average back. Looking at their various strength and speed metrics I would guess (and it is only a guess) that they would outperform me. Fair enough. I am not and never have been an elite rugby player. But the point is these metrics are knowable and in my anecdotal case I am not exceptionally bigger, stronger, or faster than these women’s players. I am certainly also less skilful, but skill and technique has not been raised as a material factor in relation to transgender women participating in sport (at least not as far as I am aware).

We can therefore see that on at least these ‘knowable’ metrics cisgender women are not necessarily at a massive physical disadvantage. It is thus possible to conclude, using Tucker’s own logic that any two people with similar known physical attributes will not pose a significantly greater risk or performance variance in relation to each other.

You see Tucker’s reasoning is fatally flawed. Whilst he rightly asserts that as a group men are 20% to 160% ‘stronger’ than women as a group this statistic hides a massive variety within the test subjects. If it were impossible to know the relevant factors contributing to the risk of injury and performance variances between men, cisgender women and transgender women, then I would agree that it would be ‘better’ to err on the side of caution and not allow transgender women to compete. But as we can test participants and as we can see that it is in fact possible for cisgender women rugby payers to be as big and as strong and as fast as some transgender women then we see that generalisations do not necessarily hold here.

If the risk of injury is a function of body mass, speed and strength and if we accept that my mass, speed and strength are not dissimilar to those of a women’s rugby player then what additional risk would a person with my physical traits/metrics pose to these women? Indeed, we can see that in the statistics provided in the research paper, the forwards are 20% heavier than the backs. Backs are 5% to 9% faster but forwards are 15% stronger than the backs. It would seem that the World Rugby administrators deem this to be an acceptable risk. It is ‘ok’ for women who are 20% heavier, 15% stronger and 5-9% slower to hurl themselves at another player. So why would a transgender woman who is within these parameters be excluded purely because she is transgender?

To be clear, the argument:

  1. Men in general are both significantly stronger and heavier than women.
  2. This is because of them having gone through a testosterone fuelled adolescence.
  3. Testosterone suppression as an adult does not materially alter the strength and mass differential.
  4. Transgender women therefore enjoy an unfair and dangerous (in the context of a contact sport, like rugby) performance advantage over cisgender women.
  5. Sporting activities must be both substantively safe and fair.
  6. It is therefore not possible for transgender women to compete against cisgender women in rugby.

May be valid in general but as soon as individual parameters become known and it can be shown that these parameters show that a given transgender woman is not in fact stronger, faster, heavier etc than the given mean for cisgender women participants then this argument ceases to be valid as it would be expressed as follows:

  1. Men in general are both significantly stronger and heavier than women.
  2. This is because of them having gone through a testosterone fuelled adolescence.
  3. Testosterone suppression as an adult does not materially alter the strength and mass differential.
  4. Transgender woman X is neither faster, nor heavier, nor stronger than her cisgender peers.
  5. She therefore has neither an unfair nor dangerous (in the context of a contact sport, like rugby) performance advantage over her cisgender women peers.
  6. Sporting activities must be both substantively safe and fair.
  7. It is therefore possible for transgender woman X to compete against other cisgender women in rugby.

Naturally, this is only valid so long as the transgender woman X is in fact within the agreed parameters. To reiterate, according to Tucker disproportionate momentum and torque (in relation to two opposing players) are the key risk factors in rugby injuries (and arguably with respect to ‘fair’ performance as well). Momentum is literally the product of mass and velocity (p=mv).

We have seen that it is possible to ascertain a rugby player’s mass, their maximum velocity and indeed their strength metrics. It is therefore possible to calculate their maximum momentum and extrapolate these metrics against averages for the group of competitors. It should thus be possible to calculate actual values for both individual transgender women players as well as individual and group means for cisgender women players and using data extrapolate both safe and substantively ‘fair’ metrics that can be applied against all players in a given team, league, competition etc.

In summary of this point, Tucker makes the logical fallacy of division. He assumes that because, in general, transgender women are stronger, faster, and heavier than cisgender women then all transgender women must be faster, stronger, and heavier than cisgender women rugby players. This is patently untrue.
Tucker then additionally seems to me to argue that despite it being possible to determine the various physical attributes that are predictors of both performance and injury risk, that we should somehow not bother taking these attributes into account for transgender women and simply assume that all transgender women are universally stronger, faster and heavier than cisgender women. This is simply illogical. If (as he asserts) the various physical attributes contributing to risk and performance are well known, then we can measure these in any given population. There is no need to issue a blanket ban.
Finally whilst the idea that people who have experienced a testosterone fuelled adolescence are stronger and faster ‘per kilogram’ (pound for pound) than those people who have not had a testosterone fuelled adolescence, even when testosterone suppression is used. However, this is not a valid line of reasoning when applied to non-weight segregated sports. It is arguably true of certain martial arts (for example boxing, judo etc where participants are divided by weight and in that case yes, an 80kg transgender woman could well have an unfair, and unsafe, physical advantage over a cisgender woman) but in sports like rugby this simply does not apply. People of all sorts of sizes play rugby, some positions lend themselves to certain physical attributes, but as far as I am aware there are no weight divisions in rugby. The argument assumes that mass is factor, but transgender women are a broad spectrum of physical ‘types’. I know of transgender women who weigh in excess of 100 kgs and I know of transgender women who weigh less than 60 kg. As we have seen from the data collected on South African elite women’s rugby players 60 kg is an average weight for back and 80 kg is an average weight for a forward. So, whilst an 80 kg women playing rugby may be weaker, and slower than an 80 kg transgender woman rugby player this does not necessarily mean that the 60 kg transgender woman rugby player is stronger or faster than the 80 kg cisgender woman player. She may be, but it is not a given and tellingly it can be tested for.

We can therefore conclude, at this point that an absolute ban on transgender women playing rugby is in fact not supported by Tucker’s argument. In fact, we can see that we should be developing a uniform set of criteria that can be used to determine whether individual players are ‘within benchmark’ criteria to reduce risk. This, as Tucker shows, is possible as the criteria are known and the attributes can be measured and thus managed.

You may say that this sounds fine for the elite level but what about the club player? And this is my second point of departure.

Firstly, we have to accept that elite players do not only play against other elite players. They will play club rugby against a potentially wide variety of players and again, if the organisers of rugby believe that it is acceptable for a women’s rugby forward weighing 80 kgs and who is more than 15% stronger to tackle another player who weighs less than 60 kgs then what difference does it make whether that player is cisgender or transgender? If you are prepared to accept a disparity in mass, strength and speed between two cisgender women players thane the same disparity in mass, speed and strength is surely equally acceptable (provided the disparity is substantively similar) between transgender and cisgender women players. It is the disparity that is an issue not the cause of that disparity.

I would also question the sincerity of the claim that safety is of such concern to the rugby administrators. Safety must apply equally to all participants. If the administrators are concerned about the safety of cisgender women then they must also be concerned about the safety of elite men as well as schoolboys and girls (and everyone in between).

One of the oft repeated refrains regarding rugby is that it is a sport that accommodates a wide variety of body types, from the ‘chunky’ prop, to the super svelte and athletic full back, and everything in between. Rugby aficionados also make a virtue of the game’s reliance on ‘physical courage’. At schoolboy level, especially in the lower leagues of the early teenage groups coaches and administrators think nothing of having 40 kg ‘pip squeaks’ (who will not see a razor for at least another two years), facing off against 80 kg behemoths (who started shaving two years previously), in the same game and they even laugh as they encourage the little guy to ‘tackle low’ with refrains of ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’ shouted out moments before the sickening bone crushing impact that results in the little guy being scraped off the field by a pimply first-aider waving a wet sponge vaguely over what is left of him…

Do these administrators really care about the safety of their athletes?

And of course, this rather begs the question ‘what of the transgender woman’s safety?’ If she is smaller, weaker, and slower than men what is she to do? Sure, nobody is ‘forcing’ her to play rugby, but what if she wants to? Does she not deserve to be afforded the same dignity as other participants?

If the administrators were truly concerned with safety, they would take serious efforts to reduce the incidence of serious injuries at all levels of the game. They would ensure that at every level of the game there were criteria developed and legislation introduced to ensure that the disparities in strength, speed and mass were kept within reasonable risk parameters. Every player would undergo a series of tests to ensure that they neither posed an undue risk to others nor that they were at undue risk from other participants. These safety criteria could be universally and fairly applied to all players, all genders all ages and at all levels of the game.

Provided the criteria were honestly determined, based on scientific method, subject to constant enquiry and updates and above all applied universally to all players in a fair and consistent method I do not think anyone would complain, even if the effect of such regulations was to effectively ban all current transgender women rugby players.

The reason I say this is that whilst it may have the effect of doing so it would also keep the door open for participation of any transgender woman who did meet the criteria. We accept that there sometimes has to be a certain amount of discrimination in the world. As much as I may want to be a world-famous painter, my eyesight, lack of skill and lack of commitment mitigate against this. I do not resent Banksy for being a world-famous artist, because it is not unfair that I am not. My failings in this regard are my own. What rankles, is when discrimination is unfair. It is unfair to say that no transgender woman may ever play rugby (regardless of her physical attributes) because in general transgender women pose a safety risk to cisgender women players. It is unfair to apply stringent safety concerns to prevent transgender women from playing when cisgender women with an identical matrix of strength, speed, mass etc is not only allowed to play but may be lauded for the exact same qualities that have been cited as reasons that the transgender woman may not participate.

This brings us rather neatly to the issue of ‘fairness’. And this is a much more complicated issue. But don’t panic. Its only taken me 3 000 words to get this far…

Fairness is a fundamental principle in sport. If the competition is not substantively fair it cannot be valid. I accept and support this principle. I also believe that “women’s sport” as a category needs to be defended and maintained. I do not believe that women’s sport is sub-standard or second rate. In fact, I think women’s sport is more valuable than men’s sport. Men’s sport has become pure entertainment and for me it is a poor substitute for other better forms of entertainment. Indeed, I see much of men’s sport as promoting pernicious rather than beneficial societal values. It tends to be more nationalistic, more exclusive, and more aggressive than women’s sport. Women’s sport has a vital role to play. It showcases women’s talents and validates a wide array of women. It challenges patriarchal notions and is for many other reasons of great benefit to society.

There is a real danger that these benefits may be overturned should women’s sport lose its special character. A preponderance of transgender athletes could result in cisgender girls losing hope for and faith in their own abilities and that would be unforgivable.

Clearly there is a need for balance here. It is a very difficult road to tread and some sports, because of the inherent nature of the sport will be more ‘open’ to transgender women than others with less risk of the loss of fairness than others. I think we need to differentiate between earned and unearned advantages/disadvantages as well as between the pure physical traits and other factors such as skill, technique, tactical nous, decision making, reaction times etc. I accept that these are much more complicated than creating simple matrices of strength, speed, height, weight etc, but they are important. Testosterone fuelled adolescence, male socialisation in early life, current testosterone levels etc will all play a role here and much more study is needed if we are to reach a point where we can fairly accommodate all stakeholders.

For now, we can start by applying what information we have fairly. Instead of reacting viscerally to an issue we should consider it from all standpoints and even consider rephrasing some questions.

It occurs to me that there is still a great deal of anti-transgender prejudice in this world. To this end I conducted an experiment on Twitter this week. I conducted a poll asking:
If a transgender woman who wants to play women’s rugby is of below average mass, below average strength and below average speed for a given group of women rugby players should she be allowed to play women’s rugby?
The intention here (limited by Twitter’s character count) was to pose a hypothetical situation where a transgender woman (given Tucker’s thesis) posed no undue risk to her competitors and who was also not going to gain an unfair physical advantage from a performance perspective wants to play rugby. The question is should she be allowed?

To be clear I am not asserting that such a person exists and as I have previously stated I am not qualified to say what the exact criteria should be, but it seemed to me that if momentum and torque are critical risk factors and if the person in question was in objective terms smaller/lighter, slower and weaker than her peers, in absolute terms, then she could not pose an undue risk to them and could not have an unfair physical advantage over her opponents. If the concerns with respect to transgender women competing in women’s sports really do pertain to safety and fairness then this hypothetical individual does not rise to this level of concern. Note she may (or may not) have certain earned advantages. She may be a more skilful kicker. She may be a better line out jumper. She may be an abnormally gifted hooker. Or not. Her deserving a place in the team is irrelevant. The question I posed was purely should she be allowed to play.

The poll was incredibly popular, by far the most popular poll I have ever posted on Twitter. In two days, it has received over 20 000 views, over 5 000 engagements and 2 638 people bothered to vote. Unsurprisingly the response was overwhelmingly negative.

95% of respondents went straight to ‘no’. Now obviously we cannot know what motivated most of the people who voted. They may have had a variety of reasons, but we can deduce that people either did not read the question properly, did not understand what was being asked properly, or simply did not care as much about real safety risks and/or performance advantages as much as they cared about the fact that the question involved a hypothetical transgender athlete.

What was particularly sad, for me, was the triumphalist tone of many people who did comment on the poll. Many seemed to think that I was going to be surprised by the result. I was not. I know the vast majority of people think that transgender women should not compete against cisgender women. Hell, I have my reservations: I think the safety and the integrity of the competition must be preserved and unless that can be done it should be carefully handled. But the anger, dislike and disregard for other people’s feelings was saddening.

Of course, there was also the usual use of slurs, deliberate misgendering and other insults which always helps to foster honest and fruitful debate.

But what came out loud and clear from the comments is that people defer to their innate prejudice. I was repeatedly told ‘men are pound for pound stronger than women’ so the transgender person should therefore not be allowed to compete. That obviously this hypothetical transgender woman was just out to steal a woman’s place in the team because she (the transgender woman) was too poor a player to ‘cut it’ in the men’s game.

Others asserted that it was impossible to accurately and objectively determine strength and speed so the whole point was invalid. This is not only not in the spirit of asking a hypothetical ‘ought’ question, it is also at odds with Tucker who seems to be an expert in the field, so I will defer to him here.

Some people did raise legitimate concerns regarding other factors where a testosterone fuelled adolescence may confer advantages, for example with respect to lung capacity, skeletal structure etc and these are points that need to be considered in respect to the ‘fairness’ question but they do not seem to deal with the safety issue which it seems to me is the primary concern for the administrators at this time. I do however agree that more work needs to be done in this area to better understand and deal with these concerns and issues.

The overwhelming majority of responses boiled down to the fact that in the respondent’s opinion transgender women were men and that they should not be allowed to participate in women’s sports.

This for me is the definition of unfair discrimination. I believe that we need to ensure that all participants are safe and that the integrity of the competition needs to be preserved. To do this objective sports code/discipline specific criteria must be developed and that these criteria must be applied universally to all participants. If that means the vast majority of transgender women end up being excluded so be it, as long as it is done in good faith and is done fairly that is acceptable to me. If the odd ‘outlier’ cisgender woman or intersex athlete is excluded that is a sad but justifiable outcome. Fairness and safety have to be the overriding concerns. To be clear in my opinion this only applies to elite (professional and semi-professional) sports, that is where there are real and material consequences and sports where there is a possible risk of injury posed (for example in contact and combat sports). If someone wants to present as a woman and run in the Park Run does this really matter to anybody? We should all be committed to preserving women’s sports as a category and preserving the integrity of the sports without unfairly discriminating against anyone. Right now, the subject is very complex and we do not have all the answers. Retreating into our trenches and throwing grenades at each other will not resolve this. We need to listen to all stakeholders and find safe, fair, and workable solutions.

Ouch 4 500 words… I sense a high incidence of TLDR for this post. Sorry!


About the post

feminism, Sport, transgender


Add yours →

  1. You make some really good points and arguments. One thing that irritates me is when they say things like “The average … therefore that individual shouldn’t be allowed to … “.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is really well written. I particularly love your hypothetical about what if a trans woman with below female average mass/height/etc wanted to play. And it’s really not that farfetched because there do in fact exist trans women who are below female averages (particularly if they presented with hormone imbalance/thyroid issues pre-HRT). I wrote an article about trans women in sports not long ago and honestly that point never occurred to me. I did include stats on how statistically we’re mediocre at women’s sports and included medical analyses for the differences between trans women and cis men.

    Liked by 1 person

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