Sports-crazed parents have never lacked for creativity in search of a leg up for their offspring. And thanks to Republican state legislatures, some of them now have a new weapon in their arsenal. Why fake an athletic résumé or sue the varsity coach when you can simply accuse a girl who bested your daughter of being secretly transgender?
According to Deseret News, two Utah families whose daughters finished second and third to another girl in an unspecified sport have done just that. Their actions, and the resulting state investigation, should give pause even to parents concerned about making sure cisgender girls have a chance to compete. For all but the tiniest minority of student athletes, the main goals of school sports are ultimately physical activity and character-building. Teaching children to vilify and hurt their opponents is a perversion of that mission.
Banning trans athletes from the teams associated with their gender identity has been a conservative culture-war fad since at least 2020, when Idaho became the first state to do so. Legislators in 17 other states followed. A number of other states have executive orders or athletic association policies to the same effect.
Some trans athletes, such as college swimmer Lia Thomas, do emerge as top competitors. But at the K-12 level, these bans tend to target what Utah’s Republican Gov. Spencer Cox in March called a “very small number of transgender kids who are looking to find a sense of connection and community.”
The cruelty of some of these bills goes far beyond exclusion — and, as the news out of Utah should make clear, beyond trans children.
Earlier this year, the Ohio House passed a measure permitting invasive sex verification for student athletes. The law is so vaguely written that it risked opening the door for anyone, including a parent or coach, to knock out a competitor by challenging his or her sex, forcing that child to submit to a genital exam or quit sports.
The Utah process of student gender verification sounds sane only by comparison. As Deseret News’s Marjorie Cortez reported, the Utah High School Activities Association reached out to the girl’s school and asked for records confirming that she had been consistently enrolled as female. The student wasn’t informed about the challenge to her gender. Neither were her parents.
The association seems to have hoped to avoid causing the families of investigated children distress. But how awful would it be for a student to find out that her school is investigating her behind her back for any reason? And how mortifying would it be to learn that the reason for the investigation is that, as association representative David Spatafore told the Utah legislature, someone thinks that a “female athlete doesn’t look feminine enough”?
Most high school athletes won’t go on to play on college teams, much less get scholarships to do so. According to the NCAA, just 12.8 percent of boys who play lacrosse in high school will do so in college, while 26.2 percent of high school girls who play ice hockey will compete on a college team — and these are the sports with the highest rates of continued play.
For the parents of, say, the 96.1 percent of girls’ volleyball players or the 96.5 percent of boys’ basketball players whose careers will end after their senior year, the value of victory has limits. A first-place finish or another win won’t ultimately be the key to a college scholarship, an Olympic berth, or the attentions of a pro scout.
Under these circumstances, parents have an obligation to foster not just excellence, but a sense of perspective, proportion and good sportsmanship.
Hard work is important. But, sometimes, it won’t be enough, and not only in situations where someone else is cheating. Hounding someone who has beaten you — even stripping them of their victory or disqualifying them from future competitions if they’re “caught” competing under their current gender — will never feel as good as winning fair and square. What these kids need to learn instead is grace in disappointment and defeat.
I imagine the parents of the Utah girls who kicked off this investigation thought they were acting in defense of their daughters. No one wants to see their child pained or disappointed.
But parental love can be blinding as well as clarifying. In pursuit of short-term victory, parents who initiate anti-trans witch hunts of other kids are doing terrible long-term damage — not just to other people’s families, but to the model they’re setting for their own.