Separating Sports by Sex Doesn’t Make Sense

Shira Mandelzis fell in love with flag football while playing on her middle-school team. An avid snowboarder and all-around athletic kid, she loved the energy she felt while on the field, and the camaraderie engendered by the intensely physical game. So last summer, heading into her junior year at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, Mandelzis decided to sign up for football. She would be the only girl, but it was a no-cut, no-tryout team, so she figured the worst she’d have to deal with would be not feeling welcomed by the team. Instead, soon after she’d filled out the enrollment form, Riverdale’s athletic director reached out to Mandelzis about specific requirements she would have to meet in order to join the team.

Because Mandelzis was a girl trying to join a boys’ sport, she had to abide by a set of “mixed gender” sport regulations that the New York State Education Department passed back in 1985. These rules, which were developed in part to protect girls from harm during competitions, required that Mandelzis submit a record of her past performance in physical-education classes, a doctor’s physical documenting her medical history, and assessments of her body type (height and weight, joint structure) and sexual maturity level (breast and pubic-hair development measured according to a medical guideline known as the Tanner Scale). Once she passed a fitness test, including a one-mile run, sprints, push-ups, and curl-ups, she sent her scores to a closed-door panel including physical-education staff, other administrators of the school’s choosing, and a consulting physician. The panel then set out to determine whether Mandelzis was, essentially, strong, developed, and athletic enough to play a contact sport with boys—even though those boys needed to prove no such thing.

Although Mandelzis’s exact experience may seem rare, it exemplifies the way many people still view sports as a perfectly reasonable venue in which to enforce exclusion on the basis of sex. School sports are typically sex-segregated, and in America some of them have even come to be seen as either traditionally for boys or traditionally for girls: Think football, wrestling, field hockey, volleyball. However, it’s becoming more common for these lines to blur, especially as Gen Zers are more likely than members of previous generations to reject a strict gender binary altogether. Maintaining this binary in youth sports reinforces the idea that boys are inherently bigger, faster, and stronger than girls in a competitive setting—a notion that’s been challenged by scientists for years.

Decades of research have shown that sex is far more complex than we may think. And though sex differences in sports show advantages for men, researchers today still don’t know how much of this to attribute to biological difference versus the lack of support provided to women athletes to reach their highest potential. “Science is increasingly showing how sex is dynamic; it has multiple aspects and also shifts; for example, social experiences can actually change levels of sex-related hormones like testosterone in our bodies in a second-to-second and month-to-month way!” Sari van Anders, the research chair in social neuroendocrinology at Queen’s University, in Ontario, told me by email. She said that this complexity means it doesn’t make sense to separate sports by sex in order to protect women athletes from getting hurt. “If safety was a concern, and there was evidence to select certain bodily characteristics to base safety cut-offs on, then you would see, say, shorter men excluded from competing with taller men, or lighter women from competing with heavier women, across sports.” We do see weight-class separation in boxing, rowing, and wrestling, yet it’s far from the norm across all sports, and isn’t typically seen as a method of integrating athletes of different sexes—though it could be. Old notions of sex as a marker of physical capability are changing, and more research is making clear that sex differences aren’t really clear at all.

Regulations like the ones Mandelzis encountered in the Bronx don’t affect girls alone. Colin Ives, who graduated from Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York, this year, “basically had a [field hockey] stick in my hand for my whole life,” he told me on Zoom. His mom, Jenny Leffler, is an English teacher and field-hockey coach at the school, so Ives grew up attending practices and games, and took to the sport. Around the world, field hockey is played mostly by men, but here in the U.S. it’s typically seen as a girls’ sport. So Ives had to go through the same New York State mixed-gender-competition rules to get on the team. He was approved by his school’s panel to play during his freshman and sophomore years (the pandemic canceled his junior season). But last year, Ives went through the process, and just days before his first league game his head of school informed Leffler that Ives was not allowed to play. Hackley had approved his petition to play, but the other private high schools that make up the Ivy Preparatory School League, which Hackley is a part of, voted to not allow Ives to play.

As with many kids who play sports in school, Ives’s teammates were his close friends, and they wanted to play together. Ives told me that the girls on his team (as well as on opposing teams) expressed support for him to play because the idea that he was “too good” to play with them felt discriminatory toward them. “It’s belittling to them to know that their own heads of school or their own athletic directors or whoever they would credit for making these decisions didn’t think that they were strong enough or had the physical capabilities to play against me,” Ives said. Just as Mandelzis told me that she could take a hit as well as the boys on her football team, Ives said the assumption that he’d be a danger to girls is an oversimplification. “There are players on teams that we play that are faster than me, that are stronger than me, that can hit the ball harder than me. So I knew that [the league’s] arguments didn’t really have any basis in that regard.” (A representative of the Ivy Preparatory School League did not respond to requests for comment.)

In recent years, the question of who can play on what team has developed into a full-blown front in the culture war, based in large part on the fear that transgender girls will unfairly take over girls’ sports because of sweeping generalizations about biological athletic advantages. As of this writing, 18 states have passed laws to ban trans girls and women from playing on certain school teams (some laws ban trans boys and men from certain teams as well). But perhaps what’s missing most from that debate is the question over why there are rigidly segregated girls’ teams and boys’ teams at all.

The insistence on separating sports teams strictly by sex is backwards, argues Michela Musto, an assistant sociology professor at the University of British Columbia who has studied the effect of the gender binary on students and young athletes. “Part of the reason why we have this belief that boys are inherently stronger than girls, and even the fact that we believe that gender is a binary, is because of sport itself, not the other way around,” she told me by phone. The strict sex segregation we’ve instilled in sports at all levels gives the impression that men and women have completely different capabilities, but in reality, she said, the relationship between sex and athletic capability is never so cut-and-dried. “There are some boys who also could get really hurt if they were competing against other boys in contact sports.” Researchers have noted for years that there may even be more diversity in athletic performance within a sex than between the sexes. One recent small study in Norway found no innate sex difference when it came to youth-soccer players’ technical skills. The researchers hypothesized that the gap they did find between girls and boys was likely due to socialization, not biology.

While the need to separate athletes by sex is still held firmly by many as a way to protect girls and women from harm, many people advocate for moving to a more integrated and inclusive approach. The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by the tennis legend Billie Jean King, offered guidance on how girls and boys can equitably compete with and against each other: “If the skill, size and strength of any participant, female or male, compared to others playing on the team creates the potential of a hazardous environment, participation may be limited on the basis of these factors, rather than the sex of the participant.” In other words, if a girl on the football team needs to be assessed for her size and strength for safety reasons, so should all of the boys.

The panel at Riverdale ultimately approved Mandelzis’s request to play on the football team, but she felt unfairly treated and violated by the physical exams. She won’t return to the gridiron this fall, or to Riverdale. “Going through the regulations was so infuriating for me, because there were these freshman [boys] who are 100 pounds and half my size and all they had to do was sign up,” she told me by phone. “And the fact that my ability to get on the field had to be tested simply because of my gender, when I had more experience than these other people, was just very upsetting for me.” When reached for comment, a representative for Riverdale told me that the school agrees with Mandelzis about the state regulations. “We encouraged Shira to try and change New York State regulations for all young women playing sports, as we agree with her that the whole panel review system is seriously flawed, outdated, and sexist; therefore, we attempted to help connect her with elected officials and state lobbyists.” Mandelzis is, in fact, trying to overturn the regulations; she’s retained a lawyer who has made a formal request to the New York State Education Department to revoke the guidelines, citing a violation of Title IX and the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. (Department officials acknowledged receipt of the letter and said they plan to review and respond to the request.)

Mandelzis’s lawyer, Iliana Konidaris, told me that the existence of these mixed-gender-competition guidelines in New York has effects beyond the playing field. “The sports field is not … a niche issue,” she said. “It’s where a lot of students get their sense of fairness, sportsmanship, equality, culture, and confidence.” This became starkly clear to Musto, the University of British Columbia researcher, when she recently spent months observing sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at a school in California to assess how gender informs education. The gender binary’s influence on schoolkids crystallized for her when she interviewed nearly 200 students and the one subject they commonly identified as a “boys’ subject” was P.E.

But some young people seem intent on challenging the binary sports system. In 2018, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, 2,404 girls played high-school tackle football, up from fewer than 1,000 in 2008. Around the country, the number of girls on wrestling teams increased to 28,447 in the 2019–20 season from just 4,975 in 2005. In 2019, Trista Blasz, a then-12-year-old wrestling phenom, was denied her request to join Lancaster High School’s junior-varsity boys’ team through the New York guidelines. According to the Washington Post, the Lancaster district medical director wrote on Blasz’s medical evaluation, “Girls don’t play boys sports in Lancaster schools.” Shortly after news of his response broke, the doctor’s contract was terminated, and Blasz was allowed to wrestle. Earlier this year, a pinfall win in a match helped earn her school a divisional title.

A different youth-sports world is possible. Musto has observed a swim team in California, for instance, whose athletes are separated by ability rather than sex; it has changed how the kids view one another. “It wasn’t a big deal if they had to share lanes with one another or they were competing against one another during practice. Gender wasn’t the primary thing that was shaping the perceptions of who was a good athlete or not,” she said. But as long as laws and general practice of youth sports remain rooted in the idea that one sex is inherently inferior, young athletes will continue to learn and internalize that harmful lesson.

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