Comment to World Rugby Trans Athlete Panel

World rugby recently conducted an expert panel into the participation of trans athletes – particularly male to female athletes – in rugby. This comprised of medical, legal and ethical expert opinion on the topic as well as contributions by those affected, notably players and others involved in rugby. I was disappointed not to have been asked to provide the expert philosophical opinion as I felt that I was able to offer a unique perspective in understanding the game as a player and coach as well as having a day job of philosopher of sport. But I think the omission was one ignorance rather than deliberate slight. Nevertheless, the convenor, Ross Tucker, asked if I would provide a written contribution which I give below:

Dear Ross,

Thanks for asking me to email your thoughts to pass on to the World Rugby consultation. Just to give you a little background on myself. I am currently a Reader in Applied Philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire and have a background in both philosophy and sport. I played rugby for over 15 years at various levels including national representation, and was part of national league and cup winning teams in both the 15s and 7s form of the game. Similarly I have coached women, again at various levels in both the 15s and 7s form for over 20 years. Overall, I have been involved in women’s rugby since 1995 and would consider I have very good knowledge and understanding of the game as both as a player and as a coach, but also from the perspective of an academic specialising in the philosophy and ethics of sport. I have published several books and many peer-reviewed articles in the philosophy of sport, am a former Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association and am currently Associate Editor for the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport.

On the issue of trans athletes in rugby, I have the following comments to make. First, as I’m sure you’re aware, it is vital to recognise that any policy decisions affects the lives of real individuals, and with both populations (trans individuals and women) suffering from endemic societal discrimination, any policy recommendations need to be sensitive to this. My second comment is related to the concept of sex. I’m not convinced by the argument that sex is non biological but nevertheless the notions of biologically male and biologically female presuppose that there is a definitive and categorical means for determining this. However, as sports authorities have discovered over the years, sexual anatomy, chromosomal makeup, genetic markers and testosterone, etc. may not perfectly align for 100% of the population. And using proxies such as testosterone again presupposes that a) this is a reasonable substitute for sex, and b) it is a determinant of fair competition.

In relation to the specifics of rugby, it is worth bearing in mind the history and development of the women’s game. Women’s rugby was always marginalised and often (unreasonably) viewed as the epitome of the sport for ‘butch lesbians’. For a woman, particularly in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s (and perhaps even today) to play rugby was to attract a fair degree of scorn and ridicule. Fortunately this is now changing. Nevertheless, rugby was a ‘safe’ environment for many women who didn’t always feel welcome in other sports or in other aspects of society. In particular, it allowed large, strong and powerful women to succeed at sport due to the attributes it tested. This is really important to remember if there is any suggestion that size and body mass is a relevant factor to determine physically safe sport for women. On a personal level, I have played with and against many women who have been much taller than me (I am 5’4”) and larger than me (in my playing days I was about 10.5 stone) and with a very ‘masculine’ appearance. But that was accepted because women’s rugby has always been a sport that is inclusive and accepting of all women’s bodies – again, due to the fact that it was a marginalised sport that many men believed was not appropriate for women to play. Facing someone who was significantly larger in stature and size is an accepted risk of rugby, and primarily requires good coaching techniques to ensure players can manage contact effectively. Any proposal to limit the size of players would radically alter the game at all levels and for all sexes. (And although there does seem to be a more recent deviation to a norm with male players since professionalisation, one only has to remember the difference in size and stature between players such as Jonah Lomu and Rory Underwood at the 1995 men’s World Cup to illustrate the acceptance of size difference in rugby.)

As such, it is important to be sensitive to the history of women’s rugby and not to produce policy that may vilify the very players that rugby has always attracted and accepted. Whilst male to female trans athletes may have a significant advantage in both physique and physiology it is not likely to be outside the total range of all women players. I would encourage World Rugby to commission some research that considered the upper quartile of women players in terms of physique over the last 30 years (though unfortunately I doubt this data would be available) and then compare this to male to female trans players. My intuition (from experience) is that male to female trans athletes would not be outside these limits even though they may be at the top of these limits. As such, an argument based on excluding trans athletes on grounds of size and player safety seems wholly unreasonable and unsupported by evidence, other than anecdote. Players are injured by other players for a variety of reasons: poor tackling technique, poor body management, poor officiating, poor luck and illegal aggressive behaviour (I have a list of personal injuries from all of these). Considering the prejudice that trans athletes face in their wider lives, to give the impression that they are some kind of ‘monster’ who is likely to leave a pitch full of broken players behind them, just plays into the prejudice they already face.

Any policy change needs to consider the effect that it would have on current and future female-born players and current and future male-born players who have transitioned to female. From my perspective, the primary factors needed to be considered are the history of women’s rugby, its inclusivity and the type of players that it has always attracted, and to ensure that World Rugby does not seek to maintain or promote the narrative around trans-athletes being abhorrent and unwelcome in sport. Whilst the safety of players should be a key consideration, and rugby is a fairly high risk sport due to its contact element, it is far better to ensure that there is appropriate medical support (something that many clubs still do not have) and to ensure that all players receive quality coaching. My view is that this is where there needs to be significant investment in the women’s game. Not to vilify trans athletes who are likely to have suffered significant prejudice in their wider lives.

I realise that emotions run high in this area, primarily because women’s sport has always faced a tough struggle to be accepted and funded. I recognise the fears that some women have who may feel threatened at what they see as the prospect of ‘cheating men entering and ruining our sport’. And I do share concerns about the numbers of children and young adults who show signs of body dysmorphia and who wish to change sex as a result. Not withstanding this, I think that a much more pragmatic and sensitive approach can be taken in respect to rugby. Policy should ensure that individuals cannot ‘game the system’ in being able to identify as one sex on one day and another sex on another day. As such, it seems reasonable to specify a period of time that an individual must have lived their life as their non birth-assigned sex before they are allowed to participate in rugby. However, any policy that seeks to use testosterone or body mass or any other sex marker to prevent individuals participating in rugby is not reasonable and justified. Rugby should remain as inclusive as possible at the same time as it accepts and mitigates the risk as a contact sport.

I hope you are able to present this to the panel. As I said, I would have like to have been able to participate in person but recognise that other appointments and invitations have been made. Please do contact me if you have any questions or require more detail.

Regards,

Emily

Should tackling be banned in school rugby?

Over 70 ‘experts’ (read University Professors and academics) have signed an open letter arguing that full contact rugby should be banned in schools. The main reason they cite is the risk of suffering short term or long term injuries. It has created a huge media backlash from many who are aghast at even the thought of taking the contact out of rugby – ‘who do these over-zealous protective parents and health and safety officials think they are?’

Now for those that know me, they would be surprised to hear that I actually have sympathy with the argument from the ‘experts’. I love rugby. I have played it and coached it at a variety of levels for many years. I have taught 11 year old girls to start playing rugby, 15  year old boys at club level, and 17 year old women at elite level. But I do think there is something intrinsically wrong with the focus on contact skills. For a start, at school, children do not get a say in whether they participate in PE lessons (unless they forge a note from their mum). And unfortunately there is still too much bad PE teaching which involves children being forced to play full contact (if slightly modified) games against one another. There are always going to be some children who hate the experience and do not have the confidence or physical ability to succeed. And for those of us who have played full contact rugby, being tackled or making a tackle when your mind isn’t fully committed is more likely to result in injury. Forcing children to ‘hit’ one another is in my view morally wrong.

Which brings me on to the other problem with rugby, and which stems from recent developments at the elite level. Rugby is now all about the physicality, not the skill. The current six nations is pretty dull primarily because it is dominated by defence and therefore needs ‘battering rams’ (such as Jamie Roberts) to be able to break up defences. We celebrate the ‘big hit’ and ‘smashes’ rather than successful tackles. There’s an excellent blog post here about the way in which the language we use filters down to the way that rugby is often taught at a youth level. And often with little regard to the young players involved.

My other experience with coaching young players is that their core strength is often incredibly poor. They are unable to hold the plank position for more than several seconds. And if they haven’t got core strength, and an equal ability to control their limbs (think of the average gangly 15 year old boy), then they’re not going to be able to control their body sufficiently well in a tackle situation.

Finally, there’s the huge size differential at youth level. Yes, there are differences in size in adult level, but the difference is that at a young level, it is easier for the biggest player to use their size as an advantage without having to develop other skills. So what often happens, is the biggest player is given the ball and gets used to running their way over smaller opposition. Then in a few years they suddenly find they are no longer the biggest player on the pitch but haven’t got other skills to fall back on and they drop out of the sport altogether.

Another criticism has come from those who have argued that this letter is just directed towards rugby and not other contact sports such as boxing and martial arts. Well there are calls to ban boxing but the difference for me is that boxing is a much more controlled environment whereby you are facing one other opponent, in a smaller space and with strict rules about contact. In rugby, you may be running down the pitch and tackled by a multitude of players from all sides.

So what’s my solution? I definitely think that rugby should not be a compulsory part of PE. I think that all children should be learning to develop other rugby related skills of handling and agility. I think tackling is fine if it is taught in a very controlled environment that focuses upon the technical elements and the development of core strength. But full contact rugby is not necessary at school level. It can be brought into the game once children have developed into adults once they have developed mastery of their body. (Bizarrely enough I think that, for these reasons, full contact rugby may be more appropriate for under 10s than for the 10 – 18 year group!)

And despite what rugby aficionados might think, it might actually result in national players that are more skillful and produce more aesthetically pleasing games!

 

Philosophy of Sport: Key Questions

I’m just in the process of going through the proofs of my new book which should be out in the next few months. Each chapter is based on a question in the philosophy of sport and contains sub-questions and independent study questions, plus there are chapters of questions addressed to some key figures in the area. So lots of questions… and a few answers! The book is published by Bloomsbury and should be out in late Spring.

Here’s the chapter list:

Introduction

  1. What is the philosophy of sport?

Interview with Warren Fraleigh

Defining sport

  1. What is sport?
  2. Can cheaters ever win?

Interview with Jim Parry

Sport, knowledge and truth

  1. Are there different types of sporting knowledge?
  2. How can philosophy underpin research in sport?
  3. Is the referee always right?
  4. How much is too much technology in sport?

Interview with R. Scott Kretchmar

Interview with Mike McNamee

Sport, body and mind

  1. Is the body just another sporting tool?
  2. Is sporting success ‘mind over matter’?
  3. Is it right to separate sport according to sex?
  4. Does sport discriminate against transsexual and transgender athletes?
  5. Is elite disability sport an oxymoron?

Interview with Pam Sailors

Interview with Takayuki Hata

Sport and the good life

  1. What is the value of sport?
  2. Is utopia a world full of games?
  3. What is the value of dangerous sport?
  4. Are Olympic values worth aspiring to?

Interview with Randolf Feezell

Interview with Heather Reid

Sport, art and aesthetics

  1. Is sport art?
  2. Does beauty matter in sport?
  3. Is it better to be a purist or partisan when watching sport?

Interview with Stephen Mumford

Interview with Graham McFee

Ethical questions in sport

  1. What is fair play in sport?
  2. Is sport a moral educator?
  3. Is competition morally acceptable?
  4. Is gamesmanship just another skill in sport?
  5. What is wrong with doping in sport?
  6. Do elite athletes deserve hero status?
  7. Is it wrong to be patriotic in sport?
  8. Can you respect someone you’re trying to beat?
  9. Can violent sports be ethical?
  10. Should sport be used as a political tool?
  11. Does commercialism ruin sport?

Interview with Sigmund Loland

Interview with Angela Schneider

Bibliography

Open Letter to Tracey Couch on GB Football Team for Rio 2016

Two weeks ago I sent a letter to the Sports Minister, Tracey Crouch, in order to highlight how important it was to ensure a GB women’s football team was sent to the Rio Olympics:

Dear Ms Crouch MP,

On the back of the tremendous performances by the England women’s football team in the World Cup, could I urge you as Secretary for State for Sport, to lobby the Home Nations football governing bodies to work together to enter a GB team for the 2016 Olympics. The Olympics is unsurpassed in the way that it promotes women’s sport on the same level as men’s and therefore effort needs to be made to ensure that women have the opportunity to play on this stage. Both England women and men have qualified for the rugby 7s but have agreements in place with other Home nation governing bodies to send a GB team to represent the country in Rio. Everything should be done to ensure this is the same for football. I cannot understand what reasons could possibly take priority over the opportunity for a women’s football team to play in the largest global sporting event.

Please could you let me know what you are currently doing, or plan to do, in order to make this opportunity a reality.

Yours sincerely,

Emily Ryall

I’ve just received a written response back and it’s very sad and disappointing. Effectively it looks like it’s not going to happen:

“The home nations are rightly proud of their history and the independent statuses they enjoy in world football, and there remains genuine concern that FIFA could see the coming together of a unified British team in this instance as a reason for them to question the validity of having separate national teams in future world competitions.”

Ultimately the blame is placed on FIFA for not providing sufficient assurance that the integrity of the home nations team will remain if they come together to form a GB team for Rio.

The sad consequence is that the best women footballers in GB will not be able to represent their country at the biggest global sport event for women. These are not the highly paid men that care little about putting on a national shirt, these are women that have fought (and continue to fight) to be respected as athletes and are denied the opportunity to showcase their achievements at the highest level.

I will continue to push Tracey Crouch to advocate for a GB women’s football team and encourage you to do the same.

Empowerment and Naked Sports Calendars

Naked sports calendars have been around for a while now but I still shift uncomfortably when I see yet another female sports team publishing one. Am I just a prude or do I have good reason for my discomfort?*

Part of it is to do with the fact that feminists fight so hard for women to be seen in a way other than a sexualised object; showing the non-sexualised (strong, graceful, powerful, beautiful) body through sport is one of the ways of challenging this view of women. Sport demonstrates what the body can achieve, not what it looks like.

Producing a naked sports calendar may seem like innocent fun, and there are those that argue that the women photographed in them are strong, confident and assertive, especially if they are already established and elite athletes. There are others who argue that it is no different to the naked calendars of male sports teams. It is a complex issue to unpick but as Charlene Weaver argues well in her article on this subject, the empowerment that women might feel being part of these calendars is based upon smoke and mirrors. Ultimately it “centres on viewers turning strong athletic women into sexual objects” and undermines efforts to recognise the female body as something more than this.

That is why it was so good to see the pictures (though not a calendar) produced by Emory University’s women’s rugby team. This to me was a breath of much needed fresh air. It is a brilliant campaign that focuses upon how (in this case) rugby makes women feel about themselves. Not what they look like to others.

Rebecca.

Reference:

Weaver, C. (2012) Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of Women Olympians’ Nude Reflections. Sports, Ethics and Philosophy. 6: 232-250.

* I will admit that I reluctantly took part myself in a naked calendar several years ago. I expressed reservations about it but for a myriad of complex reasons eventually agreed to be photographed. Hypocritcal? Perhaps. But it doesn’t change my mind on whether it is a good thing or not.

What Do We Have To Do To Get Women’s Sport Right?

When I first went to primary school (back in the early 80s) the playground was segregated into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ sections that were divided by a low brick wall. Whilst most of the girls were content with chatting and making daisy chains, I was desperate to play football with the boys who were on the other side of that wall. Probably spurred on by my mum, I went to see the headmistress to ask if I could play football with the boys. As a result I was given special dispensation and was allowed on both sides of the playground. I don’t remember how this made me feel at the time – I think I just felt special that I could go with either the boys or the girls, but the question is why the school thought it was appropriate to segregate the playground in the first place. When we moved house a couple of years later and I went to a different primary school, again I had to get special agreement to play football with the boys in the after-school club rather than go to the girls netball practice.

As a child, you don’t understand the politics and theory that influences these decisions – you just want to follow your interests and friends. I was lucky enough to have a mother that was vocal and believed in equality of the sexes (she actually got the sack from her first job for complaining that she wasn’t getting paid as much as a male colleague doing exactly the same work) and this gave me the confidence to think that there was no reason why I should be playing football or joining the Scouts (we lost the battle on the Scout front as they wouldn’t let me join). I was one of the lucky ones that managed to succeed in sport and I am still happy and confident to play with men in whatever sport I can. I accept my physical limitations and whilst I might get frustrated I’m not stronger or faster than I am, I don’t put them down to being a ‘girl’. I know that I’m not going to beat Usain Bolt in a 100m sprint but neither are 99.99% of men either.

As the excellent report by the House of Commons, Culture, Media and Sport committee has identified, there are no easy answers to getting more women and girls involved in sport. There are many complex and inter-locking reasons for the differences between men’s and women’s sport and their participation rates, ranging from cultural history and stereotypes, the way that girls and boys are brought up with different expectations, the fact that those that tend to teach girls PE are the few women that have succeeded in the system (and therefore are happy to continue it), the fact that power in politics, media and business has traditionally been in the hands of men… the list of reasons goes on and on.

As such, there are never going to be quick fix solutions and we shouldn’t imagine that one solution will fit everyone. There is a suggestion that PE in schools should be sex segregated but that will not be conducive to all girls; those that have excellent physical literacy are developed further by, and embrace, competing with boys. Equally, offering more ‘feminine’ sports may simply perpetuate the traditional sex stereotypes. The root of the problem is much deeper and will take time to address.

Yet, there are some really good suggestions in the report, most notably, ensuring that there is more communication and co-operation between various Governmental departments, and more recording of data on the way that money is spent on facilities and clubs and the affect that has on participation rates. There also needs to be much more time provided on ensuring physical literacy at the pre-school and infant stage of education – and this also requires training primary school teachers to address many of their traditional stereotypes about boys and girls.

I hope that if we get parents, teachers and the media to buy in to the fact that skill and literacy in sport is primarily dependent on practice and not sex chromosomes then things will get better for women in sport at the grass-roots level and at the elite. Australia, Canada and the US have all developed cultures whereby it is ‘cool’ for girls to be playing sport, and there’s no reason why we can’t too. But it has to mean we must do what we can to start to address the problem at all levels.

‘It’s just not cricket’ – Oh, yes it is!

Yesterday England lost the one-day series to Sri Lanka. England however, felt a degree of aggrievement after a controversial dismissal during the deciding game where batsman Jos Butler was run out at the non-striking end after he backed too far up the wicket. For those of you who don’t know too much about cricket, when the ball is in play (and this includes the bowler’s run up) the batsmen must stay within the crease otherwise they risk being stumped out. This goes for the non-striking batsman as well as the one the bowler is bowling to. However, in order to maximize chances of a quick single run, the non-striking batsman will often start to walk up the wicket to reduce the distance he has got to go to the other end. Yet, if this batsman stray beyond his crease the bowler is perfectly at liberty to knock the bails off the stumps and declare him out. And this is what happened yesterday.

England may well declare that it is not in the spirit of the game for the bowler to stop short of bowling and knock the bails off at his end, but arguably the Sri Lankan bowler, Sachitra Senanayake, was perfectly right to do so. It is within the rules of the game and the rule is there to prevent the non-striking bowler practically being at the other end of the wicket before the ball has even left the bowler’s hand. The rule is there to essentially keep the batsmen honest. And the fact that Jos Butler had been made aware that he was straying too far outside of his crease at least twice during the match shows that Sri Lanka were abiding by the spirit of the game. It is Jos Butler’s fault for not taking heed of these friendly warnings.

England are wrong to complain that Sri Lanka were not playing by the spirit of the game and it smacks of hypocrisy and sour grapes. Arguably, it was Jos Butler that was guilty of bending the spirit of the game, not the Sri Lankans.

Jos Butler Run Out