TALCOTT: The Transgender Athlete Debate Forces Us To Make A Choice. Both Are Unfair

Shelby Talcott Senior White House Correspondent
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There’s no doubt in my mind that allowing biological men – ie transgender women – to compete in women’s sports is dangerous and unfair to countless females working under the assumption they will compete on an otherwise level playing field.

Let me give a little background. Prior to working as a journalist, my life was primarily spent playing tennis and training to play tennis. I accepted a full scholarship to the University of Iowa after a fulfilling and eventful junior career – especially considering my late start in the sport.

At Iowa, I competed in singles and doubles both at and near the top of the lineup for all four years. I clinched matches for my team, notched some top wins for myself and sacrificed a “normal” college social life to earn the full scholarship. When I graduated, I turned pro, wanting nothing more than to continue competing.

Today, I’m reflecting on the unique life that being an athlete gave me. I’ve thought about the lessons I’ve learned, the countries I’ve competed in and the experiences afforded to me because of tennis. This self reflection comes at a time when the Biden administration is pushing to allow transgender athletes to compete in female sports. Older now, I’ve realized something:

I’m scared for my future daughter and for the next generation of young girls. I’m scared that they won’t have the option of earning the experiences that I’ve been afforded, and I worry that the future of female sports is in question.


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Transgender athletes competing in female sports is a tough topic to discuss right now, and many are understandably shying away from talking about it. I think it’s time to speak up, however, because the repercussions for biological females could be devastating.

First: There’s a difference in biological males and biological females, even after hormone treatment

Even after one year of hormone therapy, a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that transgender women still hold an edge over biological females. The study kept track of things like situps, pushups and track times.

“For the first two years after starting hormones, the trans women in their review were able to do 10 percent more pushups and 6 percent more situps than their cisgender female counterparts,” NBC News noted in an article published in January 2021.

Following the two years, the study deemed transgender women to be “fairly equivalent” to biological females for pushups and situps. Running times, however, were a different story. Although times declined, transgender women were still a whole 12% faster on a 1.5 mile run than biological females two years on, the study found.

This particular study doesn’t even get into the very real debate among researchers about whether testosterone’s effect on physiology when a male is undergoing puberty could be permanent. Nor does it dive into possible differences regarding things like muscle mass or lung capacity.

Biological women, for example, have smaller breathing muscles, lungs and airways than their male counterparts.

“The volume of adult female lungs is typically 10-12% smaller than that of males who have the same height and age,” one study has noted.

If we’re being completely honest as a society that has fought for women’s rights and equality, then this much should be acknowledged: There’s not currently enough evidence backing up theories that biological males become athletically equal to biological females through the transitioning process. Therefore, we have not proven that transgender athletes competing in women’s sports wouldn’t hurt biological females.

Much more research needs to be done before making these decisions. Male athletes are stronger. They’re faster. Their bodies are made differently than ours, and there is simply not enough proof to indicate taking hormones erases these natural advantages. A rash decision on this is going to negatively affect the future of women in sport.

Second: Every single moment counts for an athlete

But the number of transgender athletes is so small compared to that of biological females, so why is it such a big deal? This argument is as common as it is naive.

When I worked my ass off to get a full athletic scholarship to college, every single person I competed against could have made or broken that deal. When I turned pro, once again, I was competing against everyone. A single loss could mean the end of my funding. A win? I’m bumped up to the next level.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that I’m a biological female competing in high school track. I’m right on that cusp of getting D1 scholarships, but then I get beaten out consistently by a transgender athlete. Do colleges look to see whether someone was born a male or a female?


They take the best scores. So, just like that, everything I’ve worked for is gone.

It doesn’t matter if this situation happens to one biological female or 70 – it is a devastating blow for any female athlete, and I know I would have been absolutely crushed if this happened to me.

In addition to every single moment counting for an athlete, the results matter as well. Imagine training your entire life to compete in the upcoming Olympics, which are set to take place in Tokyo. Now, imagine arriving in Tokyo … only to end up placing fourth.

One of the athletes who placed ahead of you is a transgender female, like New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, who competed in men’s divisions until transitioning in her thirties. Just like that, your lifelong goal of winning an Olympic medal is over. (RELATED: Mitt Romney Backs Rand Paul’s Stand Against Transgender Students In Girls’ Sports)

Third: Competing against males

Another bigger concern I have: Competing against a biological male. I trained with my younger brothers as well as other D1 and professional male athletes every day. It didn’t matter how much talent I had or how hard I worked: My brother – who was a very good player (he played at the top of the lineup at his D1 school) consistently wiped the floor with me.

He tried his hand at the professional tour, but soon stopped and wasn’t able to garner a ranking.

I, on the other hand, was able to enjoy reasonable success as a pro competing against females (even though my brother was undeniably better than me at tennis in general).

Playing against my brother and other men was great practice, but also unrealistic. I can’t even remember the number of times I got discouraged training against men. One such moment happened shortly before I retired from the game.

It was an off week. I was in Thailand relaxing before a long slew of tournaments in Australia to close out the year. For this trip, I’d traveled with an American guy who was “okay” for the men’s tour, but nothing particularly special. Even though I had the better ranking and had more “success” with my career, I literally couldn’t win a point off of him.

I almost broke down in tears from frustration in the middle of training that day, until he gently reminded me that he “was a guy” and I couldn’t expect to really compete. Part of me bristled at the thought that I was simply not as good just because I was a female, but mostly, I knew it was true.

My old coach used to remind me of the same thing. When training against guys, he’d say, it was a whole different ballgame. They’re bigger, stronger, faster, have more bite on their shots … I can go on. In the end, I had to do so much more to even give these guys a decent practice (let alone truly compete with them).


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On average, men serve faster than women on both the professional tour and in college. Even on the rare occasions where a female has outpaced a male on service speed, there are other things to consider, like the movement and slice of the ball.

Men naturally tend to hit with far more spin on their ball than females. They have a more physical game style. The placement of shots differs, as does nuanced things like their ability to close in on the net and their average movement across the court.

Other stats, like the Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) system, back up my point about the inherent difference between men and women. UTR is a website that uses an algorithm to give every player in the world a rating. It’s used often for college recruiting, but also happens to show the difference between male and female sports.

To put it simply, players want to have as high of a UTR rating as possible.

Serena Williams, for example, has a UTR rating of 12.92. My friend Dusty Boyer, who played tennis at the University of Nebraska and has a career high singles professional ranking of 594 (not too shabby, but certainly not equivalent to Serena’s success) currently sits with a 13.36 UTR rating  – higher than the woman who has won 23 grand slam titles. (RELATED: Should Transgender Athletes Be Allowed In Women’s Sports?)

It’s not just another level. It’s almost a completely different sport.

It didn’t matter how hard I worked, what I sacrificed, how well I ate or stretched or trained the mental side of things. Competing against biological men was entirely different because the biology was simply different, and science hasn’t shown us that all of these natural advantages will go away in transgender women.

What’s the solution?

I don’t have all of the answers, and I understand that those transitioning typically undergo hormone treatments, which can absolutely bring their body structure closer to that of a biological female. What is clear, though, is this: There is a lack of evidence that fully supports the theory that transitioning makes a biological man equal to a woman athletically.

Based on my experiences, along with research, it’s clear that more needs to be done before rushing in and allowing transgender athletes to compete in female sports. Some researchers have suggested alternative solutions, like getting rid of binary sports in general or making new fields for transgender athletes.

I’m not sure either of these provide an adequate answer, and finding something deemed “fair” for everyone may never be achieved.

Perhaps, then, the answer lies in recognizing this: That any solution we choose will be unfair. If this is the case, the logical result could be to choose the option that is fair for the majority of athletes – ie biological females.

If the science ever changes to show clear, irrefutable evidence that transitioning makes the physical capability of a biological male equal to that of a female, it’s worth another discussion. But, we are not there yet.

We need to press pause on allowing transgender athletes to compete in female sports until far more research is done. If we don’t, we risk creating new injustices in our race to remedy old ones.