Discussing Gender in Sports

By Ariel Sykes, Assistant Director of the Ethics Institute

As part of our introduction to ethics course in the upper school at Kent Place School, students get to explore topics of their choosing through an ethical lense. At the end of this trimester, we explored the role of gender in sports, which included a focus on transgender athletes. Students self-facilitated a discussion where they unpacked the relevant ethical issues and practiced applying the different ethical theories and frameworks from the course. Students decided that in order to think about how to ethically navigate transgendered athletes in sports, they first needed to tackle a few sub-questions: Why are sports organized by gender in the first place? What are the goals of sports? Are there other ways, beyond sex or gender, that we can organize people into sports teams? You can see some of the ideas generated in class below (the board notes are written by a student who helped facilitate the discussion, and the handwritten notes are one student’s personal note taken during the class discussion). 

The students focused on whether it is possible to objectively measure skills by focusing on the value of fairness for those making the authoritative decisions about team placement. The class also wondered if there could be a way to organize people into teams that would not re-create structures of discrimination based on sex assigned at birth. Students wondered if there could be a universal way of sorting people into teams, since different types of teams (individual sports, team sports, and contact sports) all seem to have a different balance of skill with physical characteristics (like weight, size, height, strength).The class agreed that safety was a key value for decision making, but that this could include physical, emotional and psychological safety (which can come into tension with one another in different scenarios).

For the second half of the class, we shifted to discussing who should decide what sports teams transgender athletes can belong to. This led to a deep dive into what the purpose of sports was: Is it for fun? Is it to belong to a community? Is it for exercise? Is it for the winning of a competition and feelings of success? Is it to help you build a career in sports? Students wondered if any single policy around sports team membership could meet all these goals or if there was one essential goal of sports that all teams must always prioritize. We then learned about the different ways that people’s gender are tested for sports-team membership and examining the unintended impacts of different policies. The students ended the conversation with the following take-away: If the criteria of “developing a sense of belonging” is essential to any sports team (as even a competitive team needs all members to feel like they are a part of a team if they are going to meet their full potential), then students thought that any policy around transgender athletes must make sure to uphold this core value.  

Teaching Resources:

Class discussion notes