By Bill Bell
I have been fortunate for the last 20 years to participate in coaching female high school athletes. I strongly believe in the adage that “Sports Saves,” as well as teaching many of the basic life skills that are necessary for the successful adult transition after high school.
The written goal of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education is to “Strengthen Relationships by fostering active engagement and involvement with families” and to “Cultivate student success” while the school district itself has a mission of “Supporting students in life success.”
The sports programs are an integral part of this school educational process and are meant to be held to the same standards that apply in the classroom with the stated goal that “all students can be successful,” mentored by a staff that is “kind, supportive and accepting.”
The Alaska Schools Athletic Association (ASAA) has been tasked with overseeing all school athletics in the state and has recently passed a Board Resolution to support the State Board of Education in disenfranchising transgender students from their chosen team of athletic participation.
This specious and poorly considered decision is specifically based on three points: leveling the playing field, protecting students from harm, and avoiding the loss of college scholarship opportunities.
With the stated goal of keeping male athletes from suddenly sweeping into traditionally female sports (a very rare event in Alaska) and stealing all the championships, awards and scholarships, ASAA has decided that players must remain with their identity assigned at birth, not with their current identification.
As a physician I know how the fetal developmental process or genetic hormonal imbalances can occasionally make assigning a sex at birth very ambiguous and that the factors of sexual self-identification, real though they are, currently remain beyond our understanding.
The personal decision to change genders is not a frivolous process, but requires counseling, therapy and repeated medical evaluations over several years.
In my years of coaching, I have had players who were fast and players who were slow, players who were large and players who were small, players who were athletically gifted and those who could barely keep their balance, players who were Questioning, players who were Queer and players who had their questions answered.
I have had players who were going to be successful in almost everything they touched and players who struggled with school only to participate in sports.
I have had players who came from broken homes, who were homeless, who were having substance issues — but the common denominator is that all these players found a place on a team, found comfort from their teammates and learned the crucial life skills of accepting diversity, working with others they may not like but still functioning as a team.
Sadly, there have also been a few who did not find refuge in sport and continued the spiral into crisis. Now, ASAA has decided to take a vulnerable subgroup of these youth, a subgroup that already has a high rate of bullying, depression and suicidal ideation and reinforce that they are different and unwelcome.
In terms of fairness, we must acknowledge and accept that there is an innately divergent spectrum of body habitus, hormonal development, genetics and passion for training amongst all athletes, most especially during the unique pubertal developmental schedules of adolescence.
If this were about fair competition, then the discussion should be how to assess and then hamper all our athletes in such a way that everyone comes down to the least common denominator of athleticism. Then we could truly have a “level playing field.”
In fact, from a safety and fairness standpoint, I would be envied if I had such an exceptionally talented and strong player on my team that she was known around the state, but no one would be talking about the safety or fairness of others playing against her.
As far as the fear of a lost recruiting opportunity or a “stolen” coveted scholarship, most college coaches that I have talked to put more of a premium on character, team support, resiliency and grit than they do on current levels of athletic achievement. It is also very difficult to find documentation that athletic scholarships have been awarded to transgender athletes at any college level. Billy Strickland, the CEO of ASAA, reported in the Daily News that there has only been one known transgender athlete participating in state competition.
As coaches, we have been trained for years to make our practices safe by skill progression, grouping of cohorts and use of protective gear. The safety argument of the State Board/ASAA decision is further undermined by specifically removing a player born male who is now identifying as female but allowing an athlete born female, who is transitioning to male and taking excess androgens, to continue play on a traditionally female team. The Olympics have many instances of disqualifying athletes due to supplemental excess androgens in their system but have never disqualified anyone for high estrogen levels.
Of even more concern is that this policy will impact all female athletes no matter how they identify. The Alaska State Constitution guarantees our right to privacy but now any athlete in a female sport who does not fit an expected appearance or is performing at a higher level may be challenged, berated or intimidated by adults on the sidelines to reveal their assigned sex at birth. The ramifications of this invasion of adolescents’ personal sexuality by random adults is beyond frightening.
We have many examples that “Sports Saves” — providing a proven diversion from substance abuse, isolation and anti-social behaviors — but that option is being taken away from the ones who need it the most.
One could argue that these athletes are still being given a chance to compete on either a coed team —which still has regulations governing the balance of “male” and “female” athletes on the field and would rarely occur in a financially strapped school district — or on a male-born team, which may lead to more harassment and less safety. Either way, the athlete will not have their own free choice of competition but must follow the dictates of distant adults.
No, this policy is not about competition fairness, lost scholarships or safety. For some unstated reason, it is about further alienating a portion of our vulnerable youth, castigating them as “different,” driving them away from the chance to be part of a chosen team, keeping them from educating others about the differences inherent in all humans.
This is not just any group that is being singled out but a group that already has the highest incidence of depression, highest likelihood of being bullied, highest incidence of self-harming behavior and highest rate of successful suicide. So much for promoting ourselves as a community that prides itself on making a successful team out of all members, under the guise of dealing with an issue that minimally or rarely exists.
As adults we can do better, especially in supporting and helping those some might consider “the least of our brothers and sisters.”
Bill Bell is a long-time Homer resident with many years involvement in youth sports, 20 years coaching at high school level with multiple state appearances and victories. Opinions here reflect only his own thoughts and beliefs and do not reflect any institutional consensus.