Women’s rugby is the last place a trans athlete should be

Women’s rugby is the last place a trans athlete should be

According to journalist and former rugby league footballer Paul Kent, the Australian National Women’s Rugby League (NRLW) is considering its first trans player.

“In the latter parts of [last] week, the big shirts inside the NRL have been making themselves busy over an issue that was always going to land on their desk at some point or another but which might now be just weeks away.

“Should a transgender athlete be allowed to play in the NRLW?

“As of Wednesday, all 150 women in the NRLW became free agents and, as could only happen when the NRL and Rugby League Players Association clunked heads together, they have opened the trade window for the new competition beginning in August, just as the finals are about to begin for the current season.

“And it is understood at least one transgender player is considering trialling.

“As of [last] Friday, the NRL was still trying to finalise its position.”

We have recently witnessed the furore around trans swimmer Lia Thomas competing in women’s college swimming championships in the US. For most people, the unfairness in seeing a biological male compete against women – stealing wins, competition places and other opportunities from them – was palpable.

But rugby, unlike swimming, is a contact sport. Here, women’s safety – as well as fairness – must be front and centre when it comes to considerations of trans inclusion. NRLW is at the very top end of body contact sports: head and neck injuries, broken bones, concussion, torn muscles and catastrophic knee injuries all being part of professional rugby league. Having biological males go head-to-head with women on the rugby league field is an extraordinarily reckless proposition. 

Currently, the NRL has a case-by-case policy when it comes to transgender athletes, emphasising their “inclusion” unless an exception applies:

“The NRL recognises that excluding people from participating in sporting events and activities because of their gender identity may have significant implications for their health, wellbeing and involvement in community life. We are committed to supporting participation in our sport on the basis of the gender with which a person identifies. 

“If issues of performance advantage arise, we will consider whether the established discrimination exceptions for participation in sport are relevant in the circumstances. Discrimination is unlawful unless an exception applies.”

But what about the “health” and “wellbeing” of its female athletes?

In October 2020, World Rugby released guidelines that regulated against trans inclusion in the female game based on injury predictions. In support of their decision, they produced 49 studies showing that drugs to suppress testosterone have only a limited effect in decreasing the physical advantages of a male body in terms of muscle mass, strength and power. 

The research underpinning the new regulations is not based directly on trans athletes for the simple reason that an insufficiently large sample is available for study. Rather, the studies used scientifically well-established male–female differences, and made conservative assumptions about the extent to which male performance would be diminished with reduced testosterone. 

Acknowledging there is an “overlap in variables such as mass, strength, speed and the resultant kinetic and kinematic forces”, World Rugby’s modelling explored risk factors in the situation where a typical player with male characteristics tackles a typical player with female characteristics. They found a minimum of 20% to 30% greater risk for those female players. 

As a result, they concluded:

“There is currently no basis with which safety and fairness can be assured to biologically female rugby players should they encounter contact situations with players whose biologically male advantages persist to a large degree.

“Thus, it is on the basis of male vs female biological differences, combined with no evidence for removal of their implications for safety and performance, that the guideline is that trans women should not compete in women's rugby.”

When Tasmanian Senator Claire Chandler called for urgent revision of Australia’s 2019 Guidelines for the inclusion of transgender and gender diverse people in sport to protect Australian female rugby players in accordance with World Rugby’s recommendations, she encountered opposition from both the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and Sport Australia.

While simultaneously admitting that the Guidelines for inclusion were “never intended to be a scientific document”, Dr David Hughes, the Chief Medical Officer of the Australian Institute of Sport, took the view that World Rugby’s conclusions were not sufficiently authoritative or certain to provoke a reconsideration of Australian policy. “They may be correct, but there is nothing in world literature to suggest that they are.”

Asked to respond to these comments, Ross Tucker, the world-renowned sports scientist with whom World Rugby consulted in the development of their guidelines, pointed out the problem of the reverse onus of proof. The claim of ‘no research’ should: 

“be a signal to defend the necessary protection of a female category in sport ... We should not be including (biological males who identify as female) into women’s sport, and then seeking a way to prove that they don’t belong. That to me is totally upside down.”

Senator Chandler echoed these sentiments regarding Sport Australia’s approach: 

“Sport Australia has conceded that World Rugby’s findings of a potential 30 per cent increase in head injury risks to women when playing against transwomen may be correct but refused to reconsider their own guidelines in light of these findings. They seem to suggest we need to see some more women getting head injuries before they reconsider their actions.”

Tucker and Chandler are absolutely correct. 

We recognise physiological differences in male/female strength and power when it comes to sports generally, hence the existence of male and female categories in the first place. We recognise the differences when it comes to issues of women’s vulnerability in matters of domestic violence and sexual assault. We recognise them in every area of life they are relevant, except when trying to promote the fiction that ‘transwomen are women’.

If it has any concern for the health and wellbeing of its female athletes, the NRLW must take a strong position on prohibiting biological males from participating in its competitions. With the backing of World Rugby, they, of all Australian women’s sporting bodies, are in the best position to do so. Given the nature of rugby league, they – like other contact sports – also have the greatest responsibility to do so.

We cannot continue to allow ideology to be elevated above the rights and welfare of women, particularly in circumstances where not only fairness for women – but their very safety – is at stake.