The notion of transgender athletes participating in sports isn’t a political one on paper, but we’re far past the point of denying that it won’t be one of the major political hot potatoes in the upcoming election cycle.
The culture war must always rage on and transgender people have drawn its ire at the moment, with one of the major focal points being transgender athletes participating in women’s sports. While the number of adults who identify as transgender in the United States has remained steady over time, per UCLA’s Williams Institute, the number of youths identifying as transgender has doubled from previous estimates. While there’s a perfectly logical reason for this, it’s a revelation that has intensified the conversation in the past year as schools, leagues, administration, and politicians have acted in growing numbers to enact new policies around youth and school competitions.
Given the political nature of the discussion, as it’s currently happening, you might expect to see ESPN employees staying out of it. Or at the very least, treading carefully so as not to rile up people on either side of the issue. The memory of controversies surrounding Jemele Hill, Katie Nolan, Will Cain, Dan Le Batard, and many others remains fresh in a lot of sports fans’ minds.
However, over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a growing willingness of ESPN hosts to not only discuss the issue of transgender athletes in sports but jump in full force with their opinions.
Two weeks back, SportsCenter host Sage Steele tweeted support to Riley Gaines, a former University of Kentucky swimmer who speaks out against allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sports following her experiences racing against former Penn swimmer Lia Thomas. Steele’s comments came after Gaines gave a speech at San Francisco State University that was interrupted by activists and in which she claimed she was physically attacked afterward.
“Stay strong [Riley Gaines],” Steele wrote, quote-tweeting former Fox News host Megyn Kelly. “you have more people than you know supporting you & standing up to this madness.”
She then quote-tweeted a video from the conservative non-profit International Women’s Forum that called for those in the media industry to support Gaines, asking “Are there any other women with public platforms willing to stand up for [Riley Gaines] & the millions of female athletes?? Or do we only stand up for those who fit certain narratives?? LADIES, WHERE ARE YOU? Media…Hollywood…hello?!?! We MUST come together on this!!”
Stephen A. Smith, who has long held a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality when it comes to ESPN personalities discussing politics, seemed to go out of his way to dive into these waters during an interview with the New York Times’s David Marchese published on Monday. The outspoken host, who also welcomed conservative voice Clay Travis onto his podcast the same day, immediately launched into a discussion around pronouns and transgender athletes without much prodding.
“I have a sister that’s a teacher. God forbid if she’s working in the school system and there’s a girl and her name is Cheryl but she wants to be identified as Marcus and she’s a male and you don’t call her by her name, or you say that she’s a female, not a male, etc., etc. That could get you in trouble!” said Smith, who was unable to point to a specific incident where that has happened when asked by Marchese.
When asked if he is ever “narrow-minded” about sports, Smith mentioned Lia Thomas and shared his honest thoughts on the larger issue.
“The closest thing that came to it was the young lady that was swimming at the University of Pennsylvania,” said Smith. “My only issue with that is, if you were once a male who now identifies yourself as a female, that’s fine. It’s an entirely different subject to be competing against women. That’s where it’s a challenge for me, because I’m like, if this is what you identify yourself with now, I support that and support folks not violating your civil rights, not mistreating you, but if you’re competing against ladies and from a physical perspective, you were not born a lady, does that not give you an advantage? We’re just going to ignore that?”
If two is a coincidence and three is a trend, Sunday NFL Countdown host Sam Ponder officially made it so on Wednesday when she quote-tweeted Gaines and shared her personal support to push back against transgender women being allowed to compete in women’s sporting events.
“This would take away so many opportunities for biological women and girls in sports,” wrote Ponder about a video of Lia Thomas sharing her thoughts on proposed changes to Title IX to ban transgender athletes. “It is a shame that we are needing to fight for the integrity of Title IX in 2023 and the reason it was needed in the first place,” adding the #savewomensports hashtag at the end.
Steele quote-tweeted the same video, saying “This is heartbreaking, maddening, and really difficult to watch. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and be relieved that this was all just a ridiculous, comical, nonsensical dream…” Steele also added some hashtags, including #IStandWithRileyGaines.
All of this wouldn’t be that notable except for the fact that, in the wake of prior political mine-field episodes, ESPN has tried to be adamant about keeping politics out of their programming and away from the hosts. Whether or not they’ve done that is up for debate, and probably depends on which side of the aisle you’re in.
Conversely, the fact that ESPN included Thomas in a “Celebrating Women’s History Month” segment, which was criticized by Gaines and others, also arguably opened the door for further discussion from talent surrounding the issue.
It’s certainly worthwhile and needed for ESPN and other sports networks to cover the ongoing debate and political discourse surrounding transgender athletes. But how their hosts and talent are able to share their personal opinions about it and offer support to political figures certainly raises questions about the company’s policy enforcements and current journalistic standards.