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Ryan Russell: Trans kids must be allowed to play school sports

Trans Kids Sports

Days after signing an anti-trans youth sports ban, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R), right, during an interview with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, couldn’t point to one example of when a transgender child was given an unfair advantage in sports due to their gender identity. Photo: MSNBC Twitter image.

I wasn’t always an NFL player. Professional athletes aren’t born – despite popular opinion – we are built. Yes, there are those of us who have athletic traits and given the time and opportunity can hone them into a mastery of our craft, but we aren’t born.

Many professional athletes know someone along the way, a sister, a peer, a teammate who was just as talented as them, if not more so, but didn’t make it. Ninety-nine out of a hundred times the reason athletes of similar ability don’t go the same distance or don’t make the leap from amateur to professional is circumstance and opportunity, two things that in our day and age – unlike mastery of a sport – you are born into.

After the past few weeks, most trans kids including those who have immense potential to be great athletes or, at the very least, find love and joy in sports, can’t even pick up a ball without legislation telling them they don’t belong.

Caitlyn Jenner: No transgender girls in school sports

An opportunity in sports

Being born Black, queer, trans or of any marginalized community puts you behind the starting line of any race, even when you might need that love and community more than we imagine.

I grew up in Dallas to a single mother who worked three jobs to put food on the table and clothes on my back. I woke up early in the morning to find my mother had already left for work, and when I returned from school, she would call me from another job and ask me about my day, ask me how much homework I had, tell me what was in the fridge and how to reheat it, and tell me that she loved me.

Though my mother was a teenager when I was born, she went above and beyond to raise me. But there was one thing I was missing, one thing that all kids need: an opportunity.

As a Black man I had options, but they were limited. I was from a single-parent family in a lower income bracket and my windows of opportunity narrowed as time went on. Still, I had one way out, one thing that would break every window of possibility open and propel me through the ceiling of others’ expectations straight into the stratosphere.

I was given an opportunity in football. I found love there.

All kids need this. I needed it as a Black teenager in the South from a low-income, single-parent home. My NFL peers all needed someone to give them a shot or they never would have made it.

And trans kids need this, too. They need to be treated like kids, like they are worthy of the opportunity to play, to find love and community on the field.

Everyone is worthy of this.

I found family, support, love, and encouragement in sports, teammates, coaches and competition. As a young Black boy in conservative Texas, there were very few places outside the locker room and on the field where I felt safe and supported. Football at its heart didn’t care about my skin color, and this was a direct product from those before me, Black athletes, both men and women, who fought for their right to play alongside their white teammates. Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, to name a few.

Sports can lead the way

There’s a prevailing notion that sports are a microcosm of our society, but I believe the greater truth is that sports are the conductor of our society, a sculpture of what we hope to be in the future.

Any athlete will tell you that sports is never just business. When it comes to racism and hate plaguing our communities, police brutality against Black and brown people, or anti-trans bills being passed across our nation, sports isn’t an escape from those realities.

To use sports as a way to distract from the hate being perpetuated in our society today is heinous, but also to use sports to perpetuate hate is the exact opposite of what sports is all about, that love and communion that it’s possible to find.

I first read about the anti-trans legislation being signed into law and pushed to our youth through an article about women’s sports. About protecting cis-gendered girls from the participation of trans girls in what was written as, “an unfair advantage”, or “an attack on women’s athletics,” both of which by science and reason are untrue.

Sports teaches us about hard work, value, determination. It introduces us to the notion of a team that feels like family, but it also allows everyone to feel connected by a common goal. Isn’t it important for trans children more than most to feel the belonging of a team, especially when society is questioning they belong at all?

The locker room is a place that, regardless of what is going on in your day to day life, you should feel a part of something great, powerful, and welcoming. LGBTQ people and trans people need that more than anyone.

To exclude trans athletes is to use sports in direct opposition of where its true power lies. Sports is about change, about rooting for the underdog and building a dynasty from nothing but hard work, perseverance and love; love for your team, for your sport and for yourself.

Defend equality

The exclusion of Black athletes back in the 1940s and 50s wasn’t about the integrity of the sport, but the division of our society. The rumor of a gay, bisexual or queer player in professional men’s sports isn’t about a media distraction, but about the repositioning of toxic masculinity.

The reason women athletes aren’t paid as much as men isn’t because their platform or performance is less, but that media, business organizations, and ultimately our misogynistic society are afraid of just how big women’s influence and power is. The more than 100 anti-trans bills under consideration in state legislatures across the U.S. are not about trans youth in sports, but about attacking, harming and eradicating the most vulnerable of us all.

When it comes to change, sport is one of the strongest conduits to help show society what it is capable of when we come together, but it has to be used for the better of all of us. Jackie Robinson understood that, Robbie Rogers knew that, Megan Rapinoe knows that, Chris Mosier knows that, and I hope you know it as well.

We need athletes standing up against these bills, but we also need athletes hijacking the narrative that these actions are to protect anyone.

Don’t let anyone use the games that we love for hate. Don’t let them distract from what’s really going on. This is an attack and we need to defend ourselves and our trans youth. We need to defend equality.

About the author

Ryan Russell

Ryan Russell played three NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In August 2019, Russell made history as the first active NFL player to identify as bisexual. Russell is also an essayist and poet.

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