Greg Cote

Martina Navratilova started firestorm, but debate on transgender athletes is justified

Martina Navratilova is as great at outspokenness as she ever was at tennis, and at that, few have been better.

Now, though, speaking her mind has Navratilova in trouble with the very LGBTQ community that once embraced her and considered her a hero. The ‘T’ in that acronym stands for transgender. It is where the firestorm is.

This is a difficult subject, and wherever the truth lies is surely somewhere in the gray, in between the absolutes put forth by Navratilova and the indignant backlash of those objecting. Reaching whatever the truth is always starts with civil discussion, itself an elusive thing.

Let’s try.

So Navratilova, who retired with 18 major singles titles, is now 62 and (by the way) came out as lesbian in 1981, recently wrote an op-ed page opinion article in the Sunday Times Of London. The gist of what she said: “A man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organization is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating.”

Tennis star Martina Navratilova wrote a recent op-ed piece for the Sunday Times Of London that has angered many in the LGBTQ community that once embraced her. But Navratilova is saying something about fairness that is worthy of discussion. TORU YAMANAKA AFP/Getty Images

Navratilova might be theoretically correct on some level, although it offends to imagine such motives would drive anyone to “fake” a transgender path. Raising the very possibility can do nothing but foment prejudice and make it that much tougher on transgender persons to be accepted, as they should be. Transgender teens face enough bullying as it is, and I cannot overemphasize how firmly I support acceptance and inclusiveness.

And yet Navratilova was not wrong to speak out loud the growing controversy involving transgender athletes — especially those who identify as transgender women but whose biological male bodies give them clear advantages in many types of competition against biological females. She was not wrong to open discussion on a subject that ought not be taboo.

Is it transphobic for Navratilova to believe transgender women might have an unfair advantage in women’s sports?

Or to brand someone anti-LGBTQ for even thinking the question is fair?

Only in sports where physicality comes in is this debate warranted.

George Washington University Women’s Basketball player Kye Allums takes the down court as they play University of Miami’s at the BankUnited Center at the University of Miami, Miami, Florida, December 28th, 2010. Allums is one of the first openly transgender male student-athletes to compete in Division 1 women’s basketball. CHARLES TRAINOR JR

Perspective: Serena Williams is the greatest women’s player in the history of tennis. It was John McEnroe who once estimated she would rank around No. 700 on the men’s tour. The physiological reality of what McEnroe is getting at takes nothing from Williams. Likewise, a men’s tennis pro ranked so low you’ve never heard of him could be hugely more successful if he were competing against women. Which he theoretically could do as a transgender woman.

It is not at odds to be staunchly in favor of transgender rights but also recognize the unique difficulties in play when it’s about sports.

It is not at odds to be in favor of transgender rights but also recognize that, in the matter of sports, there are victims of others’ rights.

Examples are everywhere.

Just recently in Connecticut, two transgender girls sprinters dominated the outdoor state championships against competitors who were females from birth. “We all know the outcome of the race before it starts,” said one beaten sprinter. “It’s demoralizing.”

In Texas, a senior wrestler transitioning from female to male and taking low does of testosterone won a second straight girls’ state championship.

Transgender females have rights. But so do born-female athletes who simply want a level playing field as well. I believe that’s all Navratilova was getting at, yet she has been vilified. I’ll get some vitriol, too, I’m sure, just for having the gall to try to see both sides here.

I believe the controversy over transgender athletes will grow until uniform, agreed-upon policies are set that satisfy both sides, balancing fairness and rights. It will be the national story it isn’t yet when it reaches the professional level. Imagine a retired NBA player who is now a transgender female and dominating in the WNBA?

Against the backlash of imagining just that, Navratilova, who now lives in Miami, posted a response about her op-ed article, saying she wished she hadn’t used the word “cheating,” but otherwise did not backtrack from her concerns: “I am not trying to exclude trans people from living a fully, healthy life. All I am trying to do is make sure girls and women who were born female are competing on as level a playing field as possible within their sport.”

I do not think it is at odds to believe in transgender rights while also believing Navratilova isn’t wrong on this.

At the very least, when the only goal is being fair to both sides, the discussion is always worth having.

Sports Pass for $30 per year

Get unlimited access to all Miami Herald sports stories and videos for $30

Greg Cote is a Miami Herald sports columnist who in 2018 was named top 10 in column writing by the Associated Press Sports Editors. Greg also appears regularly on the Dan LeBatard Show With Stugotz on ESPN Radio and ESPNews.