English football must stop dithering over transgender players and take action

A goalkeeper diving for ball, view through goal net
Football needs to show it wants to inspire girls to take up the sport - Getty Images/Nathan Bilow

“Complex and constantly evolving.” This is how the Football Association has chosen to frame the deeply uncomfortable transgender row that has reached its doors. Except the brutal reality, which it is high time a governing body had the gumption to articulate, is that it is neither of these things.

Complex? It is hardly an observation worthy of The Lancet that men’s greater strength, stamina and cardiovascular capacity create an insuperable – and potentially dangerous – advantage over women in any contact sport. And as for evolving? The spectacle of a 31-year-old biological male competing in a Sheffield league against 16-year-old girls is not about to become any less absurd tomorrow than it already is today.

By retreating into the language of compromise and conciliation, football has fallen behind the curve in ensuring fairness and safety for women. On the very day that the FA said that it was “working to find a resolution”, after Telegraph Sport’s revelations that four teams were boycotting a club whose transgender player is accused of seriously injuring an opponent, cricket decided that the resolution was staring it in the face, banning anybody born male from the international women’s game.

In the past 12 months, the three major Olympic sports of athletics, swimming and cycling have all taken the same step to protect the integrity of the female category. Except football has continued to vacillate. It has operated under the philosophy that the odd trans-identifying male could be harmlessly absorbed into women’s matches, assuming that one player would not make much of a difference.

But what if this one player is first to the ball every time, or hits the ball twice as hard, or bludgeons a woman in a tackle? It has taken only the one case of Francesca Needham this week for 150 women and girls in the same league to experience an impact, with teams forfeiting matches out of a collective resolve not to put their players at physical risk.

Either you alight on the side of inclusion or of fairness

Football seems to labour under the delusion that this is a subject for mediation, that some delicate middle ground can yet be forged to appease everybody. Unfortunately for its dithering decision-makers, the issue is binary. Either you alight on the side of inclusion or of fairness – you cannot have both. Cricket needed a relatively brisk nine months to reach a conclusion that should be self-evident. By contrast, the FA’s tortured policy of enabling players to compete according to their “affirmed gender” is now 10 years old.

A decade ago, sports were smitten with the perceived kudos they could earn by championing the gospel of inclusion at all costs. It was as if they were more interested in securing the approval of Stonewall than in satisfying the needs of half the population. It has been a fundamentally upside-down period, in which ideology has too often trumped biological reality. And now, everywhere you look, the effects of this institutional capture are having to be unwound.

World Athletics, World Swimming, the UCI, the International Cricket Council: all have belatedly arrived at the realisation that you cannot accept those born male into female sport and still pretend you have a level playing field. So what is football waiting for?

One explanation for delay is the daunting numbers involved. When the Rugby Football Union banned transgender players from women’s rugby last year, only seven such players in the country were registered. In football, there are over 50 known about, but that is likely to be a significant undercount given two million people in England play football every week, and 90 per cent are male. Only a handful need to be trans-identifying for women’s leagues to be affected.

Prevarication is not an option. For all that the powerbrokers believe they are being thoughtful by taking their time, they are only allowing the problems to escalate, by allowing biological males excluded from triathlons and elite cycle rides to choose football as an alternative.

The FA needs to think carefully about what future it wants. There are glaringly obvious reasons why males and females are not at liberty to compete on the same teams beyond the age of 18. But the terror of being branded transphobic has created a scenario where, as seen in the Sheffield league, women’s right to choose male-free football is effectively being denied.

It is understood that a fresh version of the FA’s transgender policy has been drafted. The moment for implementing change cannot come soon enough. On the one hand, the national game luxuriates in the glow of the Lionesses reaching a World Cup final. But on the other, it compels 16-year-old girls to face an opponent who is 15 years older, carrying all the residual benefits of male puberty.

How does this inspire a generation, if girls are saying they cannot play because they might be harmed? It is staggering how such an injustice ever came to pass. And it is imperative that football catches up with the rest of the sporting world by rectifying it.

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