On September 17, Maggie Mertens published an article in The Atlantic, “Separating sports by sex doesn’t make sense“, which I wrote about here two days thereafter. Mertens adduced a number of dubious arguments for her argument that in “youth sports”, which includes sports through high school (students aged up to about 18), there should be no separate men’s and women’s teams, but the sexes should be combined. My criticisms included Mertens’s failure to distinguish sex from gender, her claim that—against all the data—men don’t have average biological advantages over women in athletic performance, her reliance on anecdotes instead of data, and the unworkability of her “solution”, which involves grouping all athletes together in teams whose members have roughly equal abilities.
Mertens’s article was widely criticized, including, as you see below, by Jesse Singal and Martina Navatilova.
It’s also so so wrong… I expected better journalism from the Atlantic…🤷🏼♀️🤷🏼♀️🤷🏼♀️
— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) September 19, 2022
Perhaps the criticism—or The Atlantic‘s realization that it had commissioned a wrongheaded article—made them commission a new rebuttal to Mertens’s piece, which you can read below for free by clicking on the screenshot. The author is Steve Magness, identified as “a performance coach and sports scientist” and “the author of Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness.”
First off, this article isn’t about whether transsexual athletes should compete against cissexual ones. That heated debate he leaves for the future. Nor is he arguing that men’s sports should draw more attention than women’s, nor that men should be paid more; in fact, he argues against that. His argument is simply that Mertens’s solution of mixing males and females in school sports is wrongheaded, at least for athletes who have gone through puberty.
Magness’s point rests on the simple acknowledgment that, on average, puberty gives men substantial athletic advantages against women—advantages not seen before either sex undergoes puberty. The higher levels of testosterone (a steroid hormone) accompanying male puberty causes the development of athletic differences between men and women, differences that give men a performance average of 10% or more over women—even higher in strength sports like weightlifting.
Why is this important to recognize? For several reasons that Magness mentions at the end (see below), with the foremost being that if one allows cisgender men and women to have mixed teams, as Mertens suggested, the men would eventually nose out the women if teams are assembled by performance. And this is unfair to biological (cis) women.
Magness on the data:
When looking at elite runners—whether sprinting 100 meters or racing many miles—once athletes hit physical maturity, the best men have anywhere from a 9 to a 12 percent advantage over the best women. A significant gap can be seen in cycling, swimming, speed skating, high-jumping, and a variety of other athletic feats. The gap is even larger in sports that depend highly on strength. For example, when looking at elite weight lifters in the same weight class, the performance gap is about 24 to 30 percent.
It’s important to note a few caveats. First, most of the best research is on sports that are easily quantifiable. For example, there’s no way to directly compare the skill levels of elite tennis players to measure for tiny performance differences unless they play one another. What we know is that the less a sport relies on speed, power, or endurance, and the more it relies on skill, the smaller the gap is. In sports like shooting and archery, the difference between men and women is negligible at best. Second, the performance gap of course doesn’t mean that all men will triumph over all women all the time. My comparatively unathletic brother would get beaten by thousands of women in a mile-long race. And if my wife showed up to a local turkey trot, she’d likely decimate all the men. Third, because there is significant overlap between males and females in performance, female outliers can shine, particularly in niche sports with a small number of competitors (e.g., ultrarunning).
But at the top of the top of the athletic world, in widely played sports with elite coaching, the gap between the sexes seems almost insurmountable. Take the queen of track and field, Allyson Felix. The 11-time Olympic medalist’s best 400-meter time ever is 49.26. In just the 2022 season, that would have put her 689th on the boys’ high-school performance list.
None of this is meant to disparage the phenomenal women athletes at the top of their game. But if we stopped dividing sport by sex, elite women’s sport as we know it could cease to exist. We might miss out on Megan Rapinoe at the World Cup or the spectacle of Sydney McLaughlin effortlessly gliding over hurdle after hurdle. Acknowledging the performance differential should encourage us to do everything possible to make sure female athletes can keep competing at these levels.
He also considers whether the sex differences in performance are “sociological”, and can be ascribed to things like sexism leading to differential training or investment, and for several reasons rejects those as the primary cause of sex differences—though perhaps a part of the cause. The data show that in the past 30 years, despite an improvement in women’s training and a lessening of sexism, the sex gap in five sports—cycling, weightlifting, swimming, speed skating, and track and field—remains. Though performance in both sexes is improving, they’re improving at roughly the same rate, so that the puberty-induced gap has stayed about the same.
I think this is a fair and evenhanded piece, as it takes pains to give the caveats and to avoid denigrating women’s sports, which shouldn’t be denigrated. And he also gives the advantages of acknowledging the post-puberty data, which raises several questions whose answers are driven by both data and ethics:
The upside of acknowledging that sex differences in performance exist is that we can discuss the vital, knotty debates that emerge from this biology. For example, would creating more coed sporting opportunities before, say, age 10, keep girls in sport longer? How should schools and clubs handle a young female athlete who wants to play football even though there’s no girls’ team? Should we get rid of sex-based divisions in sports like shooting, where the performance gap is minimal? We certainly need to figure out better answers for trans athletes and people like Caster Semenya, who, because she has differences of sexual development, is allowed to compete in the 5K but not the 800-meter race.
I find the first three questions especially interesting, because they are the easiest to answer. If there is no difference in sports ability between boys and girls before puberty, why not allow mixed teams? And surely there are some women who would qualify to be on men’s school teams; why not let them in? Finally, if the average performance of men and women in shooting is about the same (I’m not sure if there’s a gap), why not let the sexes compete against each other, even at “elite” levels like the Olympics?
Issues like those of transsexual athletes, or people with disorders of sex development, pose harder questions, and I have no solution save create an “other” category, or have two categories: “biological men + transsexual and DSD athletes” on the one hand and “biological women” on the other. That, of course, has its own downside, including stigmatization, but to me the increased fairness to the many cisgender women who compete in sport outweighs other considerations.
To Magness, though, all questions must begin with the admission of a puberty-induced athletic advantage of males over females. Why do people resist what is such an obvious answer. Because many “progressive” ideologues don’t want to believe that there are evolved biological differences between the sexes. Ergo, the differences we see are due entirely to socialization.
Here’ the salutary results Magness sees in admitting the truth (note: he and his wife were both runners, but she competed better against other women than he did against other men):
To solve these questions, we need to first accept the premise that puberty can create unequal sporting ability. Doing so doesn’t mean that we stop fighting inequality or dismiss tricky edge cases. It actually should free us from arguing over what should be a noncontroversial claim. We can then shift our focus to making sure women have the space, resources, and opportunities to show their talents. We can acknowledge that though I might have run faster at my peak, my wife’s performance and achievements are undoubtedly more impressive. We can stop judging female athletes against their male counterparts and enjoy their athleticism on its own accord.
Given that Magness opposes mixed men’s and women’s teams after puberty, he would surely oppose something that the ACLU and the Biden Administration has supported: the right of medically untreated men and women to compete with members of the sex to which they say they belong. This would result in medically untreated biological men who identify as women competing against biological women, and only a witless ideologue could support that.
The only question I have about this article is this: how did it come to be? Did The Atlantic realize it screwed up by publishing Mertens’s piece and asked someone to write a rebuttal? Or did it commission both pieces to show both sides of a “controversy”? If so, Magness has the better arguments by far.
Now you might say that this is all a tempest in a teapot, but it’s not. The number of adolescent men who identify as women is increasing rapidly (and women who identify as men even faster), and that teapot is going to get pretty big pretty fast.