Embed from Getty Images
Modern feminism — and progressivism in general — attempt to apply concepts of “equality” and “inclusivity” to every aspect of society, whether or not they fit. These aims may seem laudable: who doesn’t want less inequality, unfairness, dominance and subordination? But in reality, there are areas where “equality” and “inclusivity” don’t make much sense. In contexts like academics and employment, the best candidate should be chosen or rewarded, regardless of “identity,” and in the arena of competitive sport and athletics, forms of dominance and subordination are intrinsic. Competitive sport is — obviously — about competition, and showcasing the best of the best, not creating a space for everyone to feel warm and fuzzy because they are permitted to participate.
Nonetheless, we have seen a push from the woke left to address so-called marginalization by “including” transwomen in female sports competitions, under the guise of “fairness.” We are told that excluding males who identify as women from competing as women is part of the unfair treatment of these men in society, and that therefore women must step aside. What is “fair” to women is not considered.
But even if it were “fair” to include males identifying as transwomen in women’s sport, is this attempt at inclusivity justifiable? What is the purpose of sport, anyway?
Last month, a trans-identified male named Lia (formerly Will) Thomas won the 500-yard women’s freestyle at the NCAA swimming championships in Atlanta. Thomas’ story is the fruit of a historical accident: the same elite American universities where woke ideology was born also field top-level teams in a number of elite sports. Thomas’ ability to compete against women illustrates the ghastly misogyny that lies behind much of the trans movement, and “gender critical” feminists (or, as I like to call them, “feminists”) have written copiously about the violation of this male intrusion into women’s sports. But less has been said about its implications for sport itself, i.e. for athletes and sports fans. Anyone who loves any given women’s sport should not welcome the inclusion of biological males. Yet here we are.
There is in fact an irreconcilable difference between the world of sport and the woke version of justice. Sport is about ruthless competition within a framework of rules and fair-play. If that framework is removed, the competition becomes fake and loses its purpose. In sport’s ideal type, there are winners and losers, and a code of honour whereby the fairness of the competition justifies that winners be glorified and losers accept defeat graciously. Winners glisten on the podium, while losers return to the changing room, heads hung low. But both are expected to remain gracious, and that grace is built on the knowledge that the fight was fair, and that further fair fights are in the offing, where the roles may be reversed.
The woke ideal of fairness is different: dominance is always suspect, and losing a signal that the game may not yet be sufficiently unrigged. Success points to unearned privilege, and to glory in success is to perpetuate the unfairness that brought it about. Conversely, failure is the mark of victimhood, and true heroism is finding the courage to shout one’s victimized identity in the face of the winners’ cruelty. In this paradigm, it is Thomas who is presented as brave, because he has dared to be trans, and his moaning teammates who are cruel, because they seek to protect their exclusionary privilege.
A victim identity was leveraged slightly differently last year, when Simone Biles announced she would withdraw from the all-around gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games due to mental health struggles. This earned her a form of woke applause she could not have gained by mere athletic victories. By rejecting competition in favour of joining and elevating a vulnerable community (the mentally ill), she achieved a woke victory. While decent-minded sports fans will naturally treat Biles’s decision with compassion, not mockery, they can’t celebrate it: athletes’ ability to soar above or face down crushing psychological pressure is a great part of what we admire in them, and Biles’ failure in this regard is, for the sports fan, a cause for sorrow, not celebration.
Notwithstanding cases like Thomas’ and Biles’, sport has so far remained largely immune to assaults of the woke ideal. Why is this? Maybe it’s just that the Venn diagram shows little overlap between jocks and wokeists: wokeism is a revenge of the nerds, and nerds don’t play or follow sports. But this is a cheap shot, and sport has more robust resources to fend off wokeness than the hope that the sissies will stay in their lane.
Sport can never really live up to the woke ideal’s unending quest for equality of outcomes, because it adheres to a separate ideal of fairness and justice, as defined by equality of opportunity. Except when racism, poverty, and prejudice prove insuperable obstacles, sport contains a fail-safe mechanism for ensuring equality of opportunity: it is a relentless meritocracy, where the criteria for success are objective, and success is everything. Some sports have inexorably promoted those who hold genetic advantages associated with certain phenotypes — speed over short distances or extraordinary height, for example — while other sports, like football (soccer) or cricket, which reward an array of different types of excellence, allow those who combine native talent with relentless hard work to excel, regardless of socio-economic “privilege” (or lack thereof).
In sport, results speak for themselves. When Don Bradman argued against the South African prime minister who claimed blacks had to be kept out of elite cricket because they lacked the natural intelligence to “understand the intricacies” of this most chess-like of sports, he had a better response to hand than any invocation of historical or structural racism: “Have you heard of Gary Sobers?” If you wish to see “cisgender” white men expressing unfeigned and unstinted admiration for members of a historically oppressed minority, the best place to go is not your local university’s English department, but any professional football game in the land.
While woke ideals have escaped the confines of English departments to weave themselves into the structures of neoliberal corporate and state power, sport has a material power base of its own: it both attracts and produces vast amounts of money. Where money talks, bullshit walks. Sports fans have no desire to see cheats, losers, and cry-babies elevated over those who play and win by the rules, and they are prepared to pay handsomely to have their preferences met. This conflicts with the woke world-view, where no possible justification could be provided, for instance, to giving precedence of attention to the Premier League over the lower tiers of English football. What could be more unfair and less inclusive than to favour the richest clubs and most gifted players? But most fans want to see the best compete against the best: Sky, Amazon, and BT know that the £5 billion they have paid for exclusive rights to Premier League broadcasting are worth every penny. The woke won’t easily defeat market forces this powerful.
Nonetheless, wokeness appears in sport in other forms. The IOC drapes itself in the rainbow flag, and pundits and officials wring their hands about the dearth of openly gay male sportsmen, while studiously ignoring any anti-gay joshing in the fields or on the stands (its racist equivalent is not so often ignored, because most fans hate it). The English Football League spends some spare change on the theatrics of “kicking out racism” from England’s least racist institution. Advertisers replace odes to machismo with inclusivity sermons. Athletes are trained to mold their public personae into interchangeable, banality-spouting NPCs (watch any post-match interview). The Paralympics are granted ever more kudos and airtime, while there’s an unwritten ban on discussion of how little money they are able to extract from fans and sponsors, or of why there is next to no media coverage of disabled sport outside this allotted quadrennial slot. Ritual calls are made for women’s sports to receive more investment and airtime, while a veil of chaste silence is cast over the fact that the handful of women’s sports (tennis and gymnastics, for example) that enjoy true popularity are those where women can achieve excellence while remaining feminine, graceful, and sexy.
There is a core of truth beneath these hypocrisies, which takes us to sport’s last, best line of defence against the woke ideal: sport is not exactly real. It is a “game,” and athletes are “players.” By the same token, sports fans are not Nietzschean monsters, worshipping the blond (or black) beast. Fans may not wish to watch much disabled sport because they consider it mediocre entertainment, but most are surely delighted that it goes on, because of its benefit to the participants. The dad who will watch a bog-standard lower-tier men’s football game over the Women’s FA cup final will cheer fanatically from the sidelines at his daughter’s dreadful Sunday morning football game. Sports fans do not confuse excellence on the field of play with moral excellence, and, putative Venn diagrams notwithstanding, there are surely ever more sports fans who have embraced some measure of wokeness in their daily lives, and resolve any contradictions between this and their preferences as fans by reflecting that, after all, it’s only a game.
However, even this will not, on its own, be enough to keep the woke ideal from tearing down sport’s citadel. Sport is simply too big to be left alone by ideologues in search of hegemony, not just in politics but in culture. Other ludic aspects of culture — film, television, music, literature — have been under relentless assault, and the case of Lia Thomas shows that the grotesque absurdity of extending the battle to sport is no safeguard. For, like entertainment, sport is not entirely unreal: some of its values — fair-play, pride in excellence, grace in losing — do feed back and forth with daily life, where they cannot co-exist with their woke alternatives.
Still, for all the money and love it attracts, it is unlikely sport will ever be able on its own to offer a cultural and political alternative to wokeness. Sport is not a creature of any particular culture — it is a sui generis human universal. Children in all times and places play some form of sports, and 2,800 years of history have brought about no differences between the conceptual system underlying the chariot race of the Iliad and that of any modern competition. In its essence, sport is neither upstream nor downstream from the rest of culture, and so has no natural place as a weapon in a culture war.
Even if the woke ideal were to win the battle to overtake sport, sport would probably not disappear into the shadows, as it did in medieval Europe, after its dominance in Greco-Roman antiquity. Ancient sport died out along with the social structures that supported it, and cultural collapse on a similar scale does not seem on the cards for us. More likely, sport would make peace with the new ideal by mutating into theatre, where every game is openly rigged, and/or by submitting to bio-medical transhumanism, where competition is levelled out through drugs, surgeries, and genetic manipulation. WWE and cycling have already blazed these two paths. All societies require bread and circuses to survive. In the woke new world, the bread would be bug-paste, and the circuses freakshows.
The war between sport and wokeness has barely begun, and despite the woke conquest of much of popular culture, sport has in its favour its own enormous and organic popularity. Sport’s values require no clerisy to be enforced, and its fans are resistant to the cancellation of their idols for wrongthink. Above all, the noblest part of the love of sport is a love of the honour culture it enshrines, and sport’s popularity reflects not just the human appetite for play, but also the deep thirst for honour within all of us. If our societies can find new (and old), saner ways to quench that thirst, sport may yet flourish, and even be purged in some measure of its own dishonourable blemishes, institutionalized cheating and corporate whoring.
But in the meantime, we must expect further compromises, and, in particular (despite some hopeful signs), women’s sport may well be sacrificed on the altar of inclusivity. It is more vulnerable on account of being less popular and therefore less lucrative than men’s sport. Moreover, there is no real-world pressure, mirroring the Thomas case, for women to compete in men’s games. It would be a tragic irony indeed if the same progressive, egalitarian project that has built up women’s sports were to lead, as this project mutates, to their demise. The revolution devours its children.
Daniel Hadas teaches Latin and ancient Greek at King’s College London. He has published on the Covid response for UnHerd and Left Lockdown Sceptics, and tweets at @danielhadas2.