Commentary

Gabby Ludwig deserves to play

Insensitive comments raise question about participation, with obvious answer

Updated: December 12, 2012, 2:24 PM ET
By Christina Kahrl | ESPN.com

As a society, we need to talk about a future that includes transsexual athletes, because they're here, and they've come to play. We need to understand and accept the reasons they should be allowed to compete, the same as everybody else.

This point came into focus again last week when two radio co-hosts and a guest on a Washington, D.C., station -- an affiliate of the ESPN network -- weighed in on the subject of Gabby Ludwig, a 50-year-old woman and a military veteran who's playing basketball for Mission College in Santa Clara, Calif.

They started by complaining about her age relative to her teammates … but didn't leave it there. Instead, they went right at the main reason Ludwig is news: She's a transsexual woman. They mocked her, belittled the way she looked and brushed past any notion or standard of professionalism by referring to Ludwig as "it."

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Tony Spinelli for ESPNAnyone who wants to pick up the ball should have an opportunity to compete.

In addition to suspensions announced by the affiliate station, the actions triggered a necessarily tight-lipped official ESPN response about the issue: "The two are not employees of ESPN and made the comments on an affiliated radio station that controls its own local content. The offensive commentary goes completely against ESPN's company culture and values. We have expressed our significant dissatisfaction to the station's management."

In a strange way we should be grateful that the radio hosts didn't hold back, because this brings us to what we all should be doing going forward in reference to Gabby's decision to play again 30 years after her first attempt at college basketball. We should be asking the question: Where do transsexual athletes fit in?

This debate is one that Renee Richards initiated when she stepped onto a tennis court more than 30 years ago.

That moment, transgressive as it was in sports history, came in an individual's sport, but Ludwig's brave example brings up an additional question: Should team sports be treated differently? It would have been great if those questions had been debated on their merits, not that these guys were really going to get there.

I'll argue that team sports should not be held to any separate standard or be given any special exemptions, and that trans athletes have the same right to compete as everyone else. Informed by the proud example of some of what's best about our country we should all already know that it shouldn't be any other way.

In American society, in American life, playing team sports is inculcated as something fun and something you want to do. We enjoy them as players and we enjoy them as fans. Is that really something you would deny to your fellow Americans, just because they're not exactly like you?

There has been a lot of good news on the subject of trans athletes, at least if you accept the notion of equality that is intrinsic to this nation's founding. Examples like those set by Gabby or Kye Allums are an inspiration not just for the present, but for the future. That's because conferences and coaches, teammates and administrators are making the right choices: to learn, understand, accept and make room. It's a brand of everyday moral courage, of athletes sticking up for teammates, of fans backing their players. And that is exactly what sports is supposed to teach us. All of us.

Team sports have played a fundamental role in the integration of our society, as most prominently symbolized by Jackie Robinson. And from Jackie's example and those of so many other trailblazers, it's important to recognize that sports' power to integrate reaches far beyond any big league field. It reaches into every seat in every stadium, and to every barstool in your favorite sports bar. It can reach you on your couch. It's reaching you right here, on this screen.

Much as the debate on marriage equality has changed over time, acceptance on this issue has a strong generational component. Those playing with or against Gabby -- almost exclusively much younger -- are showing courage in accepting a trans athlete on her terms; shouldn't everybody else?

This story is especially important not merely because of the example it sets, but because it is a preview of what the future holds on soccer fields, basketball courts, diamonds and gridirons across the country. Players like Kye and Gabby have blazed these trails, but others will follow. There aren't a lot of trans folk, but with the support of their families, many of them are coming out earlier. More trans athletes are going to ask to play sports in high schools and colleges in the years and decades to come. Having answers ready and the rules to protect the rights of children and young adults, not to mention personal understanding and respect for human dignity, is a moral responsibility for coaches, administrators and educators.

Which is why this is about more than thoughtless radio chatter, and it's about more than Gabby Ludwig. It's about what we do and what we will have to do going forward. Taking courage from the examples of Gabby and Kye and their teammates, I hope everyone knows how they too can get it right.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.