Fagan: FIFA Targets Female Players With Gender Verification Guidelines

Lars Baron/FIFA/Getty Images

Players from both the England and Germany teams were randomly selected for gender testing prior to the Women's World Cup.

Editor's note: Updated to include comment from FIFA regarding the policy and its application.

For most people, FIFA is reviled because it is corrupt, arrogant and dishonest. For others, the organization is all those things, plus one more: biased.

Even in the midst of a wildly entertaining Women's World Cup (see: Norway, Germany), an event that FIFA itself runs, soccer's governing body still finds ways to discriminate against its female athletes.

There's the obvious example of how, right now, the women are playing on artificial turf for the first time in World Cup history -- this despite an outside company offering to foot the bill for natural grass. And things aren't much better away from the pitch. Until last year, the organization -- in existence for 111 years -- had never had a female representative on its executive committee.

Still, these examples are actually minimal compared to FIFA's latest move: mandatory "gender verification" testing for women's teams in advance of the World Cup. At the end of May, the German women's national team was sex tested; a week later, the England squad went through the same process. (Over the past four years, FIFA has also tested a female player from Korea, as well as players from Iran and New Guinea.) 

Historically, these policies have only ever applied to women. And there is no reason to think, given that history, that they exist to apply to men.
Katrina Karkazis, Stanford bioethicist

When announcing its gender verification regulations in 2011, FIFA claimed this rule applied to everyone -- that men's national teams and male players would also be tested in advance of major competitions. Of course, anyone not on FIFA's payroll knows that that's a false front, a hollow statement meant to give the illusion of a fair and balanced scale.

But it is the equivalent of security screening; "random selection" is rarely random, but often just a license to profile. As Mark Leather, the head of performance for the Bolton Wanderers of the English Premier League, told The Guardian: "I've never come across testing being carried out for men. The footballing authorities don't make the men do any."

Stanford University bioethicist Katrina Karkazis also weighs in: "That's a red herring. Historically, these policies have only ever applied to women. And there is no reason to think, given that history, that they exist to apply to men."

That's because they don't apply to men. And why don't they? Probably because if a male athlete tested outside whatever range FIFA deemed as "normal for a man," he wouldn't be seen as having an advantage. Like, in any way. At all.

Think about the subliminal message here: Being a woman -- or even like a woman -- is essentially a disadvantage. And being "like a man" is supposedly so advantageous that FIFA has created a policy to expose any female athlete deemed "too manly."

At its core, this is gender policing of women. And FIFA isn't really trying to hide it. The International Olympic Committee at least changed the language in its policy -- a bit of semantics that, at first glance, makes the IOC seem less discriminatory (spoiler alert: It's not).

The IOC policy now focuses on "female hyperandrogenism" -- an excess of naturally occurring testosterone -- and argues that this gives women an unfair advantage. The policy on FIFA's books doesn't pretend to be anything other than sex testing, and FIFA even says associations should verify gender by "actively investigating any perceived deviation in sex characteristics."

"FIFA is back in the stone age because they're actually saying this is essentially a sex test," says Karkazis, an expert on the IOC's testing policies. "It explicitly says if they conclude that a woman is not the 'gender' she says she is, she'll be referred to the Disciplinary Committee. This means they can tell women who have lived and competed as women their entire lives they're not women. If you refuse to undergo exams or hand over medical records, you'll be suspended. It's sex determination."

To be clear, this policy does not exist because men are disguising themselves as women and playing on national teams. There is no epidemic of such behavior -- no "bogeyman" (whatever that means). This policy exists to expose athletes who might possess higher levels of natural testosterone, who might not meet whatever definition of "woman" has been set by FIFA. And put simply: Men with high natural testosterone are champions; women are banned.

But the real problem here is that you can't definitively test for sex. This is why professional medical organizations attacked these policies so forcefully decades ago, and why the IOC stopped calling it "sex testing."

Sex is not binary; it's on a continuum. And trying to pinpoint exactly where on the spectrum someone stops being "a woman" and starts being "a man" is an imprecise science.

And so much of how we perceive sex is through gender presentation (i.e., hair and clothing), which means that someone who doesn't conform to traditional gender presentation is probably more likely to be flagged for testing. The FIFA policy states that a gender verification process will be started on a player if there are "reasons and evidence."

Of course, it does not outline what qualifies as a reason, or what qualifies as evidence. Is it spiky hair? Bulky quad muscles? Baggy jeans?

FIFA has offered the following comment about its "gender verification" policy:

"Contrary to what your article states, FIFA does not impose on teams any mandatory or routine gender testing verification examinations before a competition. Similarly, no mandatory or routine gender testing verification examinations take place at FIFA competitions.

"What FIFA does require is for teams, prior to the nomination of their respective squad list, to sign a declaration of agreement on gender verification for both men's and women's competitions. The team doctor and/or the member association's medical committee are requested to confirm that players participating in the respective competition are of an appropriate gender. It is up to the doctor to request any additional examination. Each national association may be contacted directly for further questions."

On the FIFA website, the image that accompanies the text of this policy shows a bag emblazoned with the organization's logo and the slogan: "My game is fair play."

The implication, then, is that this policy makes the game fair. But the only reason this policy would be about fairness is if you believe it's "unfair" that some human beings possess a genetic deviation, possess too much natural testosterone, and therefore, hold some sort of intense competitive advantage. But that has never been proved. (See here and here.)

As we wrote last year on espnW regarding the case of Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, who had been banned from competing because of too much naturally-occurring testosterone:

"Even the policy makers who consult the IOC have published findings suggesting that women with some intersex traits 'have no more competitive advantage than other elite athletes with favorable genetic characteristics.'

"Every elite athlete [actually, every human, for that matter] is born with certain genetic variations that either aid or hinder his or her potential for success on the playing field. An incomplete list: arm length, leg length, toe length, foot size, lung capacity. Each one of these characteristics, depending on the sport, could be the difference between first place and also-ran. For example, take Jamaican superstar sprinter Usain Bolt. Why aren't we outraged at his ridiculously long legs, which allow him to gobble up the track faster than his competitors?

"Out of the thousands of genetic variants that athletes possess, the IOC has singled out just one for regulation, and it affects only female athletes."

Clearly turf burns aren't the only ugliness FIFA has inflicted on this World Cup.

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