A question in need of the wisdom of Solomon
Some years ago, when a major flood story was making news, the late Brian White is said to have delivered some concise advice to his broadcast team at 3AW. As the program makers searched for angles, White reputedly demanded: “I don’t want to hear from some theorist at the weather bureau. If we’re covering floods, I want f—ing Noah!”
Regarding Hannah Mouncey, the transgender footballer denied nomination for the AFLW draft, I’m pleased to say Noah has been consulted. Well, the old flood-buster’s counterpart on the matter of gender-transitioning sports performers has.
It happened in 2004, when the transgender female golfer Mianne Bagger joined the professional women’s circuit. Naturally, there was controversy. The Danish-born Bagger, who’d migrated to at the age of 12, provided just the second case of this kind.
The first was Renee Richards, formerly Richard Raskind, who famously fought to play professional women’s tennis in the 1970s. As the Mianne Bagger story unfolded, I contacted Richards in New York. She was an engaging and open-minded interviewee.
Richards had been the trailblazer. Blocked, initially, by various layers of tennis administration, she eventually took her case for the right to play on the women’s tour all the way to the New York Supreme Court. There, in 1977, Judge Alfred Ascione found in her favour. Subsequently, Richards reached a US Open women’s doubles final and – aged 44 – climbed to No.20 on the world rankings.
The transcript of the interview I did with her (available online here) reveals recognition on Richards’ part of the difficulty of this issue. Her view, it became clear, was anything but black-and-white. One complexity she addressed, easily overlooked in this discussion, was the matter of age.
“I was playing against 20-year-old women who were the best in the world, so whatever advantage I might have had in size and a good serve it was more than out-weighed by the age difference,” she acknowledged. “I always remember the comment my mixed doubles partner, Ilie Nastase, made when some of the players objected to me. He said: ‘What are they afraid of, she’s old enough to be their mother.’ “
So, what of a talented male athlete choosing to transition in his early 20s and entering women’s sport a couple of years later?
“Now you’ve got a whole different kettle of fish because now you don’t have the age factor to level the playing field,” Richards said. “Let’s say you have a Tiger Woods, or Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe, whoever, then three years later at 24, after their surgery, they come back and want to play again. Now you’ve got to re-write the rule book.”
The inference was this: rules that will have reasonable and fair application in all cases simply can’t be cast in stone. “If you write it as a mass thing,” said Richards, “you’re going to hurt the large group of women players when the 24-year-old transsexual emerges on the scene. If you do it on an individual basis you’re going to make mistakes there too because your judgement is going to enter into it.”
So, what of the judgement in her landmark case?
“When my case went before the New York Supreme Court, Judge Ascione made a very historic, landmark decision and he emphasised the fact that it was an individual decision. He had affidavits from Billie-Jean King and other people saying that I was indeed physically and psychically a woman, that I was not a threat to the other players, that I was 41 years old and so on, and he made his decision on that basis. He probably left the groundwork there, left the door open, for making an individual decision on a 24-year-old someday.”
All of which confirms my sympathy for the AFL in the Mouncey case. Those suggesting football should have been better prepared for this qualify as what American sport has long referred to as “Monday morning quarterbacks”. It’s just not that simple.
Perhaps there’s another case, though, that the football administration could be planning for: that of the strongly built, highly talented woman who just might appeal as a draft prospect in the men’s competition.
Sounds ridiculous? Well, John Cahill is attributed with describing a teenage Erin Phillips as one of the most talented junior footballers he’s seen.
What if, at that time, Phillips had been able to develop her career through the pathways available to boys? These days, she’s listed as 173 centimetres tall and weighing 75 kilograms. That’s five centimetres taller and four kilos heavier than Caleb Daniel. A touch heavier than Eddie Betts and a couple of centimetres taller than Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti. The same weight as, but slightly shorter than, the bloke who played more games than any other AFL player, Brent “Boomer” Harvey.
You say a woman would never be good enough to make it in the men’s league? Bear in mind that there are more than 700 players on AFL lists. Coincidentally, in promoting his new book this year, John McEnroe said Serena Williams would rank “like 700th in the world” on the men’s side. And while perhaps this was a figure plucked out of the air to make a point, it could put a highly talented and professionally conditioned female footballer in the AFL ballpark.
So, what happens if that female player emerges? Given the disparity of earning power between the male and female competitions, ruling her ineligible to play with the men could be a restraint of trade. On the other hand, allowing her to play could have connotations within the male-violence-on-women context.
Forget Noah, this is one for the wisdom of Solomon. He might pull out his famous sword and say you’ve got to carve up the money more evenly.