Upon taking office, Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring that schools receiving federal funding allow people who self-identify as females onto female sport’s teams. Pushback against it has ranged from thoughtful considerations of fairness to misogyny masquerading as morality.

In addition to being complicated in its own right, the fairness of self-identified females being allowed to compete as females is also linked to other complicated matters, such as broader concerns of fairness in society and issues of gender identity. People arguing in good faith can make arguments in one area without realizing the implications of these arguments in other areas. To illustrate, consider the fictional character of Polly. Polly is a national level high school runner who holds to a principle of fairness. Polly’s brother, Paul, is faster than Polly but not a national level male runner. He jokingly suggests putting on a dress and beating Polly, which worries her—if a person can self-identify as a female, Paul could do that and suddenly be a national level female high school runner. In a panic, Polly thinks of her nightmare scenario: the top male runners compete as boys, switch identities, and win again as girls! Polly and her sister runners would be out of the competition, which would be unfair. In good faith, Polly can make a very good argument moral argument against allowing this based on fairness—but her seemingly reasonable argument might justifying harming people in the broader context of fairness in society—something Polly would not want. As such, we should be careful to consider the implications arguments about fairness in sports have in other areas.

People can also in bad faith, presenting an appealing fairness argument in the context of sports while not caring about fairness at all. Their intent might be to use the sports issue argument as a Trojan horse to lure people into their ideological agenda or they might want to weaponize the seemingly reasonable argument in the broader context after getting people to accept it in the sports context. This is not to say that arguing in bad faith entails that a person must be making false claims or fallacious arguments—a person can use truth and good logic in bad faith efforts. But we should be on guard against bad faith arguments. I will endeavor to follow my own advice and make good faith arguments while considering their possible implications.

From the standpoint of fairness, there are reasonable moral grounds to be concerned about allowing people to self-identify their competition category. To focus the discussion, I will use my own sport of running and the specific context of road races—but the general points apply across all sports.

Road races have well-established competition categories aimed primarily at fairness. Almost all races have gender categories (male or female). Most races also have age groups and some also include the master category (40+) and sometimes he grand master category (50+). A few races also add a weight category (Clydesdale or Athena). In addition to categories created primarily for fairness, races sometimes have other categories for other reasons. For example, the Bowlegs 5K in Tallahassee raises money for a college scholarship and has a special educator category. Since educators as a class have neither advantages nor disadvantages relative to other runners, this category is not based on fairness.

In most cases, these categories serve their intended purpose—they make competition fairer by sorting people into groups based on qualities that impact performance. In some cases, these categories can have the unintended effect of allowing a person in a generally advantaged category win in their category while losing to a runner in a disadvantaged category. For example, a 50-year-old runner might win nothing in his age group while also beating every runner in the younger age groups—he thus loses to inferior performances because of the age groups intended to allow older runners like him to fairly compete. So, he gets no prize while those he beat do. While this can be annoying, these cases tend to be rare and the overall positive impact of age groups and gender divisions outweigh the negative aspects. This is a good general approach to take to setting policies—a good policy will never be perfect, but a good policy generally creates more good than bad. But there are people who do try to exploit categories to their advantage. I will turn to this in my next essay.

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