With transgender athletes showing up in the headlines (and generating controversy) more frequently, this seems like a good opportunity for people to stop and reflect on why we have categories in sporting events in the first place. Why not get rid of weight classes in boxing, for example? Are those for the benefit of the competitors, or for the benefit of the fans of the sport, who want to have at least a chance of being surprised?
In the same way, why not let draft order in professional sports be determined solely by lot? Why do we let the crappier teams pick first? Is that about fairness, or about avoiding the boredom that comes with teams that stay on top for too long?
For that matter, why do we separate colleges into divisions? Why not let Alabama’s football team (Division 1) play against Albion’s football team (Division 3)? Because no one would bother to watch, that’s why. The outcome would be predetermined.
When we separate competitions by sex (or weight, or age, or handicap, or supplement use, or institutional size, or anything else), we do that in order to make the events more interesting, and not out of any idea of ‘fairness’ to the competitors. If we were just concerned with what individuals or teams were the best, we would get rid of classes, divisions, and so on, altogether. Whoever can run the fastest, or throw the farthest, or lift the most, or score the most points, would be the winner. End of story.
As Charles Kettering used to say, a problem well-posed is half-solved. Rediscovering ‘interestingness’ to the spectators, rather than ‘fairness’ to the athletes, as the organizing principle behind sorting competitors into classes would lead to better decisions about what those classes should be, and how membership should be determined.
Or, perhaps we could just do away with sorting, and rely on handicaps instead, as we do in bowling, or golf. Even Alabama v. Albion could be interesting if Albion is spotted, say, 100 points before the game starts. And if each Alabama player has to wear an eye patch, to interfere with his depth perception.
Just as with special education, every athlete or team could have its own Individualized Competition Program (ICP), which would spell out the accommodations they need to compete on a level playing field. Maybe one runner would start the 100-meter dash with a head start of 45 meters, while another would start from 10 meters behind the starting line. Maybe one football team would get to put 13 players on the field, and get 6 tries to make a first down, while another would get only 9 players, and 3 tries. Maybe some boxers would get to put lead weights in their gloves, while others would have to be spun around for 30 seconds before the beginning of each round. And so on.
In his must-read story, ‘Harrison Bergeron’, Kurt Vonnegut predicted that this kind of handicapping would eventually be a general feature of society:
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal
before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter
than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was
stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the
211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing
vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
Perhaps the introduction of ICPs will turn out to be the first step on the journey to that progressive utopia.