The Gabelli School launches the “DEI and Sport” loudspeaker series.

With LGBTQ+ athletes in the news, at the center of state legislation and at the heart of policy debates, the Gabelli School Sports Business Initiative launched a speaker series on diversity equity, inclusion and sport that began with a conversation about transgender and non-binary athletes.

“Sport, like society, has to deal with difficult issues, especially now,” said Mark Conrad, JD, founder and director of the initiative and associate professor of law and ethics at the Gabelli School. “There used to be this idea that sport should be separated from politics. But athletes and other stakeholders are human beings and they are affected by events that have happened.”

Carla Varriale-Barker, attorney for the law firm of Segal McCambridge in New York City.

The first discussion, titled “Inclusion and Belonging: Moving Beyond the Binary,” took place on Zoom on October 24 and included Carla Varriale-Barker, an attorney with the law firm of Segal McCambridge in New York City. She serves as Chair of the Office of Sports, Recreation and Entertainment, where she has represented transgender and non-binary athletes, and as an Associate Professor at Columbia University.

Questions about fairness, eligibility

More than 50 members of the Fordham community attended the webinar and asked a variety of questions about the regulations, policies, and challenges associated with transgender and nonbinary athletes in sport — specifically transgender women involved in sport by cisgender women line up

“If you start by saying – trans women, these are women. They compete as women because they are women,” said Varriale-Barker. “Athletes are a spectrum of skills and assets. Some of these could be biological in nature, others could be training benefits. So this is how I approach this question.”

She set the example of Michael Phelps as someone who had advantages over other swimmers not because of his sex or gender, but because of his physical and athletic ability.

When a participant asked Varriale-Barker how she would respond to concerns that someone might say she was a transgender woman just to get a college scholarship, she noted that the “gender scammers” weren’t that much of a threat be as some portray them .

“Are there any serious concerns about gender scammers? I would say no,” she said. “In my experience with Kye Allums for example [the first openly transgender player in NCAA Division 1 basketball]– The change in hormones is dramatic and devastating and significant. I don’t think people gamble with their health to gain an advantage in sport.”

She noted that she would like more data and science on how hormone levels affect athletic performance.

“I feel like we’re just scratching the surface of how important the hormone component is to all of this in order to understand the unfair advantage argument,” she said. “But I don’t think there’s any good faith concern that people are gender scammers to get a scholarship.”

Examination regulations and guidelines

Varriale-Barker also explained how different sports organizations have different policies regarding transgender athletes. For example, International Olympic Committee (IOC) regulations have moved from testing testosterone levels to what Varriale-Barker called a “more inclusive way of incorporating participation.”

A statement from the IOC said: “The framework is designed to ensure that competition in each of these categories is fair and safe and that athletes are not excluded solely because of their transgender identity or gender variations.”

In January 2022, the NCAA updated its policy to require transgender student-athletes to “record sport-specific testosterone levels” at the start of the season, and then a second, six months after, and four weeks before the championship selection. The NCCA stated that these guidelines help “support transgender student-athletes and promote fairness in collegiate sports.”

Varriale-Barker said she’s concerned about recent state laws banning transgender people from participating in sports, particularly laws trying to stop gender-affirming nursing. She said she wants people to think about the role sport can play in people’s lives, like Allums who used it as an outlet.

“Sport is a training ground for leadership,” she said. “Exercise provides a vehicle for positive body image, teamwork and self-confidence. Sport is really important and everyone should have access to sport.”

At the heart of the series

Conrad said the first event was exactly what he hoped the series would do.

“That’s really the goal — to encourage discussion, to encourage analysis, to encourage debate,” he said. He commended the participants for asking difficult but thought-provoking questions.

“It’s not sports talk radio,” Conrad said, adding that he would love this series and initiative as a whole to become “the NPR on these issues.”

The series aligns with a new course Conrad is teaching this fall, also called DEI and Physical Education. It focuses on business and ethical issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in professional, amateur and international sports from the perspectives of athletes, teams, leagues, sports organizations and fans.

While the lessons focus on textbook theories and classroom discussions, Conrad said combining it with the speaker array will help his students understand these topics in a new way.

“When you hear people who have been on the front lines of a lot of these issues, it adds another dimension, it adds depth to the learning experience,” he said.

keep history in mind

Varriale-Barker is also working on this in the class she teaches at Columbia University. For example, she invited Allums to share his experiences with her class. He spoke about becoming a man, what that was like in terms of participating in sport, the freedom that came from becoming a person, a gender, a gender that reflected who [he]was on the inside.”

What was most powerful for Varriale-Barker and her students was hearing Allums describe how “exercise was a vehicle to help Kye manage anxiety and psychological issues.”

Varriale-Barker said athletes like Allums are the reason she works on these issues.

“For me, the legal issues are intertwined with the ethical and the big questions of life – what is my higher self? How do I live authentically? How do I support other people to live authentically?” she said.

What’s next

The next speaker event will focus on doping and cheating surrounding the Nike Elite Running Team. Kara Goucher, Olympic long-distance runner, will talk about her book on Monday, November 14 at 4 p.m The longest racewhich will debut in March 2023 and delve into the “secret world of abuse, doping and deception of the Nike Elite Running Team”.

Registration is open to all members of the Fordham community and the general public.

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