Women’s pro disc-golf event in P.E.I. cancelled over sport’s policy on trans athletes

The Disc Golf Pro Tour has scrapped its women’s division at an event scheduled to take place on Prince Edward Island over concerns with the sport’s policy on trans athletes.

Several hundred competitors from around the world were set to compete in Rose Valley, P.E.I., this September in Canada’s first professional disc-golf tournament. 

But tour organizers announced over the weekend that the women’s division was being cancelled in P.E.I. and several U.S. states.

The decision follows two lawsuits in the U.S. by Natalie Ryan, a transgender female disc golfer who is no longer eligible to play under new rules issued by the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA).

“Competitive fairness is the underpinning of the Disc Golf Pro Tour [DGPT], the professional disc golf industry, and all of elite, competitive sport worldwide,” tour CEO Jeff Spring said in a written statement.

“We will not waver on the PDGA Gender Eligibility Policy … This said, I also want to affirm the concept that you can simultaneously respect and support transgender people and support competitive fairness.

“These are not mutually exclusive concepts, and the DGPT will continue to show respect to all people involved while thinking creatively about long-term solutions for this challenging issue.”

A nuanced topic

Benjamin Smith is the owner of Flick Line Disc Golf and the lead organizer of the Disc Mania Open on P.E.I. He said a change of this magnitude this late in the season puts organizers in a tough position.

“From our standpoint, it’s somewhat chaotic to be seven-plus weeks ahead of an event and not know for sure if half the genders, or a third of your participants, are going to compete or not, and what that looks like,” he said.

“It’s hard to overstate how important and unique [this pro event] is in Canadian history. And this just kind of is our foot in the door for showing off how fantastic the province of P.E.I. is, and how high-quality the disc golf is here.”

Smith believes losing the women’s event altogether is a huge loss.

Sporting organizations of all kinds are wrestling with gender policies, trying to balance inclusion with safety and fairness, says the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC NEWS)

“I have a daughter. Many people are connected to young women connected in sport, and you’ll hear time and time again, if they can see idols, if they can see people achieving these things ahead of them, it helps them envision playing sport more,” Smith said.

“I understand this topic is a nuanced one, with many potential factors we have to consider. And anybody that says it’s a simple decision one way or the other, clearly isn’t thinking about all the parties involved.”

New policy issued in January

The PDGA Gender Eligibility Policy released in January limits entry in the women’s division to trans women who medically transitioned pre-puberty or are taking other steps that keep their testosterone levels below a certain level. 

But P.E.I. Transgender Network chair of advocacy Andrea MacPherson said cisgender women can have testosterone levels outside that range, too.

“Inherently, in sports, genetics do create unfairness,” MacPherson said. 

“If you look at the world of men’s swimming, Michael Phelps has a genetic anomaly that he doesn’t produce as much lactic acid as any other male, which is why he’s able to swim for so much longer. Is that an unfair advantage? It is. 

A woman with long hair stands in front of a microphone while standing outdoors.
Andrea MacPherson with the P.E.I. Transgender Network said elite athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps and NBA basketball players benefit from a different kind of genetic advantage all the time. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

“So do you regulate that everyone must have a certain amount of lactic acid percentage? You get your NBA superstars who are over seven feet. Not everyone can be seven feet. Should you have a maximum or minimum height for NBA players? I mean, the world of sports is full of natural advantages in genetics.”

How do you protect women’s sport by removing the women entirely, let alone just the trans women?— Andrea MacPherson, P.E.I. Transgender Network

MacPherson added that the decision to do away with the women’s event entirely is hard to understand, given that competitive fairness is being cited.

“So much of the arguments around excluding trans women is to protect women’s sport. But in this case, they’re completely removing all women. So how do you protect women’s sport by removing the women entirely, let alone just the trans women?” MacPherson said.

“It’s very much saying, ‘This sport is not inclusive of anyone but cis men.’ And if you’re trying to build a new sport, that seems an odd place to start.”

‘It’s certainly not black and white’

Disc Golf P.E.I., meanwhile, is working hard to show just how inclusive the sport can be.

Director of media operations Rafe Hambly said the group plans to hold a fundraising event to support the trans community. 

A man in a red shirt sits in front of a desk
Rafe Hambly with Disc Golf P.E.I. says the sport can be inclusive. (Submitted)

“These are things and steps we were trying to make [to] show we were pushing in that right direction, and obviously having a decision like this takes us a step back. But we’re definitely still committed to making sure the impact is minimized as much as possible in the community.”

As well, the local organizers behind P.E.I.’s pro tournament still plan to have a top level women’s event with prize money, but it won’t be an official pro event with tour points and livestreaming coverage.

It’s not easy.If it was, we’d have it all figured out by now… I think if we had the silver bullet, everyone would follow it and it’d be a non-issue.— Karri Dawson, Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports

Debates like this are more complicated at the elite sporting level, according to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports.

The centre’s executive director of values-based sport, Karri Dawson, said sporting organizations of all kinds are wrestling with gender policies, trying to balance inclusion with safety and fairness. 

A long haired woman stands in front of a white background looking at the camera.
Karri Dawson with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports says inclusivity tends to become more controversial at higher levels of sport. (Submitted)

“In the notion of how a trans athlete progresses through a sports system, they may be welcome at the community level, and they may be able to progress to a certain level. But when the stakes get higher, often people are feeling less inclusive at that point,” she said.

“It’s certainly not black and white, and more and more is being learned about it, more and more research is being done. It’s a good conversation to be having.

“It’s not easy. If it was, we’d have it all figured out by now… I think if we had the silver bullet, everyone would follow it and it’d be a non-issue.”

No one from the DGPT was made available for an interview, but a spokesperson said the tour is focused on coming up with a long-term solution. 

a disc golf basket is seen close up
Disc golf is similar to regular golf, but instead of using clubs to propel a ball into a small hole in the ground, players throw a plastic disc that looks like a Frisbee into a target that looks like a basket made of metal chains. (James Young/CBC)

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