A "Cap Tie" Rule for Elite Trans Athletes
This one rule could help move forward the ongoing debate over inclusion
In international soccer there is a regulatory concept called being “cap tied.” In short, it means that once an athlete has played a competitive match for a particular country, that athlete is no longer eligible to play for another country. A “cap” is soccer shorthand for having played in a game representing one’s country. Elite athletes are “tied” to the first country they played for in international competition, regardless of their legal citizenship and if that status changes.
A similar regulation in elite sport for trans athletes would mean that any athlete that competed at an elite level in a particular sport as a man or a woman would thereafter be ineligible to change categories for purposes of competition, regardless of whether change occurs in their legal gender.
Let’s take a look at the “cap tie” rule used by FIFA and I’ll explain how it might be applied in the case of trans athletes. The FIFA Statutes explain what is meant by nationality:
There is a distinction between holding a nationality and being eligible to obtain a nationality. A player holds a nationality if, through the operation of a national law, they have: (a) automatically received a nationality (e.g. from birth) without being required to undertake any further administrative requirements (e.g. abandoning a separate nationality); or(b) acquired a nationality by undertaking a naturalisation process.
So there are two categories here: Individuals who have nationality from birth and those individuals who have changed nationality. The parallel for gender is obvious:
there are cisgender athletes who have maintain a continuity of male or female since birth, and
those who have changed categories, from woman to man or vice versa
FIFA’s “cap-tie” rule applies to national associations (like U.S. Soccer or the English Football Association). This is how it reads:
[A]ny player who has already participated in a match (either in full or in part) in an official competition of any category or any type of football for one association may not play an international match for a representative team of another association.
For players who have not participated in international competition, FIFA does have a set of procedures that can be followed for that player to change nationalities, among them, having changed nationalities prior to competing at any level for the association.
How would a “cap tie” rule be applied in the case of eligibility for men’s and women’s competition categories in elite sport?
Those who maintain a male and female categorization continuously from birth would be eligible for competition in the men’s and women’s categories, respectively. No sex testing or other confirmation of identity is necessary.
Those who change categories – transitioning from one to the other – would have their eligibility regulated.
Among those regulations would be a “cap tie” rule that would make an athlete ineligible for competing in a second gender category if they had already competed in the other. The level at which this line would be drawn would have to be debated and discussed, but certainly internationally (like FIFA) and likely also at the national championship level and also the NCAA level. It may or may not make sense to apply this rule below that (such as in high schools).
As with FIFA, there would need to be more detailed regulations for exceptions to the rule -- such as for trans men in certain sports or for trans women in sports where the issue of advantage is less important, such as archery or shooting.
World Athletics, in its regulations governing trans athletes already has a reverse “cap tie” rule, that places restrictions on athletes changing categories a second time:
Once a Transgender athlete has satisfied the relevant eligibility requirements and has started participating in International Competition in the category of competition consistent with his/her gender identity, he/she may not then switch back to participating in the other gender category in International Competition unless and until (a) at least four years have passed since the first International Competition in which he/she participated as a Transgender athlete; and (b) he/she satisfies all of the conditions for eligibility to compete in the other gender category.
A cap-tie rule, in my view, should eliminate most of the controversy over trans athletes, focused specifically on trans women. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, the issue of unfair advantage is not simply about biology. It is also about the opportunity to utilize one’s biology to achieve elite athlete status through specialized training and intensive practice over many years. There is a meaningful difference between an elite athlete who transitions and someone who transitions and later seeks to become an elite athlete.
Would a “cap tie” rule limit opportunities for some transgender athletes? Yes. Just like the “cap tie” rule governing nationality limits some opportunities for athletes. A “cap tie” rule for transgender athletes is consistent with established precedents for regulating eligibility, but at the same time it is consistent with the IOC Fairness Framework in that it would allow for the possibility of inclusion for the vast majority of trans individuals.
Of course, sport-specific regulations and the evaluation of individual athletes would still be necessary to ensure that reasonable accommodations are made for inclusion. These steps will be necessary regardless of any “cap tie” rule.
It is likely that a “cap tie” rule will prove unpopular to some. On the one hand it limits participation, which may be opposed by those calling for no regulation of participation. On the other hand, it opens the door to meaningful inclusion, which may be opposed by those calling for outright bans on participation. Even so, I am hopeful that the vast majority who are not at the extremes of this issue will see a “cap tie” rule as a pragmatic and fair approach to making reasonable accommodations for inclusion.
For further reading (by request): Pielke Jr., R. 2022 (in press). Making Sense of Debate Over Transgender Athletes in Olympic Sport, Chapter in H. Lenskyj and A. Greey 2022, eds. (in press). Sport, Sex, and Difference: The Struggle for Trans Athletes’ Justice in the 21st Century, (Emerald Publishers).