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Mismatched athletes

SPORTS | Calls for legal protections grow as teenage girls suffer sports injuries inflicted by males

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Mismatched athletes
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During a Massachusetts high school field hockey playoff game in early November, a player for host Swampscott High sent a hard-hit shot rocketing toward the goal. Instead of whizzing past the goalkeeper into the back of the net, the hard plastic ball struck a defending player from Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High just above her lip, causing the girl significant facial injuries and knocking out multiple teeth.

The player who struck the ball was a tall, muscular boy—apparently the only male on the field during the match between two ­otherwise all-girl teams.

The incident in Swampscott, Mass., where state rules require that schools let boys compete on girls’ teams if they so choose, highlighted a problem that’s gaining increasing attention in girls’ team sports: The ­presence of taller, stronger, faster-running, higher-jumping, harder-hitting males ­presents a real danger for their female ­opponents. That’s prompted parents, coaches, female athletes, and others to speak out.

The problem has become especially ­pronounced as high schools let boys who self-identify as “transgender” join girls’ teams. Massachusetts doesn’t require such identification, and the Swampscott boy who arguably hit shots far harder than his female teammates reportedly did not claim to be a girl.

Still, other cases of sports injuries inflicted by boys identifying as girls have cropped up across the country over the past year or so. Now, legislators in multiple states are aiming to prevent more of the same in the name of “inclusion.”

For example, a troubling report from Green Bay, Wis., caught the attention of state Rep. Shae Sortwell in August: Several parents had pulled their daughters from a school sports team after the girls suffered welts and bruises during practices.

Those injuries allegedly came at the hands—or perhaps feet—of a player who identified as transgender. (Out of privacy concerns, news outlets reporting on the story did not name the school or sport.)

“The parents were concerned for their safety,” said Sortwell, a Republican. “I can’t say I blame ’em.”

Sortwell is championing AB 377, a bill that would prohibit males from competing on a girls’ sports team at public schools. The Wisconsin Assembly passed the bill Oct. 12, and it was awaiting a hearing in the Republican-controlled Senate when WORLD went to press. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has vowed to veto AB 377 and any similar bills that reach his desk.

In another incident in 2022, a male high school rugby player in Guam who identified as transgender injured three female opponents. The injured girls’ coach said the male player’s body size, strength, and aggressiveness posed a danger to the girls on his team.

Girls’ field hockey players charge down a field.

Girls’ field hockey players charge down a field. James Nesterwitz/Alamy

Payton McNabb, a former volleyball player for Hiwassee Dam High School in North Carolina suffered ­perhaps the most high-profile injury. During a match last fall, a player for Highlands School who identifies as transgender forcefully spiked the ball in McNabb’s direction at high speed. Video footage of the incident shows McNabb, then 17 years old, falling backward after the ball ricochets off her face and into the net.

“At first, it was kind of, like, a little bit humiliating,” McNabb told me in a phone interview. “But mostly, I was feeling anger and confusion: This shouldn’t have happened. How was it allowed to happen?

“My teammates were scared to ­continue the game,” she added, “and yet [Highlands] didn’t take the transgender player out.”

The spike to McNabb’s face caused injuries severe enough to end her senior volleyball season: She suffered a concussion as well as permanent injuries to her neck and head. She has impaired vision and partial paralysis on her right side and suffers from cognitive issues as well as depression and anxiety.

Twenty-three states have enacted laws restricting male athletes from competing on girls’ and women’s ­athletic teams, according to ESPN. In some, high school athletic associations haven’t waited around for their legislatures to act: In October, the Alaska School Activities Association adopted a new rule prohibiting transgender athletes from competing in girls’ sports after the state’s Legislature repeatedly failed to enact a law to that effect.

Twenty-three states have enacted laws restricting male athletes from competing on girls’ and women’s athletic teams.

“Ladies are being injured psychologically,” said Sortwell, the Wisconsin lawmaker. “They’re being injured ­physically. They’re having opportunities stolen from them by transgender ­athletes who are significantly heavier, significantly stronger, and have the potential to significantly injure young ladies.”

Despite her injuries, McNabb is grateful for one very positive development: She told her story before North Carolina’s legislature earlier this year—and convinced lawmakers to enact a bill protecting girls from being endangered by male athletes in the future.

Even better, the bill received enough votes to override the veto of North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper.

“The Lord let it happen for a reason,” McNabb, a Christian, said of the injurious spike. “It was an unfortunate event, but some good came out of it.”

Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD who has covered sports professionally for three decades. He is also a licensed attorney who lives in Keizer, Ore., with his wife Pauline and daughter Ava.



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