Amidst a news cycle of state houses nationwide introducing about 200 pieces of legislation barring trans athletes from team sports, including one now before the Pennsylvania House, the Capital-Star spoke with former NFL player Ryan Russell. He is bisexual.
Russell is a three-year veteran who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 after a successful college career at Purdue. He played one season with the Cowboys and two for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He started in seven games for the Bucs in 2017.
Russell hopes to rejoin the league. In 2019, when he came out as bisexual in an ESPN interview, he said being out and being in the NFL shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
And, he believes, neither should trans athletes be excluded from professional or any level of sports because of who they are. In the interview, Russell said, “…other than the love for my family, playing football again in the NFL is my dream.” The same can be for transgender athletes at levels who aspire to join the game.
For one NFL meet-and-greet, Russell said he promised himself that: This is the last time I will ever interview for a job as anything other than my full self. Out of love, admiration and respect, I want the next team to sign me valuing me for what I do and knowing who I truly am.
Now he’s bringing that same enthusiastic commitment to the plight of transgender athletes in a recent article for The Guardian.
“My article brought me lots of support and encouragement. I asked people to try to understand the position of transgender athletes who are capable of playing sports at all levels,” Russell told Capital-Star.
For Russell, sports is a microcosm of our larger society representing all of our stories.
He worries that working to include trans athletes at all levels of sports may appear to others interested in social justice as yet another issue that will take away from their main focus of, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, equal pay for women, police reform, and prison reform.
“I think we need to realize that some fights need more help than others and we all need to work together to create change.” he said.
“We’re all fighting the same fight. This isn’t a competition among different demographic groups or different kinds of people. The way people are born should not eliminate them from participating in life at its fullest and at all levels in all groups. We all need to be involved,” he told the Capital-Star.
“That’s the beauty of advocacy. Although I may have a special podium from which to address important issues, I would prefer to have 100 advocates with smaller platforms. That way creating change is more of a communal experience, same as sports” he said.
Russell feels strongly that we all need to drop the old ways of viewing each other regardless of who we are. Headlines from the day of our phone interview may indicate the initial vehemence with which anti-trans sports and other related bills were introduced may not sit well with the general public.
Where the general public and elected officials stand in their respective state legislatures is a difficult and constantly changing pulse to take.
A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that even most Republicans oppose the attacks on transgender children.
Only 29 percent of Republicans said they “support a bill that prohibits transgender student athletes from joining sports teams that match their gender identity.
Averaged across all political affiliations, the bills mandating genital examinations or excluding the girls altogether only garner 28 percent support. 67 percent oppose the measures.” The poll is important because the plethora of bills have been introduced in mainly GOP-controlled legislatures.
Despite polling, four state legislatures – Arizona, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Dakota – passed anti-LGBTQ bills this week. Both Arizona and Tennessee passed laws banning teachers from mentioning LGBTQ people without parental approval. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed that state’s bill. Alabama and North Dakota passed laws banning transgender girls from participating in school sports. North Dakota’s bill was vetoed by Gov. Doug Burgum. All four states have Republican governors.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed similar legislation this month, but the Republican-majority legislature overrode the veto, making it law.
Florida’s experience saw a House bill calling for genital, DNA, and hormone exams of girls who want to participate in sports as a way to exclude trans athletes stall this week when its state Senate debated a similar measure.
North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger through a spokesman this week indicated he thought there is no path forward for a GOP bill banning health care treatment for transgender teens, making a floor vote unlikely.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, has vetoed a bill passed by her Republican-controlled Legislature barring transgender girls from playing school sports.
“This legislation sends a devastating message that Kansas is not welcoming to all children and their families, including those who are transgender — who are already at a higher risk of bullying, discrimination, and suicide,” Kelly said in a statement, according to KMBC-TV.
Last week, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, also a Democrat, strongly opposed anti-trans legislation as his state lawmakers considered numerous proposals targeting transgender youth.
In Pennsylvania, long-time supporter of queer civil rights, Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, said in a statement that “representatives who truly are tapped into their youth sports communities know that teams and leagues have overwhelmingly welcomed trans athletes, accepted them for who they are, and quickly gotten to the business of training to improve skills and bonding to build relationships.”
“Truly, nobody is asking for this. It was dreamed up in a laboratory of wedge issues, not on a soccer field or at a swim practice. This is about campaign fundraising, not girls or women or sports,” Frankel said.
Is there a sea change ahead?
“We are not our forefathers and it’s important that we move in the direction that will improve all of our lives. That means we have a responsibility to challenge ourselves on what we know or what we think we know about each other,” Russell concluded.
Opinion contributor Frank Pizzoli is the former editor and publisher of the Central Voice. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.