Changing the Game

I’ll be honest. I’ve been wanting to see a documentary like Michael Barnett’s Changing the Game for a long time.  No matter where I fall on any issue, I need to understand both sides. When I first heard the story of transgender high school athletes, I knew I had to reserve judgment on the subject either way and Changing the Game makes important arguments that need to be heard.

The landscape of high school athletics changed recently with the inclusion of transgender athletes in sports and whether their chosen identity puts them at an unfair advantage. Barnett’s documentary follows three such students.

Mack Beggs is a transgender male wrestler in Texas. According to the state’s rules, Mack must wrestle is the girl’s division, because his birth certificate says he’s female. Mack is in the process of transitioning and takes testosterone giving him more male features and increased muscle strength. Mack is currently undefeated in the girls wrestling. When asked, Mack would prefer to wrestle in the boy’s division, because he is a boy.

Sarah Rose Huckman is a transgender female completes in long-distance running in New Hampshire. Along with athletics, she has a YouTube channel and is involved as an activist for the transgender community. Finally, Andraya Yearwood is a transgender female track star. She is also the top female runner in Connecticut and in 2017 she won first place in the girls 100- and 200-meter dashes.

“The landscape of high school athletics changed recently with the inclusion of transgender athletes in sports…”

I’ll start by saying that Changing the Game is solidly behind its transgender subjects. Each tells their personal struggles about being born as the wrong gender and the secrets they kept from parents and friends, and the backlash they face in the public arena of sports. Sarah and Andraya also have a fantastic support system in their parents, friends, coaches, and school system. Mack is unique as he was raised by his grandparents (who still struggle with his preferred pronouns) and a state-system forcing him to compete in the wrong division.

While the documentary supports the cause of these three students, the other side of the debate is laid out primarily by the angry mob. At each victory, the students are jeered by outraged parents. The camera then cuts to the obscenity-laced tirades of the homophobic masses. One angry parent unleashes on the camera crew stating Andraya’s victory isn’t fair to the rest of the girls, who worked hard all year, but can’t possibly compete against her. One somewhat sympathetic parent says that while the school administration may not have failed the transgender athletes, it did fail the rest.

If there was a point that bothered me the most, it was made by Andraya’s coach, who described the overarching goal of school athletics as to teach life lessons through sports. The objectives of school athletics is a much more complicated answer than that. In general, we teach all our kids the concepts of teamwork, working hard, and doing your best. The goal of athletics takes on a different form when it becomes something different as you whittle down the pack to the smallest .01 percenters—and the kids compete for the top spot. This is where rules, fairness, and this debate play a bigger role.

“…brought to light several questions I had about the issue and painted an empathetic story of each athlete.”

One point in the documentary that I absolutely agree with is in no case did any of these athletes decide to “become” transgender just so they can rank number one in the state and earn huge athletic scholarships. It’s hard to imagine anyone would put his/her body through the rigorous hormonal reassignment treatments, nor the social ridicule, just to win. What is then left with are transgendered teens who just want to play in their respective sports to the best of their abilities.

That said, my frustration with Changing the Game does nothing to address any real solutions or compromise to the debate. The conclusion simply is “let them play.” Personally, I have at least a half-a-dozen logical questions, that the documentary refuses even to come close to addressing.

Changing the Game does give an honest look into the transgender-side of high school athletics. It brought to light several questions I had about the issue and painted an empathetic story of each athlete. If you don’t believe transgender athletes should compete, I would implore you to watch this doc and then have a discussion.

What the film succeeds in doing so show the side of the debate, we’re afraid to address as armchair quarterbacks and force you to factor the dreams and desires of these kids as you form a final opinion. The whole situation is not fair. It’s not fair for either side.

Changing the Game (2019) Directed by Michael Barnett. Written by Michael Barnett, Amanda C. Griffin.

7.5 out of 10 stars

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