BUFFALO, N.Y. — With social change moving quickly across the professional sports landscape, the National Women’s Hockey League was playing catch-up. For the past three months, the only professional sports league in North America with an openly transgender player had no transgender policy in place.
Now, the architects of new guidelines for such players in the NWHL say the fledgling four-team league, in only its second season of existence, is prepared to take a leading position when it comes to treatment of transgender players.
“This is really a groundbreaking policy in professional sports, and specifically in women’s professional sports,” said Chris Mosier, vice president for program development and community relations for You Can Play, an organization that works to combat discrimination against athletes because of sexual orientation or gender identity. You Can Play and the National Center for Lesbian Rights were consultants for the NWHL guidelines.
“Being a women’s league, they want to make sure their players are protected,” said Mosier, a professional triathlete and transgender man who competed for the U.S. national team at the sprint duathlon world championships in June. “This is a really unique opportunity for them on taking the lead that others can look to as one to replicate.”
The league is unveiling its policy at the end of a year in which the International Olympic Committee revamped its guidelines to reflect the latest scientific and legal attitudes on the issue, making it less onerous for transgender athletes to compete at the Olympic Games. Those IOC guidelines — which no longer require athletes to undergo sexual reassignment surgery — served as a template for the NWHL, Mosier said.
The policy also arrives at the end of a month in which North Carolina legislators rejected an attempt to repeal a state law that requires transgender people in public buildings to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate.
“It’s a unique opportunity to continue to move the conversation forward and accelerate that social progress and to be that benchmark,” said Dani Rylan, the NWHL’s commissioner, “and to remain approachable and available for these discussions.”
The NWHL was propelled into the national conversation on transgender issues on Oct. 7, when Harrison Browne, a 23-year-old forward for the Buffalo Beauts, came out publicly as a transgender man in an article on ESPN.com that was published hours before the start of the season. Browne played as Hailey Browne during the league’s inaugural season, 2015-16.
“It was a nudge in the right direction after Harrison approached us this fall,” said Rylan, who oversaw the changing of Browne’s player profile name and pronouns on the NWHL website.
The guidelines are three pages with a stated purpose of supporting “athletes choosing to express their gender beyond the binary of female and male.”
The most restrictive conditions relate to those who make a transition from male to female, circumstances that typically have raised questions about fairness. An athlete cannot change her gender again for a minimum of four years and must demonstrate that her testosterone level is “within typical limits of women athletes,” subject to testing.
The new policy comes during an otherwise rocky season for the league. With attendance down, player salaries — between $10,000 and $26,000 — were slashed by more than a third last month, a measure that surprised players and called into question the viability of the NWHL.
Although Rylan and players have agreed not to discuss details of their continuing negotiations, she said, “We made sure we won’t have to cut salaries again.”
On Friday, the NWHL announced that it had enacted a revenue-sharing arrangement on Dec. 1 in which 100 percent of ticket sales beyond the first 500 sold for each regular-season game will be split among the players on the home and visiting teams.
Browne said he was optimistic the league would endure but would not commit to playing beyond this season. He has one goal and two assists through nine games with the Beauts (3-5-0-1). And he plans to begin a physical transition, including testosterone therapy — which is prohibited under the guidelines — after his professional hockey career has ended.
Browne said he came out for personal reasons, not necessarily for transgender advocacy. Still, he has found himself advising parents and transgender high school athletes, who reach out to him, on how to come out to teammates. His robust social media following has made him a popular transgender figure. League merchandise with his name on it ranks third in sales, behind that of Amanda Kessel of the New York Riveters and Hilary Knight of the Boston Pride, who are both U.S. Olympians.
“I feel accomplished that I was able to get the ball rolling on that and save some grief for any trans player that may come into the league after me,” said Browne, who did not have any say on drafting the policy.
“I think it’s very inclusive,” he said. “I don’t think it’s discriminatory at all. I think it’s very fair.”
Joanna Harper is a medical physicist at Providence Portland Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, who has studied transgender distance runners. A transgender woman, she has advised the IOC on its gender guidelines.
“Transgender women will have advantages,” she said, noting that transgender women had never dominated in any sport. “Specifically, transgender women are taller, larger, they have more muscle mass. Those are all facts.”
Still, Harper compared a transgender woman with suppressed testosterone to a large model car with a small engine. She would be competing against a smaller car with a smaller engine, and might not enjoy the advantages often assumed.
“In hockey, getting up and down the ice, there may be disadvantages that a transgender woman may have,” she said, noting that the best hockey players, male or female, had not always been the biggest and strongest. “Just because a transgender woman is bigger doesn’t necessarily mean what you may think. It’s much more complicated.”
Noting that athletes came in different shapes and sizes, Rylan sounded a note of optimism about the NWHL and its new guidelines.
“We still hold tryouts in our league,” she said. “We are always looking for the best 68 players in the world to play in the league.”