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Radio hosts' insensitive blast of transsexual athlete comes under fire

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

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Gabrielle Ludwig, far right, is pictured with her Mission College teammates. (Gabrielle Ludwig/Facebook)

We've come fairly far as a sports society in blotting out bigotry and ignorance, and yet there are still instances when 2012 reeks of 1865. Case in point: The conversation had by radio hosts Steve Czaban, Andy Pollin and Chris Knoche last Thursday about college basketball player Gabrielle Ludwig.

USA Today's Eric Prisbell wrote a powerful and lengthy feature on Ludwig, a transsexual athlete who made her debut for tiny Mission College (Santa Clara, Calif.) a couple of weeks ago in a California tournament. Prisbell's story makes Ludwig's heartbreaking journey clear, with passages outlining her "one failed suicide attempt, two failed marriages; one 19-year-old daughter who insists on calling her dad, two girls who insist on calling her Momma Gabbi."

And yet the three amigos on ESPN 980 in Washington D.C. called her something besides a survivor. They called Ludwig "it."

In their attempt to make some sort of point, though it's not clear exactly what that point is, Czaban, Pollin and Knoche crossed a line. Commenting on a photo of Ludwig, one quipped, "That's a man, baby" in his best Austin Powers voice, and "That could be a Russian chick."

You get the idea. It was the kind of low-brow humor that should never come from the lips of a junior high school student, let alone a member of the paid media. Czaban also hosts a show on Yahoo! Sports Radio, though these comments were made during his show on ESPN Radio.

The radio hosts also expressed disapproval of Ludwig playing college basketball at all, saying, "Whatever you've got to do to scratch that inner itch and quell those inner demons, that's fine. But don't go playing sports then. And don't go playing sports saying, 'But I've got the rights of everyone else.' "

Because a radio host is the true arbiter of human rights.

The group was blasted by Helen Carroll, sports project director of the National Center of Lesbian Rights (and a former women's basketball coach): "The horrific comments by ESPN's Radio's Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin show a level of disrespect and harmful rhetoric that is inexcusable," Carroll told Outsports.com.

Czaban and his colleagues apologized on air, though Outsports called it "among the least sincere non-apologies in history." ESPN 980 has since disciplined the trio "swiftly and internally," but it's not known exactly how or to what extent.

"Everyone's entitled to their own opinion," said Ludwig's coach Corey Cafferata. "Gabrielle's doing great in school and getting it done on the court."

The larger issue here is not some guys going Beavis and Butthead on the radio. It's how little is known about what the term "transgender" means, particularly when it comes to the fields of athletics. There's an important discussion to be had about the supposed physiological advantage a transgender athlete may have on a basketball court, but Czaban, Pollin and Knoche didn't even come close to having it.

According to glaad.org, "'Transgender' is an umbrella term often used to refer to people whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth." It's a broad definition, one that incorporates people who may or may not "pursue hormone therapy or surgery." The term "transsexual" usually means someone who has had surgery, though "transgender" also applies to those individuals.

In 2003, the International Olympic Committee became the first international sports organization to allow transgender athletes to compete. To qualify, an athlete must have undergone a gonadectomy (a sex change operation) two years prior, must have legal recognition of their gender assignment and hormonal therapy must be "administered in a verifiable manner and for a sufficient length of time to minimise gender-related advantages in sport competitions," according to the IOC's Statement of the Stockholm consensus on sex reassignment in sports.

The NCAA (which Mission College is not a member of) definition is less stringent, stating it "will allow transgender student-athletes to participate in sex-separated sports activities so long as the athlete's use of hormone therapy is consistent with the NCAA policies and current medical standards. In the case of a trans female (male to female), the student-athlete may not compete on a women's team (without changing it to a mixed team – male and female) until completing one calendar year of documented testosterone-suppression treatment.

According to a 2010 study entitled Equal Opportunity for Transgender Student Athletes, "athletic advantages a transgender girl or woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate after about one year of estrogen therapy." Gabrielle Ludwig, born Robert, underwent a sex change operation in July 2012.

"People have the misconception that there's a man out there on the court playing with women," Carroll told Yahoo! Sports by phone Tuesday. "That's incorrect."

Any so-called advantage Ludwig supposedly has should also be considered in this context: She's 50 years old. Running up and down the court with college students is impressive on its own. So is her life story, born Robert Ludwig and besieged by identity issues so overwhelming that female hormones and cross-dressing became a salve through 11 years of marriage and time served in the Navy. Ludwig had, in Prisbell's words, "a mismatched soul."

Robert Ludwig loved basketball throughout his life and just as much after the conversion, so much that Gabrielle took classes so that she could compete interscholastically. She won over her teammates, who cheered her when she was officially recognized as a woman by the state of California. Ludwig's willingness to tell her story is rare and special, considering how uncomfortable many transgender people feel without any added attention whatsoever. This woman is not trying to make the WNBA or get a shoe deal. She just wants to play.

"If the example I can set for the kids who are transgenders in high school, for the people who hate transgender people and for those learning to deal with transgenders, transsexuals, if they see me as a normal person and we are not the bogeyman and love life and raise kids just like you," Ludwig told USA Today, "maybe some of this mystery of who these people are will be taken away and there can be more blending into society."

Sadly, comments such as those made by Czaban and crew make "blending into society" all the more difficult. And painful. According to glaad.org, nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt. More than half of transgender youth report being physically attacked. Most of us can roll our eyes and dismiss the ignorance, but let's hope the next transgender athlete with a moving story to tell doesn't remember this episode and think twice.

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