For Bruce Jenner, an even greater sports legacy

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Bruce Jenner attends the 13th annual Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational gala on April 4, 2014, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational)

By Marie Hardin

It started as tabloid fodder and has been ridiculed for its connection to low-brow Kardashian reality TV. But Bruce Jenner’s story, told in his ABC interview with Diane Sawyer on Friday night, deserves our serious attention.

Jenner’s gender transition comes at a critical moment for culture and politics. Vice President Biden in 2012 called transgender discrimination the “civil rights issue of our time.” That may be true. The Jenner story, though, goes beyond issues of civil rights and the boundaries of privacy for public figures.

It goes to sports. Sports are already woven into this story, since our collective memory is that of Jenner as 1976 Olympic decathlon champion.

It might be easy to dismiss the connection, but that would be short-sighted. Sports display our collective cultural values. The touchstone example is Jackie Robinson and desegregation, but the discussion about domestic violence after the Ray Rice case last year shows that sports are always socially relevant.

They are critical in our understanding of gender and sexuality. Case in point: Think about the way they’re played. Gender segregation from a very young age — boys on this field, girls on that one — is the norm.

It’s no coincidence that a young Jenner turned to sports as a foil for his gender struggles. Who can doubt the masculinity of a muscle-bound decathlon champion, even as he is “consumed with fear” about his identity, as Jenner says he was?

Our biggest sports provide a stage for traditional gender displays. Take the NFL. Fans watch aggression on the field, displayed by hulking men. Cameras cut away to dancing on the sidelines by curvy, scantily clad women. The assumption — unless we’re otherwise told — is that all participants are straight.

Historically, when things happen in sports that don’t align with our understanding of gender and sexuality, we’ve struggled. What about athletes who don’t easily fit our definitions of male and female? There is no third choice. Instead, we’ve tried to make them fit, such as through “gender testing,” a humiliating practice in Olympic sports. Perhaps the most publicized case recently was that of teenage South African runner Caster Semenya, who was deemed too masculine by officials and subjected to a variety of tests to prove she was female.

What if Jenner had tried to compete as a transgender athlete today? He couldn’t have without surgery. The International Olympic Committee allows transgender athletes only after surgical reassignment, putting them neatly in one of two categories. Crossfit, which has seen growing popularity and TV coverage in recent years, doesn’t allow transgender athletes to compete in any category.

Gay athletes have also struggled as a result of our gender binary. Sure, they may play as male or female, so they don’t challenge the two-choice model. But their sexuality doesn’t match up with our gender ideals.

Again, take the NFL. Michael Sam, one of college football’s best players when he came out as gay a year ago, is still searching for a job. His record — including as Defensive Player of the Year — demonstrates he can play. But it’s not about that.

The big-time stage doesn’t have room — yet — for players who don’t conform to traditional norms.

What does this have to do with Bruce Jenner? Jenner is the highest-profile example yet that things are changing.

We have evidence elsewhere: On college campuses, where young people are rejecting the gender binary and finding places on the continuum between male and female. The University of Vermont, for instance, offers a “third gender” designation for students.

Need more evidence?

Look at the rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage.

Look at characters in some of today’s most popular TV shows and movies.

Look at the mounting scientific evidence about the unstable foundation on which we’ve built our two-choice model.

Vive la difference is taking on a whole new meaning.

Surely, the way we play and watch sports will change. It will have to accommodate new norms, values, and kinds of athletes.

Granted, not tomorrow. Likely not in the next decade. But this is certain: Our children and grandchildren will watch a different ESPN lineup.

Will the NFL be there? It depends. Will it reflect our cultural ideals about gender?

Almost 40 years ago, as an ideally masculine competitor, Jenner put himself in the history books, and Wheaties etched him into the American psyche by putting his photo on the cover of a cereal box.

Forty years from now, Jenner could well be remembered for a much greater and longer-lasting impact on sports and society.

Marie Hardin is a researcher in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at the Pennsylvania State University.  mch208@psu.edu