In Fair Play, Reporter Katie Barnes Steps Off The Sidelines

Their new book is an excellent guide for thinking about gender in sports.

ESPN writer Katie Barnes and their new book about transgender people in sports, 'Fair Play.'

For the majority of Katie Barnes’ award-winning career at ESPN, they’ve been writing about gender in sports and uplifting marginalized voices in debates about transgender people’s participation. But since the journalist values impartiality in reporting, they rarely let their own opinions about policy spill into interviews or articles.

Fortunately for us, in Barnes’ new book, Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates, they finally reveal what readers, onlookers, and interviewees have prodded at for years: What do you think is fair?

“I don’t normally answer, but I think it’s time that I do,” they write near the end of the book, after providing a history of legislation and introducing readers to a handful of transgender athletes. “I cannot accept a system that would allow for transgender youth to be affirmed in the classroom but be othered on a sports team,” Barnes writes. “I also cannot accept a system that mandates hormone therapy or medical treatment to participate in school sports. Morally and philosophically, I simply cannot get there.” (Barnes believes that policies get murkier with higher-level sports like collegiate and Olympic competitions.)

Their breakdown provides an excellent guideline for all ages, keeping the concept of “fairness” top of mind — “a path to participation is my belief at all levels,” they write. In entirety, the book in is a thought-provoking dive into the lives of athletes and their fight to participate in the sports they love.

As for how Barnes brought together so much reporting and nuance into one great read, they sit down with Bustle to fill in the blanks.

“I feel very duty bound to our community to do [this work], and I feel called to do it, not necessarily on a religious level but certainly vocationally.”

In the introduction of Fair Play, you mention that your mom said to you “You have always been nonbinary.” Hearing that from a parent must have been so validating. What do you think other parents could learn from that kind of allyship?

It was very affirming and validating. I remember driving with [my mom once,] and she asked me to define “genderqueer” for her. She was also on a journey and had to come to that understanding herself. But she never allowed her own curiosity or confusion to affect her ability to love me as her child. She just didn’t know what that word meant.

[As for what other parents can learn,] it’s not always important that you fully understand why the person in your life uses the language that they do to describe themselves. It’s most important that you lead with love and allow them to be who they are.

That makes sense. I like that framing of “You don’t have to understand it to accept it.” In terms of actually writing Fair Play, what was your day-to-day process like?

I’m a morning writer. I do not write well later in the day. I’m also a procrastinator, so sometimes, especially as I was finishing the manuscript, I would set roadblocks. I didn’t allow myself to do something until I’d [hit my daily] word count.

Before even sitting down to write, I did a lot of reporting. Some of it, of course, is based on refreshes of previous reporting that I have done, but there’s a ton of new stuff in here too.

Did you take time off to write the book or keep up with the same cadence of your other reporting work?

I worked the entire time [at my full-time job]. The two years I spent working on the manuscript were probably two of the most productive years of my professional career. There were mornings where I’d work on a book chapter from 5 to 7 a.m., then I’d work on a piece for [ESPN] from 7 to 10 a.m. As a features reporter, I have time and space in my professional job, so it was just a matter of making sure I was doing the job that I was hired to do at ESPN.

Reading the book as a trans person, I had to put it down and take some breaths, especially when we’re talking about legislation, just the mountains of hateful verbiage that people are using against trans people. What does your self-care routine, if any, look like when you’re spending the daytime diving into this kind of stuff? How do you maintain the energy?

I’m very good at compartmentalizing, for better or worse. But there are times where, even for me, compartmentalizing can be very difficult. I feel very duty bound to our community to do [this work], and I feel called to do it, not necessarily on a religious level but certainly vocationally.

What I learned through the process of writing this book is that I need to be more intentional. I need to set boundaries, and I got better at it. I would take time for myself. If I got overwhelmed, I would give myself a guilt-free morning to do something else. I love playing video games, so I would play Red Dead Redemption 2 or a few rounds of FIFA. Or my wife and I would go to the beach. And I gave myself permission to enjoy my life, even as I was feeling both the doom and gloom of what’s happening around us, when it comes to [the LGBTQ+] communities, and also the pressure to finish a book. That could be really all-consuming, and for a while it was, until I figured out how to offload some of that from my shoulders.

Did you have a specific audience in mind who you were writing to?

I wanted the book to be useful for a variety of communities. When I hear that folks who are trans learned something from Fair Play, that’s really exciting to me. I wanted [it to be helpful for] folks who were asking questions and for those who were looking for strategies to have conversations with family members. I really think there’s something in there for everybody if they are open to having a meaningful, nuanced conversation about a really complex issue.

What do you want readers to take away from Fair Play?

I hope readers re-inject nuance into their thinking around the various questions about transgender athlete participation in girls’ and women’s sports in particular, but all athletes in all sports more broadly. Nuance has been sorely lacking in this conversation.

I also think that, over time as there’s been an increasing focus on policy and science, it’s begun to strip away the humanity from trans people, both as a community but also from specific athletes. We see that with Lia Thomas, Andraya Yearwood, and Mack Beggs to a certain degree. I hope that folks remember that there are real people at play. These people have feelings and perspectives and lives.

You ended up diving into your own opinions on the debate of transgender participation in sports. When you set out to write this book, did you intend to do that?

I didn’t anticipate that I’d declaratively state my opinion. I was getting asked this question over and over, and I kept ducking it and dodging it, for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, I felt like, after I’d spent so much time presenting these ideas to the reader and sharing bits of myself, that I owed it to them to just answer the question to the best of my ability.

What’s currently inspiring you?

I’m inspired by the resilience of queer and trans people everywhere, every day. I sit in a really privileged position — it does not escape me — and I hear stories of our community, and it just never ceases to amaze me what people are capable of in the face of oppression. The fact that we, as a community, continue to celebrate and experience joy is pretty amazing to me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.