Whenever someone speaks out against gender-affirming care for trans and non-binary minors a few words and phrases will inevitably pop up: dangerous, life-altering, social pressure, irreversible. All of those phrases could and should be applied to high school football, but rarely are.
Children die every year playing high school football, either directly from injuries on the field or indirectly from circumstances surrounding the game. These numbers aren’t high, rarely more than 15 a year out of 4 million American high school players annually, but they do occur.
By contrast, no child has died of gender affirming care. While there is some evidence that hormone replacement therapy and puberty blockers may be associated with long-term health effects such as an increased risk of breast cancer, the quality of life benefits of gender affirming care typically outweigh the potential negatives. As doctors do not generally perform major gender affirming surgeries on minors, most gender affirming care is merely cosmetic, social and pharmaceutical in nature.
Not surprisingly, high school football injures half a million kids each year. A quarter of these are head injuries, including concussions that can have long-term negative impact on mental health and cognitive function. While most current research on the effects of high school football injuries focuses on brain damage, 50 percent of high school and college athletes report chronic pain from injuries, including knee and back pain. Football players were the most represented group.
Half of all minors who receive gender affirming care do not report chronic pain, mental or physical, as a result of their treatment. Instead, 70 percent of trans and non-binary minors who received gender affirming care saw their depression lessen, and 40 percent saw it reduced into non-clinical range. None have reported long-term physical pain from their care. The damage that high school football does on children’s bodies is orders of magnitudes greater than ant damage that have been reported of gender affirming care in a clinical setting.
That is not to say high school football is without its health benefits. High school athletes that were benched during COVID reported a marked improvement in mental health once they were allowed back on the field. It’s also true that the rates of injuries and fatalities in high school football have been steadily dropping for nearly a century thanks to advances in safety protocols, equipment, and medicine.
However, by the numbers, it is still an incredibly dangerous activity to be pushing kids into. While there is no hard data on how many children feel pressured into become high school football players, it’s reasonable to assume that the constant hero worship of pro athletes and the chance to be cheered at school games likely draws at least some players in who might not otherwise be interested.
One could say it’s a form of indoctrination or a social contagion, as trans and non-binary youth are often accused of being a part of. It’s common to label the rise in trans and non-binary youth over the last several years as a fad, with some bigots openly comparing it to literal plagues or the mass hysteria of witch hunts. It’s rare to see that kind of accusation pointed at the massive social engine that is high school football.
And yet, high school football is more dangerous than gender affirming care in every single metric. Children who participate are more likely to die or be injured, while trans and non-binary children who get gender affirming don’t. Both high school football and gender affirming care can have positive mental health benefits, though in football’s case, they seem to be merely short-term benefits and at best do not cause any more risk of suicide. Certainly, football’s mental health benefits fail to match the well-documented quality of life improvements observed in most studies of gender affirming care.
It’s laudable to want to protect children, especially from a concept that is new and strange to a parent. That said, there is an inherent bias when weighing the negatives of gender affirming care that is not being applied to more “traditional” aspects of high school life like football. The dangers of gender affirming care are grossly exaggerated while the grim body count of football is seen as a small price to pay for community and gridiron glory.
Next year, millions of children will suit up for football, and statistically an eighth of them will get hurt. Half of them will deal with those injuries forever, and a tiny but important fraction will die. This will cause very little alarm among parent groups, who will likely be in the stands to cheer them on.
Meanwhile, more and more children will feel comfortable expressing their gender using affirming care under the direction of medical professionals and supported by their parents. Statistically, none will be injured or killed, and the vast majority will be safer and happier. Football, for all its pomp and prestige, cannot even begin to be as beneficial.