Transgender Woman Plays College Basketball to Little Controversy

Gabrielle Ludwig played college basketball as a man 25 years ago; now, she's playing as a woman.

Gabrielle Ludwig played college basketball as a man 25 years ago; now, she’s playing as a woman.

AP (“Transgender player attains college basketball first“):

The women’s basketball team at Mission College expected the bleachers to be full and the hecklers ready when its newest player made her home court debut.

In the days leading up to the game, people had plenty to say about 6-foot-6-inch, 220-pound Gabrielle Ludwig, who joined the Lady Saints as a mid-season walk-on and became, according to advocates, the first transsexual to play college hoops as both a man and a woman.


The story of how she ended up in a basketball uniform again would inspire comparisons to “The Natural” or other tales of middle-aged redemption were it not for gender. Introduced to the sport as an impressively tall 7th grade boy, she played on her high school team as Robert John Ludwig, then one season at a community college on Long Island in New York. After she dropped out, her court appearances were limited to pickup games.

The basketball bug returned 12 years ago, when her daughter from her second marriage, then 7, started playing youth basketball and Ludwig signed on as her coach. Ludwig kept coaching other people’s children when her daughter moved on to high school and still works with hundreds of middle school girls every year.

Her transition from a male coach to a female coach five years ago raised questions, but parents generally accepted her decision warmly, she said. So did the women she played with in a couple of intramural leagues.


This is, to say the least, an unusual story. And, yes, it raises some interesting questions.

It’s rather odd for a 5o-year-old to be playing college sports, period. But the various collegiate associations have rules for eligibility and age really doesn’t factor in. If Chris Weinke can win the Heisman Trophy as a 28-year-old  after a few years playing professional baseball, there’s surely no reason to deny a 5o-year-old the right to play. After all, 28 is close to the athletic peak for a male athlete; 50 is well past it for both males and females.

The transgender issue is, of course, even more controversial. A year ago, Ludwig was, legally at least, a man. Now, though, appearances notwithstanding, she isn’t.

What the naysayers do not know, she said, is that Ludwig is not the same player she was as a 24-year-old male. She has less muscle and height, because of female hormones she takes. And at her age, she has to work to keep up.

“Yeah, I hit with a little more punch down low, but that’s because I weigh 220 pounds, but I am not the only 220 woman out there,” she said. “It’s different now. My body has changed, my strength has changed, my attitude has changed.”

The various governing bodies that oversee sports concur. The advantages that elite male athletes have over their female counterparts in most sports stem mostly from hormonal differences. Ludwig no longer has those advantages.

It’s true that she’s much bigger than the average woman. Then again, so are most female college basketball players. Brittney Griner, currently starring for Baylor and widely considered the best player in the women’s game, is 6-8, weighs 208 pounds, and wears a size 17 men’s shoe. She’s bigger, in fact, than most men’s players. Does that give her an unfair advantage? Hell yes it does. But we accept that as the vagaries of life: Some people are born with advantages they can exploit. It’s not clear why it matters that Ludwig used to be a man.

Interestingly, despite some minor controversy, few seem to care. Not her teammates:

Coach Corey Cafferata worried the outside noise was getting to his players, particularly the 50-year-old Ludwig.

A pair of ESPN radio hosts had laughed at her looks, referring to her as “it.” And online threats and anonymous calls prompted the two-year college to assign the Navy veteran of Operation Desert Storm a safer parking space next to the gym and two police guards.

Last week, Ludwig gathered her 10 teammates at practice and offered to quit. This was their time to shine, she told the group of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. She didn’t want to be a distraction for the team. The other women said if Ludwig, whom they nicknamed “Big Sexy” and “Princess,” didn’t play, they wouldn’t either.

Didn’t she  know she was the glue holding the team together?

Nor her opponents:

Last weekend, during her first home game, she scored eight points in 11 minutes, Facebook friend requests from the opposing team — and not a single heckle.

Indeed, the biggest controversy seems to have been some local radio hosts—here in DC, not out in California, where she plays. Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin aren’t, as widely reported–including in the piece linked and excerpted here–“ESPN radio hosts.” They’re hosts on the local DC sports channel, which was bought a couple years back by ESPN. But they’re not broadcast nationally as part of ESPN. Indeed, Czaban actually does a morning show on the competing Yahoo Sports network.

One oddity here:

As someone living as a woman and taking female hormones since 2007, Ludwig was eligible to play in the NCAA. Transgender student athletes who have taken medication to suppress testosterone for a year may compete on women’s teams under a policy adopted last year.

The California Community College Athletic Association had another hoop for Ludwig. Because its rules base gender on a student’s birth certificate, she would need a new one. Ludwig, who had sex reassignment surgery over the summer, petitioned a judge and obtained her papers on Nov. 30.

Why is it that a birth certificate, which exists to document the circumstances of one’s birth, needs to get changed to reflect gender reassignment surgery at age 49? Come to think of it, it’s rather weird that people who change their names, as many women do when they marry, get revised birth certificates, too.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Sports, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Markey says:

    “during her first home game, she scored eight points in 11 minutes,”

    There it is.. 🙂

  2. al-Ameda says:

    A pair of ESPN radio hosts had laughed at her looks, referring to her as “it.” And online threats and anonymous calls prompted the two-year college to assign the Navy veteran of Operation Desert Storm a safer parking space next to the gym and two police guards.

    Speaking as a middle-aged white guy who has both played and followed all sports I can tell you that I’ve always thought that ESPN is a juvenile jockocracy operation. Too many of their hosts are ass-kissing idiots who worship athletes and add nothing of value while they “report” the sports news and games of hte day.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @al-Ameda: Czabe and Andy are generally fine, although they talk about pop culture and such as much as sports. Now that I have satellite radio, I prefer the national hosts, who are far better as a rule.

  4. Robert in SF says:

    Whenever transgender topics come out, I think that the trend from the objectors is usually couched in some sort of “if we allow this, then any man who ‘claims’ he’s a woman will be able to get into the little girl’s restroom and molest little girls! Think of the children !!11!”

    The slippery slope argument is the go-to objection for any sexual or gender paradigm changes (and sexuality and gender are two different aspects, not linked inextricably).

    Anyone want to join a pool before some Christianist objects to this on the grounds that they think that this allows some college age horndog or pedophile to just walk into the ladies locker room, so long as he just says he’s a woman at heart?

  5. MBunge says:

    The argument against this sort of thing is actually pretty simple and is the same as the argument against allowing that guy with artificial legs to compete against fully-legged individuals. It’s not that they necessarily get an advantage but that we cannot determine whether or not any advantage exists and, as such, cannot fairly judge the result. If Ludwig had been born a man, would she have wound up 6’6”? Is Pistorius had been born with healthy lower limbs, would be be as fast a runner as he is today? It’s not that we don’t know the answer to those questions. It’s that there no way to ever know the answer and no way to therefore know what unfair advantage, if any, they have.

    Now, these situations are so rare and the individuals involved are usually not truly good enough for it to matter. The argument that Ludwig should be able to pursue her athletic dream is stronger than the argument that she’s got an unfair advantage. But what if we were talking about a transgendered woman who was a major college level basketball player in his late teens and early 20s, made the switch and then wanted play women’s college basketball in her early 30s?

    In hypotheticals, the extreme case often doesn’t and shouldn’t apply to the general example. It’s important to keep it in mind, though.


  6. Whitfield says:

    I have this question that I could not really see in the article: eligibility – did she get two periods of eligibility ?
    This doesn’t bother me about her gender change. The important thing to me is if she is a good player and who wins.

  7. Jay Gischer says:

    Not all states will change birth certificates, by the way. Some will amend them, so that the change of gender is apparent to anyone examining the document. This is of concern in the community.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Whitfield: Apparently, she starts from scratch on eligibility since “men’s eligibility” and “women’s eligibility” tally separately for some unfathomable reason. That seems, well, odd.

    @MBunge: And, yes, that’s a reasonable point with the likes of Pistorus or even Casey Martin and his golf cart. Ten years ago, I leaned against making exceptions. I’m largely on the other side now: Let ’em play unless there’s a damned good reason not to.

  9. Whitfield says:

    @James Joyner: Illogical: she is still the same person. But, if she wants to play, ok. Worse things have happened.

  10. Peter says:

    Age provides an easy “out” in this case. Even if Ludwig had never undergone the sex change and were still completely male, at age 50 he would have few if any physical advantages over the far younger female players.

  11. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @MBunge: Is women’s college-level basketball, even major college women’s basketball an important enough issue for there to be this much discussion? For some reason, the discussion about unfair advantage seems kinda silly.

  12. MBunge says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: “Is women’s college-level basketball, even major college women’s basketball an important enough issue for there to be this much discussion?”

    I’m sure it’s quite important to the other women who’ve devoted much of their young lives to the sport. But as James said, you should let them play unless there’s a compelling reason otherwise. It’s important, though, to be able to recognize what that compelling reason might eventually be.


  13. 11B40 says:


    You know, I’ve been pining for a good Renée Richards Redux story for quite a while now. It’s nice to come across something in the sexual dysfunctional category other than the usual homosexual this or lesbian that minutia.

    But, alas, our media seems to be more than a bit out of practice with this sub-category. So much of interest is left unaddressed. No visible means of economic or medical support. Nothing on who’s pushing the story; there doesn’t seem to be a Gloria Allred clone anywhere in sight. Who are the new sexual targets? Nothing. Are the hanging bits still hanging or is what the allah-dude didn’t hide now hidden as our muslim brothers might inquire?

    And, speaking, about our muslim brothers, what’s the Islamic book on this stuff?

  14. An Interested Party says:

    It’s nice to come across something in the sexual dysfunctional category other than the usual homosexual this or lesbian that minutia.

    Douchebaggery strikes again…anyone supposedly “normal” straight person who wants to express opinions like this needs to answer the question posed to Scalia awhile back about wives and sodomy…oh, and the Islamophobia is a nice touch too…

  15. My initial reaction is that no mater what kind of estrogen she takes, she’s still born with male physiology. That’s a significant advantage.

    However, I will concede, as a coach, that I do not understand the specifics about things like this well enough to have a truly informed opinion.

  16. Jeff says:

    How does someone wait until age 45 to have a sex change? Did he not realize he wanted to be a woman until recently?

    I like to think I’m pretty open-minded but some of those late-in-life transgender types are pretty friggin’ weird.

  17. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Jeff: I think it is a very difficult thing for many trans people to wrap their heads around and accept. It doesn’t surprise me that it would take some people a long time to come to terms with that.