A Failure of “Prescribed Messaging”
Controversial new realities in American life often require a period of discussion on how to accommodate them and how to square them with existing paradigms. It’s an important precursor to social progress and a fundamental part of existing in a pluralistic society founded on free and open debate.
The issue of transgender athletes is a relatively new one. Trans athletes have every right to compete in sports. So, too, do biological women who endure hard work and sacrifice to win in swim competitions, often with scholarships at stake. To the extent a collision of rights exists here, it can only be resolved by discussing the issue freely and without fear of reprisal.
Yet, when respected voices are silenced in furtherance of a particular agenda, debate – and, by extension, progress and resolution – becomes impossible. Consider the case of Dr. Michael Joyner, a renowned physiologist and professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic who studies male and female athletes. Earlier this year, Joyner was subjected to disciplinary action for comments he made to the New York Times in an article about transgender swimmer Lia Thomas.
“There are social aspects to sport,” he said, “but physiology and biology underpin it. Testosterone is the 800-pound gorilla.”
In a scathing email, a Mayo Clinic administrator responded to Joyner’s perceived affront with a formal reprimand, an unpaid suspension, the denial of an annual salary increase, and the overt threat of termination – all for the apparent crime of conveying scientific information related to one of his core competencies. Specifically (bordering on satirically), the email cites Joyner’s failure “to communicate in accordance with prescribed messaging.” (The Clinic also took issue with Joyner’s use of “idiomatic language.”)
This is important because the Mayo Clinic is one of the world’s leading medical institutions and the top-ranked hospital in the country according to U.S. News and World Report. As an important hub for academic medical research, its doctors are regularly called upon to offer insight into difficult, health-related topics with national implications. In 2020, the Clinic adopted a “Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom Policy,” which includes the right to “discuss and present scholarly opinions and conclusions without fear of retribution or retaliation if those opinions and conclusions conflict with those of the faculty or institution.”
While the Mayo Clinic is a private institution with a First Amendment right to speak as it wishes, the organization’s actions against Dr. Joyner plainly conflict with its own policies and are further inconsistent with vigorous, science-based academic debate. Punishing a medical professional for offering valid, scientific statements that happen to clash with emerging or trending social mores is wrong – and will have a chilling effect on science, speech, and academic freedom going forward.
If we are to honestly address the difficult topic of transgender athletic competition – without, for example, simply resorting to knee-jerk, blanket bans, it is incumbent on us to allow a robust debate and hear from all sides, including and especially those with pertinent knowledge. It’s a reality – and a requirement – of our American experiment.