NCAA’s “Sport-by-Sport Approach to Transgender Participation” Sparks Debate | Sports
A new NCAA policy allowing each sport’s national governing body to determine the eligibility of transgender athletes has come under fire from observers on different sides of a highly charged debate over college sports participation.
The policy, announced Wednesday night, comes as University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas – who is due to compete at Harvard University on Saturday – is setting record times on the women’s team this season. She had previously competed on Penn’s men’s swim team and had undergone two years of hormone therapy.
Now, Thomas is being hailed as one of the top female collegiate swimmers in the nation, her rapid success drawing both praise and criticism in the swimming world.
Transgender athletes will now have mandatory testosterone testing beginning in the 2022-23 academic year — at the start of their season and again six months later, under rules approved this week by the NCAA Board of Governors. In addition, they will have to test four weeks before the championship trials.
The NCAA previously required transgender women to undergo testosterone suppression treatment for a year before competing on a women’s team.
Penn Athletics said it will work with the NCAA regarding Thomas’ participation in the 2022 Swimming and Diving Championship in March.
Yet, from the association representing college swimming and diving coaches to former Olympic swimmers to parents of collegiate swimmers, the NCAA’s new policy has been criticized as insufficient and lacking in clarity.
CNN has sought comment from the NCAA regarding the criticism.
“They do this in the middle of the season and clearly they haven’t thought it through,” said Joanna Harper, a transgender runner who studies transgender sports performance at England’s Loughborough University.
Harper, a medical physicist who published the first study of testosterone suppression and estrogen treatment on the performance of transgender athletes, added: “I don’t think this policy, for example, will affect Lia Thomas at all, and people are going to be unhappy because she’s fine.”
Thomas, 22, has not publicly commented on the new policy. She told the SwimSwam podcast last month that “continuing to swim after transitioning has been an incredibly rewarding experience.” She said she hoped to “continue doing the sport I love as an authentic me.”
Policy consistent with that of the Olympic Committees
The NCAA voted this week in favor of a “sport-by-sport approach to transgender participation”, according to it, in agreement with the United States and International Olympic Committees.
Transgender participation for each sport will be determined by the policy of the national sport governing body. In the absence of a national governing body, the policy of a sport’s international federation would apply. And if there is no international federation policy, “previously established IOC policy criteria would be followed,” according to a statement from the association.
“We are steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and in promoting equity in college sports,” said John DeGioia, chairman of the NCAA board of directors and president of Georgetown.
“It is important that NCAA member schools, conferences and varsity athletes compete in an inclusive, fair, safe and respectful environment and can move forward with a clear understanding of the new policy.”
About 80% of U.S. Olympians are current or former college athletes, according to NCAA President Mark Emmert.
The IOC announced a new framework on transgender athletes in November, saying no athlete should be excluded from competition on the assumption of an advantage because of their gender. The change placed the onus on individual sports federations to determine whether an athlete was at a disproportionate advantage.
Previous IOC policy allowed transgender athletes to compete provided their testosterone levels were below a certain limit for at least 12 months prior to competition.
Thomas addressed the IOC framework in his interview with Swimswam: “I think the guidelines they have established are very good. They do a very good job of promoting inclusivity while maintaining the integrity of the competition.”
Penn Athletics says it supports Thomas
At the University of Pennsylvania, parents of other swimmers questioned the fairness of allowing Thomas to run on the women’s team.
The mother of a swimmer at Penn said her concern was about fairness and the 1972 Title IX provision prohibiting sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funding which, in her words, “allowed women to shine in athletics”.
Title IX is credited with an explosion of women in collegiate athletics and schools pouring money into women’s sports.
“Girls who dedicate their lives to swimming, they start very early,” said the mother, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals against her daughter. “They never miss practice. They get up at 5 a.m. from the age of 12. They don’t take vacations.”
This mother and another parent worry that Thomas’ success will come at the expense of their own daughters’ chances to travel and compete due to roster limitations.
“My daughter, for example, all through high school she trained over 20 hours a week,” said the other parent, a father who asked to remain anonymous.
“Her only day off was Sunday. Besides maintaining the kind of academics required to get accepted into a school like the University of Pennsylvania. She worked four years in high school for that. Not to mention all the years before high school, the school that led to this, and then being told that you and your teammates are going to lose seats to a transgender woman.
In a statement, Penn Athletics said it supports Thomas and “we will work with the NCAA regarding his participation as part of the newly adopted standards for the 2022 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship.”
Former Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who runs a nonprofit that provides legal defense for women in sport, said she was fine with the new policy because it would force transgender swimmers like Thomas to report their testosterone levels four weeks before the championship selections.
But she called the new policy unfair because of what she perceives to be Thomas’ biological advantage.
“Politics is a direct response to pressure”
The College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association, in a statement this week, supported Thomas’ right to compete and condemned the “hate” directed at her. But the association also said the new NCAA policy is “not a solution” and a “missed opportunity to lead” a “thorough, thoughtful, and scientific discussion about the balance between inclusion and equity.”
USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport in the United States, expressed support for “inclusivity” and “competitive fairness”. In the statement, the organization pledged “to learn and educate us about the proper balance in this space.”
Chris Mosier, a transgender athlete and advocate, via Twitter said the NCAA had “fabricated a ridiculously complex policy that will prove impossible for them to follow.”
“Clearly this policy is a direct response to the pressure surrounding a current athlete competing in the NCAA,” Mosier said in a joint statement with Athlete Ally, a group that supports LGBTQ athletes.
“I’m disappointed that after years of discussion and calls for more research, a new policy could be quickly developed under pressure from people who don’t want to see a great transgender athlete succeed.”
The controversy surrounding Thomas comes at a time when a number of state legislatures have banned transgender girls and women in public high schools and colleges from competing on women’s and women’s sports teams.
Controversy ‘extremely exaggerated’, says researcher
Harper, who is transgender, estimated that about 50 of the approximately 200,000 athletes competing in women’s sports at the college level in the United States are transgender.
In 2015, Harper published the first study on how hormone therapy affects transgender athletes. He found that transgender distance runners had no inherent advantage as women. The study involved a small sample of runners, she said, adding that the muscle mass of transgender sprinters could benefit them in shorter races.
Eric Vilain, a geneticist specializing in gender-based biology at George Washington University, called Harper’s study “groundbreaking” in a 2018 article in Sciene – a peer-reviewed journal published by the Association. America for the Advancement of Science.
Still, there’s a heated debate in the scientific community about whether androgen hormones like testosterone are useful markers of athletic advantage, experts say.
Harper said controversy over Thomas’ record-breaking season stems from his dominance in the sport.
“I think a lot of the heat around Lia Thomas is just overblown,” Harper said.
“Trans women are not transitioning into sports. We are transitioning to be more like other women. And so as part of this therapy to be happier, healthier…trans women will go into this therapy and have consistent testosterone levels because it’s for their health, not because it has anything to do with sports.”
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