In the Wake of Lia Thomas, What Will the NCAA Do?

Lia Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania swimmer and a transgender woman, won first place last month in the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA Women’s Division I Swimming and Diving Championships. Her victory was celebrated in some quarters; one op-ed writer likened her to the baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Others saw her as undermining women’s sports, and many of her own teammates anonymously objected to her participation. Over the course of the season, Thomas became the face of a national debate about how to balance fairness and inclusion in women’s sports.

That controversy over Thomas’s participation may be over, but tough questions about the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s rules for transgender athletes still haven’t been answered. Arriving at a way forward will require interpreting a growing and contested body of science while navigating a fraught political environment.

Back in January, the NCAA’s Board of Governors updated its transgender-participation policy, voting for a “sport-by-sport approach” that puts the onus on each sport’s national governing body to determine its own rules. In other words, a tennis player might have to meet a different standard than a runner or a bowler. Many of those governing bodies don’t have any rules on transgender athletes, while some have rules that are uselessly vague or outdated. (If a governing body doesn’t devise a policy, the NCAA has said it will default to that sport’s international rules instead.)

Shortly after the NCAA’s decision, USA Swimming announced its policy, which requires transgender women to show low levels of testosterone for three years before competing and to present evidence that they don’t have a “competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.” The testosterone level set by USA Swimming was lower than the NCAA’s old standard, and requiring additional evidence was a new hurdle. The NCAA then seemingly reversed course and decided that the more-restrictive policy wouldn’t apply to the forthcoming championships, clearing the way for Thomas to compete.

Despite the NCAA’s actions, will other sports follow USA Swimming’s lead? Nancy Hogshead-Makar hopes they do. She’s a civil-rights lawyer and part of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, whose stated mission is to find a “middle way” in the debate over transgender sports participation. Hogshead-Makar, who won three Olympic gold medals in swimming, thinks USA Swimming’s policy is “very good” and was disappointed that the NCAA overrode it this season. “The first step is how do you make sure sport is fair for biological girls and women,” she says. “The second step is how do we include transgender athletes.”

On its website the working group offers policy suggestions, including workarounds like allowing transgender athletes who retain male advantages to participate in practices but not in direct competitions. Hogshead-Makar has spoken with members of sports-governing bodies who are trying to figure out what to do next. “They’re all listening,” she says. “We’re sending them information as fast as we can.”

Hogshead-Makar notes that members of her organization were working to create policies long before the issue came to the fore in collegiate swimming. “We always knew that a Lia Thomas was going to come along,” she says. “It was just a question of when.”

‘Terrifying for Trans Athletes’

Anna Baeth has also spoken to sports-governing bodies and college officials, but her advice isn’t the same. Baeth is director of research for Athlete Ally, whose mission is to “end the rampant homophobia and transphobia in sport.” Baeth thinks USA Swimming’s policy is unscientific and sets a bad example for colleges and governing bodies. “They’re saying, ‘OK, so this is who you are? Prove it,’” she says. “And I think that ‘prove it’ point is terrifying for trans athletes.”

Baeth is against testosterone regulations of any kind because “testosterone does not equate to athleticism.” What does she tell groups that ask Athlete Ally for help in writing a policy? “I would say you need to have a policy that clearly supports trans athletes,” she says. “I think you prioritize inclusion.” The organization has proposed language that can be adopted by colleges, including the assertion that “trans women display a great deal of variation in physical size and ability, with no notable competitive advantage.”

Joanna Harper thinks USA Swimming’s insistence on three years of hormone suppression is overkill, but she does think testing and suppression are necessary “at minimum.” In a recent essay, Harper, a transgender athlete herself and a doctoral researcher in the School of Sport at Britain’s Loughborough University, argues that choosing not to place restrictions on trans-women athletes until more research is done is “untenable.” She concludes that the “most important reason for the discrepancy between male and female athletic performance is rooted in biology.”

Harper believes it makes sense for individual sports to have their own rules, given that each has its own particular challenges. There will, for example, be different concerns in contact sports versus noncontact sports. But she has “misgivings about whether governing bodies will be up to it,” and worries that “it may lead to people panicking and making some unrealistic rules.”

I spoke about those misgivings with Anne Rohlman, director of policy, education, and strategic engagement at the NCAA Sport Science Institute. Rohlman says that the sport-by-sport approach doesn’t mean each organization can make whatever rules it wants. The NCAA’s committee on competitive safeguards will also have a say and could, in essence, overrule certain provisions in a governing body’s policy. For instance, the NCAA might decide that three years is too long to require testosterone suppression — and nix that rule. Or it might decide that a particular testosterone level is unreasonably low. “We use that policy as a starting point to inform our conversation,” she says. “I think that piece has been lost both on our membership and in the public.”

That said, it’s likely that there will be policy variations among sports. So a transgender athlete in one sport may have to meet some different requirements than does a transgender athlete in another sport. Rohlman believes that testosterone-testing rules across sports — that is, what level an athlete will have to meet and for how long — will probably be the same. But none of that is written in stone, and how a governing body will respond if its policy for collegiate sports is, in effect, overruled by the NCAA remains to be seen. One question the NCAA will ask, Rohlman says, is whether the policies set by those bodies support “our core values of fairness and inclusion.”

That’s the trick. For groups like the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, fairness is a top priority. Meanwhile, Athlete Ally has a section in its proposed regulations that explains why the group avoids the word, instead focusing on the experiences of transgender athletes. Figuring out how to satisfy those constituencies, while also dealing with dozens of governing bodies and more than a thousand colleges, not to mention athletes, their parents, and the news media, will be — to put it mildly — a challenge.

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