Olympic sports are taking a stand in transgender debate and the NCAA should, too | David Whitley

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
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Title IX turned 50 years old this week. The NCAA celebrated by patting itself on the back for all the good it’s done for women’s sports.

If it really wants to help, the NCAA should take the FINA plunge.

That organization runs international swimming, and last week it essentially banned transgender women in elite competition — FINA's rules only permit swimmers who transitioned before age 12 to compete in women’s events. FINA also said it could create an “open” division for transgender swimmers.

We’ll pause now to allow heads to explode.

Transgender sports participation has become the Roe v. Wade of sports: a polarized, politicized problem with no easy or satisfying answer. FINA’s decision got ripped in all the usual circles, but the ruling showed it has common sense and a spine.

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Those are two things the NCAA has been known to lack. Witness how it handled the Lia Thomas imbroglio.

NCAA has waffled in its position

As the trans woman swimmer from Penn was scorching the pool this winter, the NCAA said it would defer to each sport’s governing body to determine transgender eligibility. It wanted USA Swimming to play the heavy.

The NCAA initially accepted USA Swimming’s policy, which would have disqualified Thomas. After the predictable uproar, the NCAA reversed course and let Thomas swim. That triggered the reverse backlash.

“Once again, biological women's cry for fair sports competition has gone unheard,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar.

She’s a 1984 Olympic gold medalist and CEO of Champion Women, an advocacy group for gender equality in sports. It tracks how Division I schools comply with Title IX guidelines, and the data is nothing to celebrate.

Among other failings, NCAA institutions would have to provide women with almost 200,000 additional sports opportunities a year to match those offered to men.

That battle for fairness has been going on for 50 years. The transgender war is something new.

To believe that the NCAA is blowing it is to acknowledge that trans women shouldn’t compete in female sports. At the risk of making heads explode, I can’t get over the fact Thomas went from being the 554th-ranked male in the 200 freestyle to an NCAA finalist as a female.

She finished fifth in that race and won the 500 freestyle, beating three U.S. Olympians. The irony is her triumphs might have been the worst thing to happen to the transgender sports movement.

Thomas became a cause celebre; the more the public becomes aware of trans women competing in female competitions, the less it seems to like it.

A YouGov poll conducted during March's NCAA swimming championship found that 49% of Americans opposed transgender athletes playing on sports teams that match their gender identity, while 29% supported the idea. The 1,000 respondents were granted anonymity. 

Hogshead-Makar sent a letter to the Ivy League on behalf of 16 of Thomas’ teammates. They wanted the league to go by USA Swimming’s policy, but they were scared to say so. “We have been told that if we spoke out against her inclusion into women’s competition, that we would be removed from the team or that we would never get a job,” they wrote.

That should make your head explode.

But your head should also explode when people say the only reason Thomas transitioned was to win some swim meets. Anyone in her situation deserves sympathy and understanding and an avenue to compete.

But how? Where? Against whom?

This debate boils down to “fairness” vs. “inclusion.” One side says it’s unfair that women can train as hard as humanly possible and still have little chance to beat Thomas. The other says that’s a price worth paying to advance LGBT rights and acceptance.

Such LGBT icons as Martina Navratilova, Caitlyn Jenner and Renee Richards have endorsed FINA’s point of view.

Megan Rapinoe, the star of the U.S women’s soccer team, told Time: “I would encourage everyone out there who is afraid someone’s going to have an unfair advantage over their kid to really take a step back and think what are we actually talking about here. We’re talking about people’s lives. I’m sorry, your kid’s high school volleyball team just isn’t that important. It’s not more important than any one kid’s life. Show me the evidence that trans women are taking everyone’s scholarships, are dominating in every sport, are winning every title. I’m sorry, it’s just not happening. So we need to start from inclusion, period."

Rapinoe says that competing in girls and women's events is vital for transgender athletes. But what about the girls and women Title IX has been fighting for the past 50 years?

The debate is far from over

The Biden administration has proposed new rules this week that strengthen Title IX protections for LGBT students. More specific rules related to sports will be released later.

"(President Joe) Biden could change everything with a stroke of a pen," Hogshead-Makar said.

But the next president could take a pen and change things in the other direction. The politicization of it all is enough to make everyone's heads explode.

There are people of good faith on both sides who’ve been trying to find a solution. FINA’s stance is as good a compromise as possible. It bans trans women from elite competitions if they didn’t begin treatment to suppress testosterone production before the onset of puberty or by age 12, whichever came later. World Athletics, which oversees track and field, is likely to adopt a similar policy.

“If we ever get pushed into a corner to that point where we’re making a judgment about fairness or inclusion, I will always fall down on the side of fairness,” WA President Sebastian Coe said.

When the NCAA is pushed into that corner, it has waffled, passed the buck and allowed athletes to be scared into silence.

After 50 years of struggle, that’s no way to show women that their sports really do matter.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley

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