Penn swimmer and transgender Leah Thomas finished first in the 500-yard freestyle at the NCAA Women’s Division I Swimming and Diving Championships last month. Her victory was celebrated in some ways. One columnist likened her to baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Others see her as undermining the women’s sport, and many of her own teammates have anonymously opposed her participation. Throughout the season, Thomas became the face of a national debate on how to balance equity and inclusion in women’s sports.
The controversy over Thomas’ involvement may be over, but tough questions about the NCAA’s rules for trans athletes remain unanswered. Finding a way forward will require deciphering a growing and controversial scientific system while dealing with a stressful 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 may have to meet different standards than a runner or bowler. Many governing bodies have no rules for trans athletes, and some have vague or outdated rules. (If the governing body doesn’t set a policy, the NCAA says it will default to following the sport’s international rules.)
Shortly after the NCAA’s decision, USA Swimming announced its policy requiring trans women to show low levels of testosterone in the three years prior to competition and provide evidence that they are not “comparing to the athlete’s cisgender female competitors” have a competitive advantage.” The testosterone level set by USA Swimming is lower than the old NCAA standard, and the need for additional evidence is a new hurdle. Then, the NCAA appeared to change course and decide that the more restrictive policy would not apply to the upcoming tournament, clearing the way for Thomas’ competition.
Will other sports follow USA Swimming despite NCAA action? Nancy Hogshead-Makar wants them to. She is a civil rights attorney and a member of the Women’s Sports Policy Task Force, which has a stated mission to find a “middle way” in the debate on transgender sports participation. Hogshead-Makar, who won three Olympic swimming gold medals, called USA Swimming’s policy “very good” and was disappointed that the NCAA overturned it this season. “The first step is how to ensure that sports are biologically fair to girls and women,” she said. “The second step is how we include trans athletes.”
The task force offers policy recommendations on its website, including workarounds such as allowing transgender athletes who retain their male advantage to participate in practice but not in direct competition. Hogshead-Makar spoke to members of the sports governing body who are trying to figure out what to do next. “They’re all listening,” she said. “We are sending them a message as soon as possible.”
Hogshead-Makar noted that members of her organization were already working on policy long before the issue came to the fore in college swimming. “We always knew there was going to be a Lia Thomas,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
‘Fearing trans athletes’
Anna Baeth has also spoken to sports governing bodies and university officials, but her advice is not the same. Baeth is Director of Research at Athlete Ally, whose mission is to “end rampant homophobia and transphobia in sport”. Baeth argues that USA Swimming’s policy is unscientific and sets a bad example for universities and governing bodies. “They said, ‘Okay, is this you? Prove it,'” she said. “And I think ‘prove it’ is scary for trans athletes.”
Baeth opposes any form of testosterone regulation because “testosterone does not equate to athletic performance.” What does she tell groups that are reaching out to athlete allies for help developing policy? “I would say you need to have a policy that explicitly supports trans athletes,” she said. “I think you prioritize inclusion.” The group suggested language that could be adopted by universities, including assertions that “trans women show large differences in size and ability with no significant competitive advantage.”
Joanna Harper thinks USA Swimming’s insistence on three years of hormone suppression is excessive, but she does think testing and suppression are “at least” necessary. In a recent article, Harper, himself a trans athlete and a doctoral researcher at Loughborough University’s School of Sport in the UK, argued that the choice not to impose restrictions on trans athletes until more research was done was “unsustainable” feet”. She concluded that “the most important reason for differences in athletic performance between men and women stems from biology.”
Harper believes it makes sense for individual sports to have their own rules, as each sport has its own particular challenges. For example, contact sports will have different concerns than non-contact sports. But she “has doubts about whether the governing body will be able to do that” and fears “it could lead to panic and unrealistic rules.”
I spoke with Anne Rohlman, director of policy, education and strategic engagement at the NCAA Sports Science Institute, about these concerns. The sport-by-sport approach doesn’t mean every organization can make whatever rules it wants, Rollman said. The NCAA’s Competition Assurance Commission will also have a say, and can essentially veto certain provisions of the governing body’s policies. For example, the NCAA might decide that three years is too long to require testosterone suppression — and remove the rule. Or it may decide that a particular testosterone level is unreasonably low. “We use the policy as a starting point to inform our conversations,” she said. “I think the piece is lost among our members and the public.”
That said, there may be policy differences between sports. As a result, a trans athlete in one sport may have to meet some requirements that are different from a trans athlete in another sport. Rollman believes that the rules for testing testosterone — the levels and duration an athlete must reach — may be the same across sports. But none of this is set in stone, and it remains to be seen how the governing body will respond if its collegiate athletics policy is actually overruled by the NCAA. One of the questions the NCAA will ask, Rollman said, is whether the agencies have developed policies that support “our core values of equity and inclusion.”
That’s the trick. For groups like the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, equity is a top priority. Meanwhile, Athlete Ally has a section in her proposed regulation explaining why the organization avoids using the term, focusing instead on the experience of transgender athletes. Figuring out how to keep those voters happy while dealing with dozens of governing bodies and more than a thousand colleges, not to mention athletes, their parents and the news media—to put it mildly—will be a challenge.