Guest Editorial: NCAA Transgender Participation Policy Is Woefully Behind; Needs Immediate Change

Sports Science - Lia Thomas

Guest Editorial: NCAA Transgender Participation Policy Is Woefully Behind; Requires Immediate Amendment

Swimming World is publishing the following letter submitted by Sharon Weiss, a former Division I swimmer at the University of Arizona.

While the NCAA is “a member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes,” its silence regarding UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas is not only deafening, but appears to be eroding its stated pledge. By now, we have seen the NCAA’s transgender policy, which states: “A trans female treated with testosterone suppression medication may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one year of testosterone suppression treatment.” But what is the basis for this ruling?

On April 26, 2021, LaGwyn Durden (Director, NCAA Sport Science Institute) said: “The NCAA consistently assesses its current transgender policies.” Yet, the NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes Handbook was published in August, 2011, over 10 years ago. Durden went on to acknowledge that “one of the challenges is that the science/medical community hasn’t really reached a consensus on testosterone threshold; we don’t have a definitive answer.”

A review of the inclusion handbook clearly demonstrates that we are no better prepared for Lia Thomas’ emergence in women’s swimming during the 2021-22 season than we were over 10 years ago. The 32-page document begins with the NCAA’s commitment to “diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators.” Most troubling, however, is the section regarding concerns about competitive equity specific to the participation of transgender women who transition after puberty, like swimmer Lia Thomas.

In a single sentence, concerns about sex-linked advantages are dismissed when the handbook asserts that “transgender women display a great deal of physical variation, just as there is a great deal of natural variation in physical size and ability among non-transgender women and men.” Just like that, the physical sex-linked differences that emerge from the onset of male puberty and have notable implications for athletic performance and safety, the very rationale for sex-segregated sports, upheld by Congress with Title IX, are disregarded. Sex-linked differences are not “stereotypes” as the handbook suggests; on the contrary, sex-linked differences between males and females are innumerable and well documented. For Dr. Nick Gorton to suggest (in the handbook) that “transgender student-athletes fall within the spectrum of physical traits found in athletes of their transitioned gender, allowing them to compete fairly and equitably” shows little regard for the convincing evidence that trans women (according to the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group) maintain legacy advantages even after one year of hormone treatment.

While the importance of inclusion in modern society cannot be overstated, when it comes to elite sports, the truth is, we still have a lot to learn about sex reassignment and sports performance. Any policy that suggests that post-puberty, sex-linked differences between males and females can be erased with a single year of hormone replacement therapy does the exact opposite of what Durden claimed when she said that the NCAA consistently assesses its transgender policy. Not only is the basis for the policy questionable at best, the current policy ignores the complex nature of the topic; the growing body of research on legacy advantages; and the current plight of women’s sports, where Title IX deficiencies throughout the country already grossly limit equal athletic and academic opportunities for women, as noted by the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group.

I’m personally delighted to see Lia Thomas living as her authentic self. It’s about time that the social stigmas attached to gender identity and sexual orientation be abandoned for a more inclusive and accepting society. I encourage her to continue her pursuit of excellence in swimming as she raises awareness for transgender issues and hopefully makes a strong contribution to the evolving science. By the same token, I think we can all agree that if swimming competition was about participating in the category we feel the most “comfortable,” the 8-year-olds would be in real trouble. Similarly, in a sport like swimming, where painstaking effort is given to every minute detail, from two-hand turns to the 15-meter mark, it behooves us all, for the preservation of fair competition, to have policies that don’t yield unfair advantage like the “current” NCAA policy does.

In sport, we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate principles of fairness, equity, inclusivity, mutual respect, acceptance, sportsmanship, discipline, and work ethic. With these values in mind, now is the time for Lia Thomas, UPenn, and the NCAA to step up, to acknowledge her advantage, and to finish the season exhibition only. Further, the NCAA policy needs immediate amendment. Until we have a better understanding of the effects of sex reassignment on elite sports performance, the observed 8-12% (and in some instances greater) difference between males and females in sport remains unchanged, just as Lia Thomas is in no way 8-12% slower than her former male self. Our inclusion policies regarding trans female athletes need to balance our value for inclusion with our value for fair competition.

Sharon M Weiss, PhD
University of Arizona Swimming (1980-84)
Head Coach, Lakeridge Swim Team

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

7 Comments
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Swim Life
4 months ago

Bravo!

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Margaret
4 months ago

Thank you for standing up for women in swimming. I hope the NCAA reconsiders their transgender policy and no longer allows people who have gone through male puberty to compete in the female category. This unfair biological advantage impacts who medals.

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Inge
4 months ago

Thank you, for standing up for women and girls. There are valid reasons as to why sports have sex, age, weight, disability etc. categories. NCAA and other sporting organizations are discriminating against women and girls by disregarding the reality that biology matters. The solution is to make the men’s an open category for all males of any or non-gender and transgender females (transmen) taking testosterone. The women’s category should be for XX women and girls only

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Stuart
4 months ago

The issue is not complex. Males like Lia should not be allowed to compete against women.

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Helga
4 months ago
Reply to  Stuart

Hi Stuart, while the decision to maintain sex segregated sports (based on gender at birth, regardless of identity) might be the right course of action, at least until we develop a better understanding, and the clarity of such a stance does not seem complex, we all have a lot to learn about human experience, which IS very complex. This is an example of a complex human experience.

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Mom
4 months ago

Why should we be “delighted” that an adult male thinks he is a female, and is using the women’s locker room? Ewwww. That’s disgusting.

Are you “delighted” that Janiah Monroe, (né Andre Patterson), an adult male convicted of murder, was moved to a women’s prison? His female cell mate alleges that he raped her on his first day in the women’s prison.

It’s all nonsense, and it needs to stop.

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Anonymous
4 months ago
Reply to  Mom

“Why should we be “delighted” that an adult male thinks he is a female, and is using the women’s locker room? Ewwww. That’s disgusting.

Are you “delighted” that Janiah Monroe, (né Andre Patterson), an adult male convicted of murder, was moved to a women’s prison? His female cell mate alleges that he raped her on his first day in the women’s prison. It’s all nonsense, and it needs to stop.”

Mom: I agree 250%
It’s nonsense that needs to stop!