In Debate Over Lia Thomas, There Is an Urgent Need For Civil Discourse and Humanity

Lane lines Kazan

In Debate Over Lia Thomas, There Is an Urgent Need For Civil Discourse and Humanity

Want to get something immediately out of the way. As it pertains to this article, I don’t give a damn what Lia Thomas does in the pool. Not right now, at least. Don’t care about her times. Don’t care about the points she’s scored for the University of Pennsylvania. Don’t care about the records she has set and might set in the future.

There will be a time and a place to discuss Thomas’ performances. This piece is not that moment.

But for the 600 or so words that follow, here’s what I care about: Civil discourse. The opportunity for individuals to have a constructive debate and conversation about a topic. The chance for opposing sides to offer an opinion without: Belittling; Shaming; Hurling unfounded accusations; Attacking the subject of the debate, along with fellow commenters.

So, how did we arrive at this point? Why am I drafting this column? On Tuesday evening, Swimming World staff writer David Rieder wrote an article that provided an overview of the story of Lia Thomas, a transgender athlete. Thomas has made headlines recently with several swift performances, including NCAA-championship-caliber times in the 200-yard freestyle and 500 freestyle at the Zippy Invitational.

Prior to this season, Thomas was a three-year member of the men’s squad at Penn. Last year, she did not compete, as the Ivy League canceled the season in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This season, Thomas is racing for the women’s team at Pennsylvania, as she has transitioned from male to female. Her collection of fast times, and the possibility of chasing NCAA titles and American records, has made her story a hot topic.

When Rieder’s article was posted to the Swimming World website, I fully expected passionate comments on the piece. Some individuals would undoubtedly argue against Thomas’ involvement in a women’s sport. Some would defend her. But the intensity of the vitriol that flared has been downright sad, and proof that many people simply cannot have a civil debate.

Whether on the Swimming World website or social-media platforms, several hundred comments have flowed in about the article and Thomas’ story. I’m thankful to those who stated their opinions in constructive fashion. These arguments – for and against – were free of attacks and verbiage that was insulting.

Unfortunately, a hefty percentage of comments opted for an uncivil approach – many of which came through anonymously. A handful of folks tossed around accusations of mental illness, having never met the person in question. There were some not-so-clever attempts at humor, via the use of GIFs. Some individuals used improper pronouns and deadnaming in their comments, which is highly inappropriate toward someone who has transitioned.

I may (no, will) be accused of blocking free-speech rights here, but I’ll tell you this: Swimming World has gone through the comments and has deleted many messages which were insulting, transphobic, used improper pronouns or did not meet the standard of civil discourse. Hundreds of comments remain, though, and paint a picture of a topic that is charged and emotional. Again, I am appreciative of those who simply engaged in arguments and debates that were measured, polite and humane in nature. It is this type of debate that should be fostered and allows us to learn more about both sides’ opinions and feelings.

The Lia Thomas story is going to remain in the headlines, especially as we creep closer to conference championships and, eventually, the NCAA Championships. Many questions will be asked, most notably about the fairness of the situation in regard to cisgender women.

As the topic is discussed, let’s be passionate about our viewpoints and feelings, but also civil and respectful. It’s not asking that much.

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

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1 year ago

I posted the storyon my swim page here in NZ and I got similiar comments i had to delete .

Scott O’Connor
1 year ago

Sorry you had to experience those comments. As a former competitor at many levels including NCAA Division 1 championships, and as a former referee at many levels, including state championships, fair play is of the utmost importance in sport. It seems plain from the facts here that this athlete retains a distinct gender-based competitive edge, tilting the outcome, and removing fairness, despite the NCAA’s best rulemaking efforts. Will the athletes who finish behind her feel like the rest of the world did in 1976 finishing behind the East German women?

Lisa R Sanderson
1 year ago

After so many years & struggles for Title 9 equality, it seems this situation pushes female swimmers back to the 1960’s. Where is the concern of fairness now?

1 year ago

I am very liberal with approach to things that is very open minded. But there is a difference between open minded and fair and that is what is missing here. I don’t blame Lia for her performances but I do blame governing bodies for allowing for this to get to this point. I don’t believe it is fair for Lia to be exposed to what is coming her way and what is coming her way is the result of politically pressured decision that is not based on sciences. There is so much more to the issue than levels of testosterone. Bone density, size of hand and feet, lung capacity, and last but not least years of being able to train as a male. One year of testosterone suppression will not erase the benefits of many years of training as male. Rules are such that now we all look at Lia and rightfully so believe it is not fair. When we created title IX we believes that women are not treated equally. 30+ years later we are replacing their struggle with new struggle which erases gains we made in women’s sports. IMHO the only way to make it fair is to create third category. And for anyone who looks at this as a way to advance transgender rights please understand that you are alienating the very cause and champions you are trying to advance. You lost me but you also lost champions of women’s rights. We were your biggest supporters. Please reflect and adjust. Support your cause without killing women’s sports. And please do understand that is what is happening.