courtesy Wikimedia Commons

NCAA changes rules to allow transgender athletes in championship

Sports writer Benjamin Bowdon discusses Lia Thomas’ journey through NCAA regulations.

The Division 1 NCAA national championship for swimming is fast approaching. However, much more than simple swimming is on the minds of the competitors. A fierce debate is attracting more attention to this event than normal, thanks to the presence of Lia Thomas from the University of Pennsylvania. Lia Thomas, born male but identifies and now competes as a woman, is transgender. She has the top times in her events and has been shattering meet and pool records over the last few months. There has been a flurry of criticism, praise and everything in between for this swimmer.

Currently, Lia Thomas is competing in the Ivy League conference swim meet. On Feb. 17, Thomas broke the pool record for the 500-yard Freestyle, beating out the competition by seven seconds. In December, her 200-yard Freestyle time made her the 17th fastest performer in history. Her best times place her at the top seeds for the championship in March. Despite some misleading headlines, Lia Thomas has not broken any national records yet — only meet and pool records which are broken more often. Her viral race where she beat opponents by 38 seconds was a 15-minute race, not a simple sprint. Still, she is undeniably a fast swimmer and holds the fastest times in the country as of now. Thomas will be allowed to compete in the national competition as long as her sample is below the pre-specified testosterone level of 10 nanomoles per liter, following the NCAA transgender policies from 2010.

Her performance is not without controversy. The nation’s media have used this case as the battlegrounds for a larger debate of trans athletes in sports. Many in the swimming community have been forced to take a side. This division has spread within the team itself. A group of 16 of Thomas’ teammates headed by Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic medalist, lodged a formal complaint with the school and the Ivy League, begging them to adopt USA Swimming’s new rules which would ban Thomas from competition. They expressed the unfairness of competing against a biological male to make the women’s team. They also confided that they were forced to cheer for her and to not complain or else they may not get a job. “This makes the women’s category meaningless,” Hogshead-Makar claims. After this document was publicized, more than 300 current and former NCAA and Team USA swimmers released a statement supporting Thomas in opposition to the anonymous letter. They see her as a champion trailblazing the way in face of adversity and discrimination to make a name for herself.

To understand the situation fully, there is a history of rules for transgender athletes that is relevant to this discussion. In 2010, the NCAA released guidelines on what defined a transgender man or woman, and the rules to follow for them to compete. The athlete must have provided proof of hormone therapy for at least a year to be eligible for competitions. Much has changed over the last decade, with different sporting organizations enacting new policies, like the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This prompted the NCAA to update its guidelines. In January of this year, the NCAA released a new policy that mimicked the IOC. They would, from now on, for each sport, defer to the national governing body (NGB) of that sport on transgender rules. This is where some of the drama originates. For swimming, the NGB is USA Swimming. They organize the major club swimming as well as the Olympics. In early February, USA Swimming released a harsher rule regarding transgender athletes competing — each transgender female athlete must prove low testosterone levels for three years instead of one. Some believe this is in response to the growing success of Lia Thomas. The NCAA decided not to adopt the rule immediately since it was in the middle of the competitive season.

Amid this blaming, rule-changing and hurt feelings, there is a complicated tug-of-war between inclusivity and fairness with no simple solution. “Everybody wants to maximize each individual’s opportunity to participate and be as inclusive as possible,” Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic, said in an interview. “But how do you balance that inclusion at the individual level with the fairness to the entire field? That’s really the split-the-baby question.” A D1 swimmer was interviewed and expressed similar concerns, “Swimming has given me the world. Everyone deserves to have it. But her times are not as slow as they should be to be fair. She is performing much better as a female than when she was compared to males before hormone-therapy.”

The nation, and world, will be watching the D1 Championships in March to see how Lia Thomas performs. Her placement will have more consequences than just medaling — there will be a global impact for the future of transgender athletes, possibly informing or inspiring new rules. It is left up to the reader to decide whether these rules will be appropriate.

Post Author: Ben Bowdon