Pressure mounts on NCAA to clarify stance on transgender athletes


The NCAA is facing mounting pressure to take action on the role of transgender athletes in college sports after a small college association’s recent decision to ban all trans women from women’s sports.

Athlete Ally, a queer-sports advocacy group, sent letters signed by hundreds of transgender-rights advocates Tuesday to NCAA President Charlie Baker and the Board of Governors, urging the organization to continue allowing transgender athletes a place in women’s sports. Current rules allow transgender athletes, including women, to compete, so long as they adhere to the guidelines stipulated by their international sport governing bodies.

“To deny transgender athletes the fundamental right to be who they are, to access the sport they love, and to receive the proven mental and physical health benefits of sport goes against the very principles of the NCAA’s Constitution,” read one of the letters, which was signed by more than 400 current and former professional and collegiate athletes across sports, including retired U.S. women’s national soccer team star Megan Rapinoe, her partner and retired WNBA star Sue Bird and current transgender and nonbinary WNBA player Layshia Clarendon of the Los Angeles Sparks. A host of other WNBA, U.S. women’s national soccer team and National Women’s Soccer League players signed, too.

“We call on you to be on the right side of history and affirm that sport is truly for us all,” the letter continued. “Do not ban transgender women from NCAA women’s sports.”

Athlete Ally also sent letters signed by more than 300 academic scholars and researchers and more than 100 queer-advocacy organizations with similar demands. The NCAA declined to comment.

Earlier this month, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, made up of mostly small private schools, voted to bar all transgender women from women’s sports, regardless of whether athletes have received gender-affirming hormone treatment. That’s not the only reason the conversation has gained steam this month. Even before the NAIA acted, transgender-rights activists believed the NCAA’s Board of Governors was going to hold a virtual vote on its transgender-athlete policy this week. Those same advocates now believe the vote will be postponed.

Either way, the end of April and beginning of May is typically a key rules-making period for the NCAA. In the past week, the organization has passed legislation around transferring and name, image and likeness (NIL) rules. Most new policies go into effect at the start of August, as fall sports are starting up.

The Board of Governors will meet virtually Thursday. At the same time, at its headquarters in Indianapolis, the NCAA will be holding its annual Inclusion Forum in Indianapolis. And though it’s unclear how much the board will discuss potential changes to the transgender-athlete policy, the group can generally make decisions at any point of the calendar.

Meanwhile, anti-transgender activists are making a similar push, calling on the NCAA to adopt restrictions similar to the NAIA’s. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a U.S. Olympic gold medalist in swimming and CEO of the advocacy organization Champion Women, started an email campaign to urge supporters to email a form letter to the Board of Governors.

“Recent decisions like that of the NAIA, demonstrate a commitment to maintaining sport categories based on biological sex, ensuring that female athletes are not treated unfairly,” the letter read. “These policies not only uphold the safety and integrity of sports but also reinforce the principle that female athletes should compete against each other on an equal footing.”

Adding to the pressure on the NCAA, on April 15, 17 House Republicans sent Baker a letter demanding the governing body ban transgender women from competition. “We are deeply concerned about the future of women’s sports and upholding the critical Title IX protections for women’s sports with the NCAA’s current policies,” the letter read. “We urge the NCAA to follow the NAIA’s lead on this issue and prohibit transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports.”

The Biden administration’s new Title IX guidelines, finalized Friday, do not address the question of transgender-athlete participation in college sports. A separate update is expected on that matter, the Associated Press reported.

In 2022, the NCAA enacted a sport-by-sport approach that requires athletes to adhere to guidelines dictated by their specific sport’s international governing body. International sport governing bodies have been grappling with how to institute scientifically sound and equitable rules. World Aquatics and World Athletics are among the groups that have heavily restricted the eligibility of transgender girls and women, barring them from competition if they have experienced testosterone-driven puberty.

If it doesn’t ban transgender women from women’s competitions, the NCAA could opt to move into the third and final phase of implementing the 2022 policy for the 2024-25 school year, though in December 2023 the governing body’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports recommended postponing the policy’s full implementation while it’s reviewed further.

Transgender athletes have recently been the subject of conservative attacks and scrutiny at the K-12, college and Olympic levels. Since 2020, about half of U.S. states have enacted measures banning transgender girls and women — and sometimes boys and men — from publicly funded scholastic sports in the categories that align with their gender identities. (Some of those bans are being challenged in court, and a transgender girl in West Virginia, a state that passed a ban, was recently ruled eligible by a federal appeals court to compete on the girls’ cross-country team.)

“None of us have been talked to by the NCAA about this ruling that’s [potentially] being made without trans athletes in the discussion,” said Sadie Schreiner, a transgender woman who runs the 400 and 200 meters for Division III Rochester Institute of Technology’s track and field team. “No one has asked for my story.”

In eighth grade, well before Schreiner transitioned, she ran the 400 in 55 seconds, compared with 56 today at her fastest, the sophomore said, which points to the fact that the research around transgender athletes is not straightforward. A new study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that transgender women in sports are at a physical disadvantage in some areas, including lung function, compared with their cisgender peers, concluding that the “complexity” of the issue demands more research.

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