On Saturday, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas placed last in the 100-yard freestyle swim during the NCAA championships, ending her career in collegiate swimming. A last-place showing at an NCAA swim meet, even a championship one, would not typically garner national headlines. Yet, Thomas has been at the center of controversy regarding her eligibility for her to compete in women’s events.
This controversy came to an apex last week at the NCAA championships when she became the first openly trans athlete to win a Division I championship in any sport. For anyone who cares about the advancement of sports, and women’s sports in particular, her win de ella should be celebrated.
She should be embraced in the history of progress that sports represent and recognized as the trailblazer that she is.
Women’s sports are situated at a paradoxical intersection wherein sex segregation is upheld through claims of biological difference, yet equality is prefaced on being treated the same and given the same opportunities as men. If we are to change this, we need to ask some important questions. How does one advocate for equitable treatment while also adhering to the notion of biological difference? If separate is not equal in the case of schools, bathrooms, restaurants or other social institutions, can separate ever truly be equal in the case of sports? Would gender-based discrimination in sports be eradicated if sports were gender-integrated?
The NCAA approved its first policy on the inclusion of trans athletes in collegiate athletics in 2011. The policy allowed “trans female” student-athletes to compete on a women’s team if they had been treated with testosterone-suppression medication for at least one year. The most recent update, in January, aligns with the changes to the policies of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee, which place the responsibility for eligibility criteria on an individual sport and its governing bodies.
The NCAA was resistant to adopt USA Swimming’s policy, which was among the most restrictive, requiring testosterone suppression for 36 months. Such changes would have been difficult to consider given collegiate swimmers were in the middle of the competitive season and weeks away from the NCAA championships. Moreover, both the IOC’s and the NCAA’s transgender athlete policies assert an athlete’s right to participate in sport without discrimination and express a commitment to diversity, inclusion and gender equity.
Those who oppose the inclusion of trans women in women’s sports argue that trans women have an unfair competitive advantage and that as a result they will take away opportunities from cisgender athletes. According to the NCAA, these assumptions are not well founded. Moreover, there is a lack of scientific evidence that conclusively demonstrates a direct link between testosterone and athletic performance.
Athletic performance is influenced by a number of factors, including hormones, but also other things like coaching and training, psychological makeup of an athlete, access to resources and equipment, among others. Attempts to ban or limit the participation of trans athletes are not based on science. Instead, they are rooted in societal and cultural definitions of what constitutes gender or what defines a woman. Such questions matter because sports are organized based on the belief of natural differences between men and women, and they are sex-segregated as a result. Yet, this ultimately leads to the discrimination of athletes like Thomas.
The Supreme Court unanimously decided in Brown v. Board of Education that separate is not equal, and segregation violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Despite this, sports have been able to operate under a “separate but equal” framework, upheld in part by the notion of biological difference between the sexes. The presumed physical inferiority of girls and women has historically justified, legitimated and excused the unequal treatment of female athletes. The most recent example was the US Soccer Federation’s legal arguments regarding the unequal pay between the men’s and women’s teams. The federation claimed there were differences in speed and strength of the men’s and women’s teams, which partly explained any disparities in pay. The backlash was swift, leading to the then-president of the federation, Carlos Cordeiro, issuing a public apology.
Change in sports doesn’t happen overnight, nor is it linear. Major professional sports leagues like MLB and the NFL resisted racially integrating their player rosters. It was not until 1962 that the last NFL team, the Washington Commanders, would racially integrate. Moreover, athletes of color played in the NFL in the early years of the league, only to be excluded as the league developed. Today, athletes like Jackie Robinson are celebrated as “breaking the color barrier” in sports, although that narrative often requires sanitizing, simplifying or rewriting a more complex, nuanced and contradictory history.
There remains though a cultural investment in celebrating sports’ “firsts,” whether that be Robinson as the first Black MLB player, the first openly gay active player in the NBA, the first nonbinary US athlete to participate in the Winter Olympics or the first woman to score in a Power Five college football game. Many of the athletes who become the “first” encounter resistance, backlash and opposition, especially from those who have historically benefited from the status quo in sports.
Part of what makes the “first” stories so compelling is the resilience, determination and love for the sport exhibited by these athletes and their motivation to break down barriers, despite the naysayers. Thomas, as the first transgender athlete to win a Division I NCAA championship, deserves to be placed among the other firsts. She should be embraced in the history of progress that sports represent and recognized as the trailblazer that she is.