Student, professional athletes push for NCAA to pull events over transgender athlete bans

Student and professional athletes joined LGBTQ advocates Friday to ask the National Collegiate Athletic Association to take action against states passing bills to exclude transgender women from women’s sports teams.

“This is a moment of national crisis where the rights and very existence of transgender young people are under attack,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a virtual press event. “This year’s state legislative sessions mark the highest number of anti-transgender bills in history — more than 50 — which target the ability of transgender athletes to participate in sports.”

In North Carolina last month, Republican lawmakers filed a bill to bar transgender women from competing against other women at schools and universities. Just this week, they filed bills that target transgender health care, seek to force teachers and counselors to report children who exhibit “gender nonconformity” and legally protect scientifically debunked “conversion therapy” that seeks to cure LGBTQ people.

As North Carolina saw five years ago, during the battle over HB2, the economic and cultural impact of sports organizations withdrawing competitions from states with discriminatory laws can make a difference. In response to that bill, the NCAA moved seven championship events scheduled to be held in the state as other major organizations and corporations boycotted the state. The final economic impact was estimated at nearly $4 billion.

Last month nearly 550 current NCAA athletes from across the nation signed a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert and the NCAA Board of Governors asking that they reaffirm the organization’s existing non-discrimination policies and pull championship events in states where transgender athletes are banned from competition. More than 700 NCAA athletes have now signed the letter.

Alana Boja, track and field athlete at Washington University.

“We noticed more and more states slated to host championships were putting anti-trans bills on the table but the NCAA was just staying silent,” said Alana Boja, a Washington University track and field athlete who helped spearhead the letter.

“We couldn’t just sit back and watch as the right to play sports was stripped from our fellow athletes,” Boja said.

The bills are a threat to all women athletes, Boja said.

“It’s impossible for women athletes to feel safe and supported in an environment where their personal identity and integrity is questioned,” Boja said. “The reality is many of these bills cannot possibly be enforced without inviting policing and bullying of all student athletes who do not meet stereotypes of gender and could empower any person to force any student athlete to undergo invasive physical exams or hormone tests in order to ‘prove their gender,’ whatever that means.”

Transgender women don’t threaten women’s and girl’s sports, Boja said.

“They’re my teammates, who want to play for the exact same reasons that I do,” Boja said. “To have fun, to improve ourselves, to make friends and be physically fit.”

Boja’s Washington University teammate, Aliya Schenck, said Republican legislators aren’t supporting or protecting women’s sports by discriminating against transgender women. If they want to do that, she said, they can concentrate on funding underfunded women’s sports programs all over the country.

The NCAA has had a policy allowing for the inclusion of transgender athletes since 2011. The organization should treat the current legislation like the threat to its policies and values that it is, Schenck said.

“Trans girls have been competing for a long time without incident,” Schenck said. “The NCAA needs to take action and withdraw all athletic competition from states considering anti-transgender sports bills.”

This week Emmert, the NCAA president, broke his silence on the issue with a letter to HRC’s president, but did not explicitly commit to pulling events from states that pass anti-transgender legislation.

“The NCAA Board of Governors policy requires championship host sites to demonstrate how they will provide an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination,” Emmert wrote in the letter. “The board policy also requires that safeguards are in place to ensure the dignity of everyone involved in the event.”

Emmert said the organization continues to “closely monitor and assess state bills and federal guidelines that impact student-athlete participation” and cited an executive order by President Joe Biden strengthening the enforcement power of Title IX, which applies to transgender students.

“This federal guidance will be another important mechanism that states consider when formulating new legislation,” Emmert wrote. “All NCAA schools also must follow state and federal laws, including Title IX. It is our clear expectation that all NCAA student-athletes will be welcomed, treated with respect, and have nondiscriminatory participation wherever they compete.”

Emmert did say the NCAA is “concerned” with the bills being filed across the country.

“As we have previously stated in situations such as Idaho’s House Bill 500 and its resulting law, this legislation is harmful to transgender student-athletes and conflicts with the NCAA’s core values of inclusivity, respect and the equitable treatment of all individuals,” Emmert wrote.

David agreed that the bills conflict with the NCAA’s stated values and existing policy. The organization needs to take a stronger and clearer stand, he said, letting student athletes know they will not be forced to play in environments where they face discrimination.

“On their very face, these bills are contrary to the mission of the NCAA,” David said. “How they enforce that is what we’re engaging with NCAA on.”

At Friday’s press conference Cheryl Reeve, head coach of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, joined Lynx forward Napheesa Collier and track and field star CeCé Telfer, the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA title, to share their experiences and perspective as women athletes. 

“I’ve been involved in women’s sports for a long, long time,” Reeve said. “Since the 70s when the Title IX legislation passed. What I’m here to tell you is that what’s really harming women’s sports is an overall lack of investment – whether in resources for female athletes, opportunities to coach in the profession, lack of pay, severe pay disparities. Those are the true threats to women’s sports. This starts from scholastic competition all the way to the WNBA and professional sports.”

 

Cheryl Reeve, head coach of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx.

As coach of a four-time championship WNBA team, Reeve said the notion that transgender women unfairly take scholarships from cisgender women or have a competitive advantage in professional sports is insulting.

“This diminishes the athlete,” Reeve said.

Having travelled the world to find championship level players, Reeve said, she has seen that skill and drive trumps purely physical attributes. Both transgender and cisgender women can have impressive strength and size, Reeve said, but that isn’t what makes champions.

“Simply put, trans inclusion makes our sports, our teams and our communities stronger,” Reeve said.

Collier, forward for the Lynx, agreed.

“I consider transgender women my teammates, not a threat,” Collier said.

It’s also important to realize that the vast majority of student athletes won’t play at the pro level, she said. The reason sports are important to developing young people is the friendship, character and confidence it allows them to build. That’s important for all young people, she said.

“Transgender inclusion is so crucial for the health, safety and well being of transgender kids, who are already at a higher risk of anxiety, depression, dysmorphia and suicide,” Collier said. “Some transgender kids say that playing sports has helped to save their lives.”

Napheesa Collier, forward for the Minnesota Lynx.


The NCAA can’t allow politicians in states where they operate to take that from student athletes, Collier said.

“The NCAA has to take action and withdraw all athletic competition from states considering harmful, anti-transgender sports bills,” she said.

Telfer, a transgender woman and Division II national track champion, faced fierce transphobic backlash after winning the 400 meter hurdles competition in 2019. She followed the NCAA guidelines for transgender athletes and hormone monitoring showed her testosterone levels below that of the average level for cisgender women. Still she experienced heckling, online harassment and threats and had to have extra security just to compete.

Telfer broke ground for transgender athletes. An inclusive NCAA policy was a big part of allowing her to do that, she said. The organization needs to be sure they are supporting the transgender athletes who believe that policy protects them.

“As a former NCAA athlete, I definitely want to thank the NCAA and commend them for how they treated me as an athlete newly to them and their environment and to know that I’m not a threat,” Telfer said. “But we are definitely asking the NCAA to do more.”

CeCé Telfer, Division II NCAA track and field champion.

Sports was a huge part of her personal development, Telfer said. Every transgender young person should get to experience that, she said, and not be made to feel they are doing something wrong.

“As a trans athlete I’m not a threat to women’s sports, because I am a woman,” Telfer said.

As Policy Watch has reported, scientific experts have pointed to essential flaws in the understanding of biology, gender and the history of transgender athletes in competition at the heart of many of the current bills discriminating against transgender athletes.

“There are no large-scale studies evaluating the performance of transgender athletes before and then again after transition; and the idea that those assigned male at birth inherently possess physical attributes that provide them with a competitive advantage is limited at best,” said Dr. Sarah Henn, Chief Health Officer at Whitman-Walker Health, in an interview with Policy Watch this week.

“Elite women athletes on every level across sports can beat and outplay most men in those sports despite the men having physical attributes which are often associated with athleticism, such as being larger,” Henn said. “Performance is not based on any singular attribute, but rather is a combination of multiple attributes, which is why becoming an elite athlete is elusive to a majority of us. No testosterone level is going to solely produce athleticism.”

Like many transgender women athletes, Telfer experienced loss of strength and speed through transition.  Her performance was on a level with the many cisgender athletes to whom she lost in many other competitions the same year she won the 400 meter hurdles.

“Transfeminine persons undergoing feminizing treatment will have estrogen, testosterone, and hemoglobin levels similar to their cisgender, female counterparts, Henn said. “We also know that increased estrogen and decreased testosterone levels are accompanied by loss of muscle mass, increased fat mass, and decreased bone density.”

Telfer emphasized the importance of competition, and the acceptance of her fellow athletes and the NCAA, in her personal development. Experts agree that is an essential consideration in transgender inclusion in sports, particularly among young people.

Dr. Stacey Karpen Dohn, Senior Manager of Behavioral Health at Whitman-Walker Health, is a psychotherapist who specializes in working with transgender teens and their families. She said she’s seen first-hand the role sports programs can have in helping transgender young people find their place and navigate a difficult period in which they can feel like outsiders.

“I can unequivocally state that denying transgender youth the opportunity to play sports alongside their peers in high school and college will result in deep wounds and mental health challenges that could likely extend throughout adulthood,” Dohn said. “Trans youth need to be affirmed. They need to feel that they are as worthy of friendships, teamwork, school pride, and athletic training as their cisgender peers. Discrimination hurts adults, but for young people it can be devastating.”

“Society often goes to great lengths to communicate to trans folks that they are different, less than or unequal to their cisgender peers,” Dohn said. “This can be painful for trans people and to overcome that pain, folks sometimes turn to self-harm. I have worked with children as young as age four who fear bullying and rejection due to their gender identity. I have also worked with teens and young adults who resort to self-harming behaviors or suicidal ideation.”

“School sports should be a space where trans youth feel protected and welcomed,” Dohn said. “Sports teams and sports fields and courts should be safe havens for all of our youth. This influx of anti-trans bills demonstrates how transgender young people directly suffer from adults’ decisions to exclude them. Separation based on gender identity is morally wrong, medically unsubstantiated, and emotionally cruel. We need to protect our children, teens and young adults by modelling acceptance through policies that promote equality, not by policies that aim to exclude and discriminate.”

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