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South Dakota’s governor seeks a ‘coalition’ to expand trans student-athlete bans

Kristi Noem defends her ‘style and form’ veto while touting a new initiative to ‘Defend Title IX Now.’

Gov. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) announced Monday that she seeks to bring like-minded legislators, leaders and athletes together in an effort called “Defend Title IX Now”, in addition to discussing the “style and form” changes she wants to see the recently-passed HB1217
Gov. Kristi Noem

Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem offered more details Monday on why she decided to send House Bill 1217, which would ban transgender girls from participating in interscholastic and intercollegiate athletics, back to the statehouse.

On Friday, she stunned lawmakers by tweeting that she wanted them to consider “style and form changes” to their bill, a move that some of the bill’s supporters believe would water it down to make it almost meaningless.

This was a sudden reversal from March 8, when the governor tweeted how excited she was to sign HB 1217. Her proposed changes to the bill, essentially becoming a veto if lawmakers don’t go along, would eliminate the trans ban at the state’s public universities.

“Removing the collegiate is simply saying that biology matters in high school, but not in college,” State Senator Maggie Sutton told KELO-TV.

“I believe that boys should play boys’ sports, and girls should play girls’ sports,” Noem said at a press conference in Sioux Falls, S.D. Monday morning. She explained her controversial decision, noting that without her recommended changes, she feared the bill could face a fate similar to Idaho’s trans-athlete ban. A federal judge stopped it from being enforced while he considers a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Some of portions of the bill that we need to fix are those that create a trial lawyer’s dream,” Gov. Noem told reporters. “There are incredible opportunities for lawsuit and litigation in this bill that don’t need to be there.”

NCAA Division 2 Women’s Volleyball Championship
The 2024 NCAA division II women’s volleyball championship finals and NCAA men’s division I hockey tournament regional games in 2024 and 2026 are scheduled to be held in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Photo by Jason Salzman/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Noem focused her efforts on the bill’s attempt to bar trans women from competing at the collegiate level. With the state hosting three NCAA tournament and championship events over the next five years, and student-athletes pushing the NCAA to not place such events in states that pass these kinds of laws, she stated that the situation demanded a different approach.

The approach is a new initiative called “Defend Title IX Now.” Noem described it as a “coalition of legislators, leaders and athletes,” who will apply pressure in a “fill the jails”-style action to force the NCAA into a corner. The association would be forced to sue or sanction a number of schools nationwide, in order to uphold its trans-affirming policies in those states. “Once we have a coalition big enough to where the NCAA cannot possibly punish us all, then we can guarantee fairness at the collegiate level,”

Noem said she arrived at the idea after conferring with legal counsel, fearing protracted legal action should the NCAA pull an event from her state. “We could pass a law, then we could get punished, then we could face expensive litigation at taxpayer expense, and then we could lose,” the governor said. “We’d have nothing but a participation trophy to show for it, or we could take a different path entirely.”

This initiative comes on the heels of a fervent backlash from conservatives in response to Noem’s decision not to sign the bill immediately after receiving it. Terry Schilling, the head of the Virginia-based American Principles Project, blasted the decision as a “betrayal” in a statement, saying: “For more than a week, Noem’s office has frozen out advocates of HB 1217 and instead taken advice from the bill’s most vocal critics.” Schilling added that she “has irreparably damaged her standing with both her own constituents as well as Americans nationally who have been looking to her for bold leadership,” warning that her action “will have political consequences.”

The Federalist also denounced Noem, saying the likely 2024 presidential hopeful “bowed” to corporate interests and is someone who “sells out women’s sports”.

In support of her initiative, Noem trotted out cisgender girls as props and called on college sports legend Herschel Walker. The 1982 Heisman Trophy winner, former NFL player, and former U.S. Olympian was also a high-profile supporter of former President Donald Trump’s re-election bid, and an opening-night speaker at last year’s Republican National Convention.

Gov. Noem looks on as Herschel Walker explains his support for her initiative.
Gov. Noem, left, watches Herschel Walker explain his support for her initiative.
Gov. Kristi Noem

Walker’s voiced his support for Defend Title IX in the form of a well-used transphobic trope. “Who do you consider as a transgender who can compete in women’s sports?” Walker asked. “If they start doing something like this, you could take myself as an example. At my age today now, I could classify myself as a woman and go be in the Olympics and I would probably win a gold medal in certain events at the Olympics today saying I’m a woman.”

Opponents of the bill criticize Noem for stopping short of a full veto. “This bill is still harmful,” Jett Jonelis, Advocacy Manager for the ACLU of South Dakota told Dakota News Now. “It’s still discriminatory. It still has the same legal issues. It still has the potential for serious economic fallout. there’s really no version of this bill that is acceptable, so anything less than a full veto is not enough.”

Lawmakers will consider Noem’s proposed changes when they return to the Capitol in one week, on Monday, March 29. Meanwhile, she will take her case to the most-watched television program in cable news tonight: serial transphobe Tucker Carlson on Fox News.