Since the NCAA’s decision to replace a transgender inclusion policy that was built on learned consensus for something born of reaction to anti-trans hysteria last week, it would seem reasonable to be even more cynical about the people in charge.

There have been calls in the past for further updates, as well as calls for the NCAA to strengthen a commitment to inclusion and anti-discrimination across the board. The calls have largely been met with indifference from the NCAA Board of Governors in Indianapolis.

The looming “threat” of Lia Thomas, a transgender woman who is a senior-year swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania earning All-American honors, or more, led the powers that be in collegiate sport to a rash, rushed, and reactionary action.

Rash and reactionary often describe the demographic of current student-athletes, also known as that the often-discussed and debated “Generation Z.”

Three members of this generation, all collegiate student-athletes I’ve seen, heard, and read in recent days, give me a lot of hope. They’ve also made me take a good look at where the wisdom and leadership in college sports really lies right now.

Lia Thomas earned two hard-fought wins, and received good sportsmanship at Harvard

I was at Blodgett Pool on the Harvard University campus for the Penn-Harvard dual meet January 22. Lia Thomas of Penn and Samantha Shelton for Harvard were stroke-for-stroke in a 100-yard freestyle race. Thomas clawed to a lead in the first 50 yards, and extended it to win by a half-second.

The real story was immediately after the finish. Thomas turned her head and reached out. Shelton reached back across the lane line. They shared a fist bump as a simple, genuine gesture of sportsmanship at the end of a hard-fought race.

I encountered a young collegiate diver named Lucas Draper a few days later. He was a guest on The Trans Sporter Room. A junior at Division III Oberlin College in Ohio, Draper’s focus is on his classes, polishing his dives, and pushing towards the coming North Coast Athletic Conference championships in February.

He observed the flak Thomas received. As a transgender man and a fellow student-athlete, he saw the ugliness as unfair. He wrote his thoughts in an editorial for Swimming World Magazine that was published on their website on January 1.

Lucas Draper was a guest on The Trans Sporter Room and called out the treatment of Lia Thomas saying “It was upsetting because I didn’t think she deserved it.”

“I didn’t like the fact that she was the target of this,” Draper said. “People were making judgements about Lia rather than about the rules. If you dislike the rules? That is your right, but that doesn’t mean you have the right to dislike Lia.”

Draper took a lot of heat for his stance and much of it came in a cruel, classless and transphobic response from track coach and anti-trans activist Linda Blade posted at the Swimming World Magazine website on January 11.

He admitted that her reference to him as “a female athlete who self-identifies as a man” hurt.

“I’m not going lie, I cried a little bit,” he said tersely of the willful misgendering by Blade.

Stanford Cardinal All-American Brooke Forde said she has no qualms about going head-to-head against Lia Thomas saying “treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be”.

A day after talking to Draper, I read about what Stanford University swimmer, and 2020 U.S. Olympian, Brooke Forde had to say.

Her resume is formidable. Four-time NCAA champion. Fifteen-time All-American. Silver medalist on Team USA’s 800-free relay squad at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.

She’s also nationally ranked in the 500-yard freestyle with the third-fastest time this season; Thomas has the first. She won the NCAA title in the event in 2019, was third last season, and could possibly meet Lia Thomas in the event at the NCAA Division I national championship meet in March.

She gave a statement via her father, Sports Illustrated reporter Pat Forde, on Yahoo Sports’ College Football Enquirer podcast Wednesday:

“I have great respect for Lia. Social change is always a slow and difficult process, and we rarely get it correct right away. Being among the first to lead such a social change requires an enormous amount of courage and I admire Lia for her leadership that will undoubtedly benefit many trans athletes in the future. In 2020 I, along with most swimmers, experienced what it was like to have my chance to achieve my swimming goals taken away after years of hard work. I would not wish this experience on anyone, especially Lia who has followed the rules required of her. I believe that treating people with respect and dignity is more important than any trophy or record will ever be, which is why I will not have a problem racing against Lia at NCAAs this year.” — Brooke Forde

The common denominator is that for these student-athletes the issue here isn’t the matter of any rule except “The Golden Rule.” All three showed something that has been in short supply among a larger number of adults: a measure of sportsmanship, class, humanity, and respect.

There are writers from certain outlets like the Daily Mail and the New York Post, television pundits, and some claiming to “save women’s sports” who have shown Lia Thomas none of those virtues.

Some of these outlets have gone as far as printing “anonymous” sources who make grievous claims against Thomas. The one recent claim accuses Thomas of colluding with another trans swimmer, Yale’s Iszac Henig, to “throw” a race. The claim making the rounds this week that she is allegedly acting in a manner in the locker room that make teammates “uncomfortable” to be around her.

NCAA President Mark Emmert has talked the talked on inclusion, but actions have shown the organization walking it back

The student-athletes I’ve mentioned here have also shown the leadership that the NCAA failed to show when it comes to this issue and other issues of anti-discrimination. A diversity facilitator for the organization’s LGBTQ inclusion efforts resigned in protest earlier this week over the NCAA trans policy change.

A memo to NCAA President Mark Emmert: Samantha Staton, Lucas Draper and Brooke Forde are showing the values that the NCAA touts on a lot of the organization’s ads I see during college sports telecasts. I think you all need to look at the example here closely.

This young generation is leading the way. Many of us older folks need to take notes and catch up.

Lucas Draper spoke at length about why he spoke out for Lia Thomas, in addition to his own story. The Trans Sporter Room also beamed up Sports Illustrated copy chief and writer Julie Kliegman to dig deeper into the NCAA’s new transgender inclusion policy and why the NCAA is shying away from putting action behind supportive words on equity and inclusion in college sports. Catch both interviews on Megaphone, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple podcasts, and many other platforms for Outsports podcasts as well.