Lia Thomas has been nominated by the University of Pennsylvania for the NCAA’s prestigious Woman Of The Year award. Predictably, some people love it and some people hate it.
The swimmer, who has become one of the most visible transgender athletes in the world, set multiple female school and Ivy League records last season, en route to a national championship (a rarity for an Ivy League swimmer) and three All-America designations.
Not surprisingly, the nomination has generated debate.
On the one hand are people lauding the recognition, with some like Athlete Ally calling the nomination “well-deserved,” and trans trailblazer Fallon Fox showering the nomination with praise: “Much deserved for her athletic achievements and influential leadership as a woman who happens to be trans.”
There are also a lot of people attacking the decision.
“This is yet another slap in the face to women,” said Riley Gaines, an SEC champion swimmer who competed against Thomas at the NCAA Championships, and who is also nominated for the award. She added that she felt the NCAA has now “made this award worthless.” Though it wasn’t the NCAA that made the nomination, it was Penn.
Martina Navratilova also slammed the selection, and also placing blame with the NCAA: “What is wrong with you?!!!!!!!?”
It does continue to fascinate me the strange bedfellows this debate has created, with the staunchly conservative OutKick — a publication Navratilova wouldn’t be caught dead reading — praising Navratilova, one of the most liberal people on Twitter. As I’ve pointed out before: The trans-athlete debate is not as easy as right vs. left.
That shows up in the polls on the topic as well, with Americans opposing the inclusion of trans women in the female sports category by about a 3:1 margin; even Democrats, who otherwise largely support trans inclusion, are pretty evenly split on the topic of trans athletes.
With that backdrop, some are now calling for the school to withdraw Thomas’ name, or for the NCAA to disqualify her. Though Thomas’ eligibility for the award seems pretty rock-solid. While one group says the NCAA has “failed to ensure that eligibility rules are up to date and based on scientific fact,” they have in fact adjusted their policy over the last year, giving more power to USA Swimming to create its trans-inclusion policy. To be sure, Thomas would not have been eligible to compete in the female category if USA Swimming’s policy had been implemented.
While that policy will continue to shift, Thomas did meet the competition criteria this past season, she did compete within the rules, and by doing so it seems she is in fact eligible for this nomination.
Still, the nomination is a bold move by Penn. Decision-makers there had to have known they’d be giving a big middle finger to people who have raised concerns about Thomas’ participation, and thrusting her back into the middle of a heated worldwide debate.
My main hope — and I have to believe this happened — is that they ran this by Thomas first, as they also had to have known that it would create a firestorm of backlash for her, the school and the NCAA.
All told, there are 577 nominees for the prestigious award, and 46 of them are from swimming and diving. Olympian Brooke Forde from Stanford, who has publicly supported Thomas’ inclusion in the female sports category, is also a nominee. Felicia Pasadyn, who was part of Harvard’s 800 free relay team that beat Thomas’ Penn team for an Ivy League title this season (Thomas and Penn beat her team in the 400 free relay), is her school’s nominee.
The award was created in 1991, and an Ivy League athlete has never won it.
In the past, Outsports has recognized trans women in our end-of-year female awards categories, including CeCé Telfer as our 2019 Female Athlete of the Year, JayCee Cooper as a co-Female Hero that same year, and Mack Beggs and Harrison Browne as Male Heroes of the Year in 2017. In 2020, we created a new category for trans athletes, not to exclude trans women from the female category, but to build an additional opportunity for recognition.
Naming Telfer the Female Athlete of the Year in 2019 is one of the awards I’ve been most excited about over the years. It never occurred to us at Outsports that we were somehow taking away an opportunity for cis women, but rather recognizing a trans athlete who, like Thomas, was the target of some pretty intense ire and still came out on top.
Yet our Outsports awards aren’t the NCAA’s Woman of the Year award. There’s of course a vast chasm of influence and prestige between the two.
Where will this conversation go next? This may not be the end of it. The Ivy League will now select which of the eight conference nominees it will advance to the next selection round, then the Woman of the Year Selection Committee will pick 10 Division I nominees for its Top 30 honorees. The official NCAA Woman of the Year will be named in January at the NCAA convention.
If Thomas is selected by the Ivy League — and from afar it seems entirely possible — this conversation will heat up to a boiling point.