Nine Republican state governors, all of whom have signed and/or heavily endorsed legislation discriminating against transgender youth, declared their intent to open up a new beachhead in an ongoing battle.
The new target is the NCAA, as explained in a letter to the NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports revealed on Oct. 30.
The governors implored the NCAA to bar trans women from competing in the female category, saying, “The NCAA has the chance to guarantee an environment where female college athletes can thrive without the concern of inequities.”
Who are these governors and what do they want?
The nine who have signed feature five governors who have, at varying levels, centered anti-LGBTQ legislation during their administration: Texas’ Greg Abbott, Arkansas’ Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, Missouri’s Mike Parson, Mississippi’s Tate Reeves. Others joining the letter include Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt, Montana’s Greg Gianforte, Nevada’s Joe Lombardo and Wyoming’s Mark Gordon.
Among the group, Gordon is a slight outlier. He has been critical of legislation in his own state to keep trans women out of the interscholastic and intercollegiate athletics’ female category. When a similar measure came to his desk earlier this year, he called it “discriminatory without attention to individual circumstances or mitigating factors, and pays little attention to fundamental principles of equality.” The bill passed, but without his signature.
What the governors are seeking is for the NCAA to affirm a total ban of trans-women athletes from the female category. This is a departure from the inclusive policies that were first enacted in 2011.
Many of their reasons for taking this stand are either erroneous — such as the claim that University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines “couldn’t stand for photos with the first-place trophy that she rightfully earned” (Gaines tied trans University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas for fifth in the NCAA’s 200-meter freestyle in 2022 and was in photos) — or misleading.
What is the NCAA’s trans inclusion policy now?
The initial NCAA transgender-student athlete inclusion policy was implemented in 2011. The first publicly out trans student-athletes began competing in that academic year. Since then, at least 36 publicly out transgender student-athlete have participated. Notables include:
- Harvard swimmer Schuyler Bailar, who became the first transgender male student athlete to compete in NCAA Division I in 2015.
- In 2019 Franklin Pierce track athlete CeCé Telfer became the first transgender student-athlete of any gender to win an NCAA individual national championship at any level.
- In March 2022, University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas became the first trans individual NCAA champion at the Division I level.
The reaction by some to Thomas’ performances during the 2021-2022 season prompted the NCAA to make a set of policy changes in early 2022.
The current NCAA policy, put in place after the 2021-22 academic year, is a phased process over three years. The first phase was the original policy, which mandates that a trans woman must be on feminizing hormone replacement therapy for at least one year. That stayed in place through 2022.
The second phase was enacted last year. The original NCAA regulations, plus a mandate that a trans woman student-athlete must submit test data on hormone levels prior to the start of the competitive season, depending on the sport, and prior to any championship competition.
A third phase, originally scheduled for the current academic year, would add meeting the standards of national or world governing bodies in a given sport to the regulations. Some sports, such as swimming and track and field, have put forth a policy that ban trans women who have “been through male puberty.”
The NCAA chose to delay the third phase to next year.
“Each division was urged to allow for additional, future eligibility if a transgender student-athlete loses eligibility based on the policy change, provided they meet the newly adopted standards,” the organization stated. “The NCAA will remain in Phase Two in 2023-24 to allow additional time to address operational considerations of the policy.”
The governors’ letter was sparked by the NCAA’s delay. A delay that was prompted in part by a change in leadership.
From the statehouse to the stadium
Charlie Baker was a two-term Republican Governor of Massachusetts until last year. In March 2023, Baker became the new president of the NCAA.
Within the letter, Baker is termed as “a former colleague of ours” by the governors seeking to lobby him. The similarities between Baker and the nine state chief executives who signed this letter don’t go much further than the phrase “Republican governor.”
Ideologically, Baker is poles apart from the governors who wrote to him. As a moderate Republican in a blue state, as governor he supported LGBTQ issues such as marriage equality. In 2016, he supported and signed a transgender anti-discrimination bill.
In 2018, some of the same groups that oppose trans inclusion in sports now forced a referendum on the Massachusetts anti-discrimination law. Baker publicly spoke against efforts to repeal the law and voters overwhelmingly affirmed the law at the polls.
Many have stated that Baker’s experiences in politics and ability to work ably with different viewpoints are great assets as an NCAA chief executive and he has made an early positive impact.
He has been noncommittal on trans inclusion in his early tenure at the NCAA. He has spent more time working on issues such as the continuing evolution of the name, image and likeness policies that are changing collegiate sport.
After his response to a question about inclusion during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on college sports last month, Gaines chided a largely down-the-middle answer reaffirming NCAA commitment to a safe environment, calling Baker a “weak leader.” At the same instant, some proponents said by not standing up for the NCAA’s current inclusive policies specifically that Baker was pivoting to placate anti-trans groups.
So what happens next?
Days after the hearing, the letter from the governors reached the NCAA’s desk. It’s just the latest chapter for an issue that continues to churn in the nation’s body politic, and that will likely factor into next year’s election campaign even up to the presidential level.
Yet with the urgency of this letter, and the continued fears of those who oppose transgender inclusion in collegiate sports, the number of publicly out trans athletes in college sports today is relatively very low, as far as Outsports is aware.
Of those Outsports knows to be out and competing only one, Lewis (Ill.) University tennis player Brooklyn Ross, is a transgender woman competing in the female category.