Three iconic figures in women’s sports made waves over the weekend by challenging the fairness of the NCAA‘s transgender policy amid University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas‘ record-smashing season.
Tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert jumped in after Olympic swimming champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar broke the ice by declaring that there was “nothing fair” about the NCAA rules allowing Thomas to swim on the Ivy League women’s team.
“Thomas is proving that the advocates who assured the NCAA and their member schools that male puberty could be rolled back in a single year after consistent hormone treatment were wrong,” Hogshead-Makar said Friday in an op-ed for the [U.K.] DailyMail.com, which was reprinted in Swimming World.
“The rules should follow the evidence, and in this case it is clear: Thomas should not be in head-to-head competition with biological females,” she said.
Her article was headlined, “It was not fair when I raced against doped-up East Germans and it is not fair for women to compete against transgender swimmer Lia Thomas.”
Navratilova called the article “a well reasoned and fair take on trans women inclusion in women’s sports, IMO. Well done Nancy.” Evert responded Saturday with her own tweet: “I second that.”
Their voices lent instant credibility and visibility to the pushback over the NCAA’s policy allowing transgender athletes to compete in women’s sports as long as they undergo a year of testosterone-suppression therapy, a standard that Hogshead-Makar decried as woefully inadequate.
The average differential between men’s and women’s NCAA championship “A” qualification times is 11.41%, she said, but Thomas is only 2.6% slower in the 200 freestyle than her pre-transition time, and 5.76% slower in the 500.
“That is NOT mitigation. It is NOT fair,” said Hogshead-Makar. “I should add that it isn’t Lia’s fault. The problem is with the NCAA’s rules that permit Penn to keep her on their women’s team.”
The 22-year-old Thomas swam for three years on the men’s team as Will Thomas, earning second-team All-Ivy honors, before transitioning to female and switching to the women’s team for the 2021-22 season.
Thomas holds this year’s fastest times in the 200 and 500 freestyle events, fueling speculation that she could make a run at records held by Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky at the NCAA Division I championships in March.
“[I]f Thomas breaks Olympic gold medalists Missy Franklin or Katie Ledecky’s NCAA swimming records, that outcome is grossly unfair,” said Hogshead-Makar.
She and Navratilova are members of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, which seeks to find a “middle way” between excluding male-to-female transgender athletes and allowing those with “male sex-linked physical advantages” to compete in women’s and girls’ sports.
Chris Evert is listed as a supporter of the group. So is Renee Richards, the first male-to-female player to compete in women’s professional tennis, who has said that transgender athletes enjoy unfair advantages over their female-born competition.
Hogshead-Makar said there should be avenues for transgender athletes to compete, including against biological women, “so long as they can demonstrate that they have lost their sex-linked, male-puberty advantage.”
“Sport has been set up as a binary with males and females, and sport needs to adapt by adding new events and classifications, rather than throwing out the meaning of the ‘girls’ and women’s’ categories,” she said.
The growing uproar over the Thomas situation comes with sports federations worldwide wrestling with how to balance fairness and inclusion as male-to-female transgender athletes seek to compete in women’s events.
Adopted in 2011, the NCAA rule does not specify that transgender athletes must keep their testosterone below a certain level, as some other organizations have done.
For example, World Athletics, the international track-and-field authority, requires women’s middle-distance runners to keep their blood testosterone level below 5 nanomoles per liter [nmol/L] for at least six months before competition and then continuously during their careers to maintain eligibility.
The 2018 policy said that most females, including elite athletes, have naturally occurring testosterone in blood levels of 0.12 to 1.76 nmol/L, while the post-pubescent male range is 7.7 to 29.4 nmol/L.
“No female would have serum levels of natural testosterone at 5 nmol/L or above unless they have DSD [Difference in Sexual Development] or a tumour,” said the World Athletics statement.
The International Olympic Committee previously recommended that sports federations adopt a standard for male-to-female transgender athletes of 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months before competition, but in November, the IOC overhauled its guidance.
The latest guidelines no longer recommend specific testosterone levels, but rather emphasize that any eligibility criteria should be based on “robust and peer reviewed research,” and that there should be “no presumption of advantage” without evidence.
While the NCAA has not commented directly on the Thomas uproar, the organization issued in April a statement in support of its policies providing “a more inclusive path for transgender participation in college sports.”
“Our approach — which requires testosterone suppression treatment for transgender women to compete in women’s sports — embraces the evolving science on this issue and is anchored in participation policies of both the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee,” said the NCAA statement. “Inclusion and fairness can coexist for all student-athletes, including transgender athletes, at all levels of sport.”
Others have also called for the NCAA to take action. A group of Penn parents reportedly sent a letter asking the NCAA to protect the integrity of the sport, while the editor of Swimming World called Thomas’s advantage “akin to doping” and urged the NCAA to “act quickly.”
Last week, Cynthia Millen quit after officiating USA Swimming meets for 30 years in protest of the Thomas situation and called on other officials to do the same until swimming authorities address the issue.
In a Dec. 8 interview with SwimSwam, Thomas said she felt “confident and good in my swimming and all my personal relationships,” adding that she has tried to ignore the criticism.
“I just don’t engage with it,” Thomas said. “It’s not healthy for me to read it and engage with it at all, and so I don’t, and that’s all I’ll say on that.”
Some LGBTQ outlets have accused critics of transphobia. SB Nation’s Outsports said Thomas was the victim of “anti-trans panic,” while LGBTQ Nation said she was the target of a “conservative backlash.”
“Trans athletes at all levels — including U Penn swimmer Lia Thomas — deserve equal access to and participation in the sport they love, without discrimination or abuse,” said Athlete Ally in a Wednesday tweet. “Academics and leading scholars in the fields of Kinesiology, Law and Policy, and Gender Studies agree that trans women do not have an inherent advantage and are not a threat to women’s sports.”
Others disagree. Hogshead-Makar drew a comparison to her days competing against steroid-using East German athletes, saying she was only able to win three Olympic gold medals and a silver because the Soviet bloc boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
What’s more, she said, even though the East German women were “doped to the gills, they were only slightly better than the best biological women; not one of them were competitive with men.”
The Penn women’s swim team resumes its season with a Jan. 8 meet at home against Dartmouth.