Challenging a male-born transgender athlete’s right to compete against women is a good way to get yourself canceled, but a rising tide of sports insiders are risking it as Penn swimmer Lia Thomas makes a run at the collegiate record books.
The latest to take a stand is Erika Brown. The two-time Olympic medalist reportedly posted a statement last week on Instagram Stories opposing biological men in women’s sports. She is the first active Team USA swimmer to enter the fray.
“I don’t want to create any hate, only speak up for what is right,” Brown said in comments reprinted on SwimSwam and Swimming World. “We cannot allow transgender females to compete against biological women.”
One sports icon who had Brown’s back and who recognized the stakes was tennis great Martina Navratilova, who tweeted Thursday: “Erika Brown is a brave woman to speak out while still competing. She better not be cancelled for this by anyone!!!”
Brown, 23, who won silver and bronze at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, joined the small but growing team of sports figures risking censure by defying athletic authorities, universities and woke culture.
Others who have spoken out include Hall of Fame swimming coach Dave Salo, 11-time All-American swimmer Jeri Shanteau and longtime USA Swimming official Cynthia Millen, who quit in November in protest of allowing male-born athletes to swim against females.
The catalyst is Thomas, 22, who has smashed records in her first season on the University of Pennsylvania women’s swimming team, positioning herself to make a run at the NCAA records held by Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin.
Thomas was cleared to compete against women after three years on the men’s team by undergoing a year of testosterone suppression as required by the NCAA. Brown decried that standard as woefully inadequate.
“A biological male goes through male puberty,” Brown said in her post. “Even when she has transitioned, she still has the physiology of a male. A few years of testosterone blockers and estrogen doesn’t change the fact that she will have more powerful muscles, a larger heart and greater lung capacity than a biological woman.”
Brown concluded: “It’s time to start standing up for women’s sports, before we lose what so many before us have fought for. I hope that this can help inspire others to speak up.”
Such sentiments run afoul of the influential LGBTQ movement, which has fought for the rights of transgender athletes to compete based on their gender identity versus their sex at birth.
“While people might think more broadly that this is just about sports, this is really about the broader conversation about the humanity of trans folks and whether or not we deserve to participate in all aspects of life in society, and that includes college sports,” Anne Lieberman, Athlete Ally director of policy and programs, said in a Dec. 17 statement.
Outsports slammed the uproar over the swimmer as “anti-trans panic.” LGBTQ Nation chalked up the “right-wing backlash” to “anti-trans advocates.”
Those on the other side insist their beef is not with transgender athletes such as Thomas, who has followed the NCAA rules, but with athletic governing bodies that have cleared the way for male-born swimmers to race against women.
Salo, who retired last year as USC head swimming coach, said most coaches agree that the NCAA policy is wrong but fear the social and professional consequences of taking such a stand.
“I would say a majority of coaches would agree with me,” Salo told The Washington Times. “But again, they’re very apprehensive in a collegiate environment to speak out against something like this because they’ll be considered transphobic or homophobic. I can speak out.”
At Penn, two female teammates and some parents shared their concerns about Thomas with media outlets last month, but all under the cloak of anonymity.
The sports site OutKick said one of the swimmers “feared for her ability to find employment after graduating from college for sharing her honest opinion about a transgender teammate.” The other cited “threats from the university, activists, and the political climate.”
The team also faces pressure to avoid speaking to media and to support Thomas, they said, even as she blows away the competition.
At a meet last month at the University of Akron, Thomas set the nation’s best time in the 200 freestyle, broke the Ivy League record in the 500 freestyle and won the 1650 freestyle by a whopping 38 seconds. She also holds the nation’s best time in the 500.
The swimmers criticized Penn swimming coach Mike Schnur, but Salo said it would be career-threatening for any coach to complain to the administration.
“I know the comments being made anonymously by team members is that all he cares about is winning,” said Salo. “But I think if he were to go to his administration and say, ‘I can’t accept this,’ he would probably be compromised in his position as the head coach at UPenn. So you have to take that into account.”
Shanteau, who won three NCAA national titles with Auburn in the mid-2000s, appeared last month on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle,” where she accused sports authorities of “neglect” and “complete discrimination” against female-born athletes.
She said speaking out is “incredibly scary,” especially for young athletes still involved in competitive swimming.
“Look, the reality is I’m a stay-at-home mother of two. I have ties to swimming. I have a relationship with hundreds of people still connected to this sport,” Shanteau told The Washington Times. “But there are some people that do not have the luxury that I have. If I speak up, hopefully my entire livelihood isn’t ruined. This cancel culture is incredibly scary to speak up and talk in.”
LGBTQ advocates counter that transgender athletes face their own societal minefields, including ridicule, accusations of cheating, and being misgendered in the media and subjected to invasive personal and medical questions.
“The athlete gets subjected to mass media misgendering by certain outlets like the New York Post and the Daily Mail,” Outsports writer Karleigh Webb said in a Dec. 9 article. “These groups and others will put your deadname and pre-transition photos all over the story without your consent. The athlete will also be subjected to loads of insults on social media, from unknowns to the well-known.”
Before Thomas, the best example was Laurel Hubbard, the male-born New Zealand weightlifter who was scorned for competing against women and hailed as an LGBTQ pioneer last year after becoming the first openly transgender Olympic athlete. She did not medal after failing to complete a lift.
Even some transgender advocates say arguments on behalf of athletes like Thomas and Hubbard, who have transitioned or are in the process of transitioning, are not going over well with most Americans.
A Transgender Law Center report posted online last month found that regardless of how the issue was framed, “no arguments we tested bested the opposition in a direct debate on sports policy.”
“Right now, our opposition wins the debate on trans youth in sports against any and all arguments we have tried for our side,” said the 13-page report, titled “Transgender Youth and the Freedom To Be Ourselves: Building Our Choir With a Race Class Gender Narrative.”
The NCAA has thrown its support behind transgender athletes in reaction to state laws barring male-born athletes from female sports. The association declared in April that it would allow championships to be held only in locations that are “safe, healthy and free from discrimination.”
In October, however, the Human Rights Campaign accused the NCAA of reneging by allowing softball tournaments to be held in Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, all of which have enacted such laws.
“The Human Rights Campaign is calling on the NCAA to respect the health and safety of transgender athletes by refusing to consider Final Four host cities in states that have anti-transgender sports bans on the books,” the group’s interim president, Joni Madison, said in an Oct. 1 statement.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group, has yet to weigh in on the Thomas situation. The Washington Times has reached out for comment.
Beth Stelzer, who heads Save Women’s Sports, said the transgender movement wields enormous influence in the mainstream media and on social media, but she believes the tide is turning thanks to Shanteau, Millen and others like them.
“I think we’re going to see a groundswell of support. We just needed a safe space for people to speak up because it’s been such a toxic environment,” Ms. Stelzer said on her Sunday podcast. “This movement has bullied people who speak up, but we’ve finally gotten to the point that the bullies can’t shut us up anymore. There are enough of us.”