Lia Thomas, a swimmer on the University of Pennsylvania women’s swim team, has been making waves in and out of the pool. The senior, who previously competed for the Penn men’s team before coming out as transgender, recently shattered women’s records at Penn in the 200m and 500m freestyle. Although the University has reportedly instructed swimmers not to speak to the press, at least two of Thomas’s teammates have spoken out anonymously, describing Penn swimmers as “upset and crying” at a recent meet because of perceived unfairness. How much do you know about transgender athletes and equal opportunity for women? Can you identify which of the following statements is not true? 

A. Federal law requires schools to provide equal athletic opportunities for males and females.

B. Without separate men’s and women’s sports, female athletes wouldn’t have the same athletic opportunities as men.

C. Allowing transgender women to participate in women’s sports won’t  negatively affect athletes who were born female.  

Let’s take these statements one at a time:

A. TRUTH! Title IX prohibits schools that receive federal money from discriminating “on the basis of sex.” This non-discrimination statute applies to all aspects of the educational experience, including athletics. High schools, colleges, and universities that receive any federal money are required to “provide equal athletic opportunity for members of both sexes.”  

B. TRUTH! Without separate teams for women and men, men would dominate women in competitive sports where strength, size, or speed are relevant factors. That is because, physiologically, the average male is stronger, bigger, and faster than the average female. Federal regulations that enforce Title IX, therefore, provide that schools “may operate or sponsor separate teams for members of each sex.” Given the competitive advantage that male athletes generally have over female athletes, Title IX plays an important role in leveling the proverbial “playing field.” 

C. LIE! As the Thomas case demonstrates, female-bodied athletes who are forced to compete against male-bodied athletes are at a significant disadvantage. Moreover, for women’s athletic teams with limited roster spots, the inclusion of male-bodied athletes necessarily takes spots (and potentially scholarships) away from female-bodied athletes. 

Bottom line: In the realm of athletics, biological sex differences matter. Women have fought long and hard for equal athletic opportunities. Ignoring the physiological differences between male-bodied athletes and female-bodied athletes will inevitably erode some of those gains.