Once again, female college swimmers have been told to sit down and shut up in the face of what one athlete’s mother describes as “obvious sexism and discrimination.”
Last week, the National Collegiate Athletic Association rejected pleas from the parents of female Ivy League swimmers to restrict women’s sports to biological females. The female swimmers have been forced this season to compete against male-bodied athlete Lia Thomas, who previously competed for the University of Pennsylvania men’s team as Will Thomas. Controversy erupted late last year when Thomas began easily smashing women’s records.
But rather than support female athletes, the NCAA reaffirmed its long-standing policy in favor of transgender participation in women’s sports and kicked the can downhill, placing responsibility for sport-specific testosterone levels in the hands of the individual governing bodies for each sport.
The parents of the female swimmers are rightly concerned that inclusion of male-bodied athletes in women’s sports discriminates against their daughters. Athletes, like Thomas, who have experienced puberty have a significant competitive advantage over female athletes. (That’s why we have separate categories for men’s and women’s sports to begin with.)
And while suppressing one’s testosterone after the advent of male puberty can reduce a person’s athletic capacity, studies demonstrate that hormone therapy does not come close to closing the male-female athletic gap.
Allowing male-bodied athletes to compete in a women’s division doesn’t just discriminate by reducing the chances for females to win. It also discriminates by limiting opportunities for females merely to compete. That’s because when a male-bodied athlete competes on a limited roster women’s team or participates in a championship women’s meet, a female athlete loses a spot.
But that’s not all women lose. They also lose their self-confidence.
“Everybody is talking about inclusion,” a parent told me, “but nobody seems to care that our daughters are being excluded in a way that impacts their body image. This has been traumatizing for them.”
Sadly, the feelings of the female swimmers seem not to matter.
For its part, the Ivy League has gone out of its way to emphasize its “unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive environment for all student-athletes while condemning transphobia and discrimination in any form.” Got that? It’s inclusive to everyone, except female athletes. And if you don’t think post-pubescent male-bodied athletes should compete on women’s teams, you’re a bigot.
UPenn, in particular, has responded by suggesting that the young women seek counseling. “We’ve encouraged our student-athletes to utilize the robust resources available to them at Penn, and I’d like to share them with you as well,” the school wrote to parents of the young women. The letter provides links to “counseling and psychological services, the LGBT Center, Restorative Practices and our Center for Student-Athlete Success staff.”
Because, of course, anyone who has a different viewpoint when it comes to transgender participation in women’s sports is either transphobic or mentally ill.
It’s bad enough that college and athletic officials imposed their discriminatory policies without seeking input from the female athletes or taking steps to prevent females from being excluded. Athletes fear repercussions if they speak out against allowing Thomas to compete in the women’s division.
University officials should be on notice: Employees who discourage women from reporting or speaking out about sex discrimination are themselves guilty of discrimination in violation of Title IX.
Ironically, most major women’s organizations have remained silent. So have the editorial pages of the nation’s major newspapers.
“Move along, nothing to see here,” they seem to say.
But, of course, there is lots to see here: the erasure of biological sex as a legally meaningful category as well as the systemic subordination of women and the silencing of female voices. Shame on those who won’t speak up for female athletes.