SwimmingIn Latest Botched Move, NCAA Runs Away From Transgender Decision

In Latest Botched Move, NCAA Runs Away From Transgender Decision

Column: In Latest Botched Move, NCAA Runs Away From Transgender Decision; Turns Back On Women’s Sports

Why should we have expected anything more? Not with its track record. Not as an organization that, on a regular basis, seemingly steps in a pile of … well, you know. And on Wednesday, the stink from the NCAA’s shoe was permeating once again, as the governing body for collegiate sports in the United States took a cowardly approach to the hot topic of transgender sports participation – especially the involvement of transgender women.

For a little more than a month, one of the main storylines in the sport has been Lia Thomas, a transgender woman competing for the University of Pennsylvania. After producing a pair of nation-leading times at an early-season invitational, questions arose concerning the fairness of Thomas, a three-year member of the Penn men’s squad, racing against biological females.

While Thomas had met the NCAA’s standard of one year of hormone-suppressant therapy, it was clear her male-puberty advantage had not been mitigated. The NCAA’s policy was based on scientific data more than a decade old and it was clear an unfair field of competition had emerged. It was up to the NCAA to step forward and implement a system that ensured fairness.

How did the NCAA handle the situation? Basically, the organization sprinted away from the debate and yelled, as it looked over its shoulder: “You deal with it.”

During a Board of Governors meeting on Wednesday, the NCAA punted responsibility on the issue. Going forward, it has decided to defer to National Governing Bodies (NGBs) in all sports it oversees when it comes to determining transgender eligibility. Oh, yes, the NCAA was verbose in its statement. In part, it said:

“Like the Olympics, the updated NCAA policy calls for transgender participation for each sport to be determined by the policy for the national governing body of that sport, subject to ongoing review and recommendation by the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports to the Board of Governors. If there is no NGB policy for a sport, that sport’s international federation policy would be followed. If there is no international federation policy, previously established IOC policy criteria would be followed.”

Why not just say the following? “We’re not making a call on this!”

The NCAA Championships are a little less than two months away and, based on the statement released by the NCAA, Thomas might be allowed to compete. Or, she might not. The situation is that up in the air. Whether or not she will race in Atlanta, though, is not the issue here. The focus is that the NCAA had the opportunity to deliver a clear-cut ruling on Wednesday. It could have relied on scientific research and levied a decision on transgender inclusion, and what requirements needed to be met. And if it wasn’t ready to produce a final call, it could have slightly delayed that decision.

Instead, the NCAA went the gutless route. It basically – for our sport – handed the baton to USA Swimming and FINA and declared this problem not of its jurisdiction. Throughout this debate, there has been no doubt that – eventually – USA Swimming and FINA would need to make a ruling on the transgender-participation issue. And one would have to think that behind closed doors, officials within those governing bodies have discussed how to proceed. But the NCAA needed to stand up, too, and prove itself capable of addressing a controversial issue. It couldn’t.

Really, the NCAA answers only to itself, so did it truly have a reason to make a definitive decision and implement specific, science-based guidelines? Probably not.

It took forever for the governing body to allow its athletes the opportunity to benefit from their Name-Image-Likeness (NIL). It’s a group that last year, in an embarrassing scene, provided a loaded weight room for its NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It provided athletes at the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament with a dumbbell rack. The NCAA simply can’t get out of its way.

Through its decision, or lack thereof, the NCAA once again disrespected women’s sports. The organization did not deem this issue important enough to craft specific, science-based guidelines that would protect women’s athletics. It failed to protect female athletes, which should have been at the heart of the Board of Governors’ discussion. Rather than stand up for women, the NCAA handed that duty to other groups.

Worse, the NCAA tried to spin its decision as a meaningful connection between itself and the Olympic movement. Check out this word-doctoring from Mark Emmert, the President of the NCAA.

“Approximately 80% of U.S. Olympians are either current or former college athletes,” Emmert said. “This policy alignment provides consistency and further strengthens the relationship between college sports and the U.S. Olympics.”

Got that? The NCAA’s attempt to throw the onus on National Governing Bodies as a coordinated effort is a sham. That approach is nothing more than a convenient excuse to free itself of making a potentially difficult and controversial decision.

In the coming days and weeks, we’ll see how the transgender-participation policy is worked through by USA Swimming and FINA. We’ll find out if Lia Thomas will race at the NCAA Championships, and how the policy will affect the sport in the future. Then, and only then, we’ll also learn how the transgender issue is handled by the NCAA.

It could have been different. The NCAA could have acted boldly.

Then again, that would have meant a flip turn from the norm.

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