NCAA responds, tentatively, to transgender athlete bans

By Gillian R. Brassil

The NCAA released a statement earlier this week in response to the mounting number of bills in state legislatures aimed at barring transgender athletes — mainly women and girls — from competing in sports divisions that match their gender identity, saying that it was “committed to ensuring that NCAA championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them.”

But the organization, which has been under pressure from LGBTQ-rights advocates, major league leaders and its own athletes, stopped short of saying that it would pull championships from states considering such legislation. The NCAA, presided over by Mark Emmert, took such action in 2016 after North Carolina passed a law that restricted restroom access for transgender individuals.

“The Board of Governors continues to monitor the situation and has not made final decisions about the future of championships,” Michelle Hosick, a spokesperson for the NCAA, wrote in an email to The New York Times on Monday.

Opponents of those bills are wondering why.

“We are grateful to President Emmert and the NCAA for past and present leadership to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in sports; their voice in this space has been important in stopping hateful legislation from taking effect and, in some cases, has helped to reverse discriminatory laws on the books,” Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told reporters Friday. “At this time, though, we are asking the NCAA to do more and to use the power of their visibility to reaffirm and support transgender and nonbinary athletes across the nation.”

The Human Rights Campaign is one of several groups that have sent letters to the NCAA calling for a tougher response to bills that have emerged in at least 30 states this session. One letter was signed by more than 700 collegiate athletes.

“It’s impossible for women athletes to feel safe and supported in an environment where their personal identity and integrity is questioned,” Alana Bojar, one of the athletes who drafted the letter, said Friday. She is on the track and field team at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The reality is many of these bills cannot possibly be enforced without inviting policing and bullying of all student athletes who do not meet stereotypes of gender,” Bojar said.

Emmert has previously said that the organization should intervene in policy disputes that affect college athletes. Just last year, the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference pressured Mississippi over its 126-year-old state flag featuring the Confederate battle emblem. The warnings from the college sports industry had outsized influence on a generations-long debate in the Mississippi capital, Jackson. Elected officials quickly acted to lower and change the flag.

The NCAA also released a statement Monday backing voting rights, an apparent dig at Georgia’s new law that led to moves such as Major League Baseball relocating this summer’s All-Star Game from the Atlanta area to Denver and statements of protest from other major companies and organizations. Meanwhile, the NCAA is addressing internal inequities between its men’s and women’s sports programs, highlighted by differences between its college basketball tournaments.

Three states — Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee — have signed legislation restricting transgender athletes so far this session, following in the footsteps of Idaho, which last summer became the first state to prevent transgender women and girls from playing in divisions designated for female athletes. Idaho’s law is not being enforced while it faces a legal challenge; barring intervention, other states’ laws are set to take effect this summer.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, signed two similar executive orders after disagreements over collegiate bans prevented her from signing such bills into law. West Virginia’s legislature sent a bill to the governor’s desk for signature on Friday; Gov. Jim Justice has said he will allow it to become law.

This session has seen the highest number of bills aimed at transgender women in sports, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Republican lawmakers introducing the bills say they are trying to protect female athletes in accordance with Title IX, which forbids discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that receive federal funding and opened up opportunities for women’s sports.

A recent Supreme Court decision and two executive orders signed by President Joe Biden have affirmed that “sex” includes gender identity and sexual orientation.

“Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room or school sports,” read one executive order signed in January.

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