The NCAA Backtracks on Trans Inclusion in Athletics

The NCAA recently updated its 2010 policy on trans student-athletes' participation in college athletics in a move that many have condemned as less inclusive.

Updated February 8, 2022

The NCAA Backtracks on Trans Inclusion in Athletics
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  • The NCAA reverses course on trans inclusion in sports in recent policy change.
  • The move will harm trans student-athletes.
  • Colleges and the athletic community must act to support trans student-athletes.

Less than a year after the NCAA released a statement that it "firmly and unequivocally supports" trans student-athletes, the organization revoked the very policy that statement referred to. On January 19, the organization changed its policies relating to transgender student-athletes' participation in college sports, caving to external pressures informed by both transmisogyny and willful ignorance.

The policy change comes at the heels of a year poised to be the most anti-trans legislatively, when approximately 280 anti-trans proposals are expected to be introduced in states across the U.S., with nine of them placed into motion in the first week of 2022. These numbers eclipse the 79 anti-trans bills of 2020 and the 147 in 2021.

NCAA: 2010 vs. 2022

The NCAA published a handbook in 2011 guiding athletic programs on actualizing its trans inclusion policy (adopted in 2010). The policy was established "after widespread input from the membership and subject-matter experts in science, medicine, and inclusion." It appears there were no such consultations with subject-matter experts before the recent policy changes, and the reversal caught many by surprise.

Since the adoption of the 2010 policy, advocates for trans inclusion have been working with the NCAA to update the policy, which was limited in scope to transgender student-athletes undergoing hormone replacement therapy.

Instead, seemingly overnight and behind closed doors, the NCAA turned its back on the athletes it purported to support, as well as many who have been patiently and steadfastly working with the organization in good faith.

The NCAA punts its responsibility to determine its own student-athletes' eligibility to the national governing bodies of each individual sport.

With the new policy, the NCAA punts its responsibility to determine its own student-athletes' eligibility to the national governing bodies (NGBs) of each individual sport. In situations where a sport's NGB does not have a policy on trans athletes' participation, eligibility will follow the policy set by the International Olympics Committee.

The rationale provided by NCAA president Mark Emmert is that "approximately 80% of U.S. Olympians are either current or former college athletes." What Emmert's carefully chosen statistic obfuscates, however, is that "98% of NCAA athletes do not make it to the Olympic level," according to Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs for Athlete Ally.

This fact has been shared in the very recent past by the NCAA itself, in ads such as this one, highlighting that most student-athletes "go pro in something other than sports." Simply put, the NCAA is not in the business of producing professional athletes and Olympians.

The Fallout and the Impact

The January 19 announcement has been met with disappointment, anger, confusion, and resignations. Chris Mosier, a former student-athlete and the first transgender athlete to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the gender category in which they identify, recently tweeted: "After 'monitoring the situation' around anti-trans sports bills & their own calls for more research before even considering updating VERY out-of-date language in the 2010 policy, NCAA whipped up a ridiculously complex policy that will prove impossible for them to follow."

The Ivy League Council of Presidents' executive director Robin Harris condemned not only the changes themselves but also the speed of their adoption. Harris remarked to ESPN that "the NCAA has never, in my 30 years, implemented a new policy that could negatively impact a student-athlete's eligibility immediately. And that is what they've done here."

Dr. Dorian Rhea Debussy published an open letter to the NCAA, resigning from their role as a facilitator of the NCAA's Division III LGBTQ OneTeam Program.

But the fallout from the policy change will mostly impact transgender student-athletes, who will be at the mercy of governing bodies they do not otherwise answer to and have no stake in. With varying policies across NGBs, trans student-athletes will be held to differing standards and expectations.

Not only does all of this create a compliance tracking nightmare for the NCAA, it also further discourages potential transgender student-athletes from participating at all or forces them to participate as someone they are not.

Beginning immediately, to compete in championship games, trans athletes will have to monitor their testosterone levels and report them four weeks before championship participating schools are even selected. It is unclear who will pay for these tests.

Not only does all of this create a compliance tracking nightmare for the NCAA, it also further discourages potential transgender student-athletes from participating at all or forces them to participate as someone they are not.

The negative mental health impacts of effectively punishing or disallowing self-determination have been well documented. And these health impacts can negatively impact students' academics and persistence, in turn.

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, who has been at the center of recent transmisogynistic vitriol, initially competed for the men's team. Thomas told the SwimSwam Podcast that the experience "caused a lot of distress to me … I was struggling, my mental health was not very good."

Taking a Stand

More than ever, it is incumbent on athletic directors, coaches, student-athletes, and the athletic community at large to educate themselves on the fallacies of the supposed "advantage" that trans athletes have over cisgender athletes. They must advocate with and for the trans and nonbinary members of their community.

Institutions and individuals have a lot of power and responsibility to push the NCAA back toward inclusion and into a leadership role in advancing equity in sports. As we've said here before, trans people are already leading the charge; the sports world just needs to follow.