The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NCAA threatened states over anti-transgender bills. But the games went on.

Republicans in Oklahoma, home to the annual college softball championship, said a bill blocking transgender girls from participating in women's sports stalled after the NCAA threatened to withhold championships in states that passed them. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

In the deep-red state of Oklahoma, civil rights advocates are used to finding themselves nearly powerless to combat legislation targeting LGBTQ people. Sometimes, they say, all they can do is hold their breath and wait to see what happens.

But this year, amid a torrent of anti-transgender legislation sweeping through Republican-controlled legislatures, advocates in Oklahoma found what they believed was a powerful ally: the NCAA.

College sports are an economic powerhouse in Oklahoma, including the annual NCAA softball championship in Oklahoma City. This spring, as a bill to ban transgender girls and young people from participating in women’s sports moved through Oklahoma’s legislature, the threat of losing the Women’s College World Series and other NCAA tournaments made Republican lawmakers cautious.

Then, in April, the NCAA issued a statement that seemed to threaten to pull championships from states with anti-transgender bills — and appeared to stop the bill cold in the Oklahoma Senate, according to multiple state Republicans. LGBTQ advocates felt, finally, as if they could breathe.

But just a month later, the NCAA awarded regional championships in softball to three states that had passed their own bans on transgender children’s participation in sports. A few Oklahoma Republicans immediately began to revive efforts to pass the bill, arguing that the NCAA had reversed its position, according to a person familiar with the situation in the Senate. The message was clear in some state Republicans’ offices, that person said: The NCAA was bluffing.

As conservative activists across the country work to ban transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports, LGBTQ rights advocates say they were counting on the NCAA to stand up to the onslaught of anti-transgender legislation. Because it stages championship events in virtually every state, the college sports behemoth has power other teams and leagues don’t.

FAQ: What you need to know about transgender children

The NCAA has instead walked a careful tightrope, making statements that have fallen short of explicit promises to pull events from states with the legislation and refusing to respond to pleas for action from advocates across the country. The NCAA declined to comment for this story.

By awarding championships to states that have passed transgender sports bans, advocates say, the NCAA may have opened a door to another wave of anti-transgender bills — and blunted one of opponents’ best weapons to fight discriminatory legislation.

“The NCAA’s failure to take action here means that they are a part of the problem,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “If they refuse to rise up against discrimination and hate, then their policies are meaningless.”

For activists in Oklahoma, the effects of the NCAA’s apparent reversal this spring were “devastating,” said Allie Shinn, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, which led efforts to kill the anti-transgender bills in the state.

The chance of the bill passing, Shinn said, suddenly increased without the threat of NCAA action. She and other activists spent several “tense” weeks before the legislative session ended last week, waiting to see whether Republicans would pass the ban. And though the bill ultimately did not make it through the Senate, with state Republicans promising to try again next year, Shinn fears the next attempt is likely to succeed.

“It was really scary to know that so many lawmakers in Oklahoma were going to view this as a reversal to [the NCAA’s] earlier statement,” Shinn said. “That had been the only thing that persuaded folks.”

Leverage across the land

The NCAA has long held enormous economic power with its championships. Though major sports leagues and franchises have political sway in larger metropolitan areas where they play — Major League Baseball this year moved its All-Star Game out of Georgia over restrictive new voting laws in the state — the NCAA stages championships in virtually every state across the sports calendar. Some, including the softball championship in Oklahoma City and baseball’s College World Series in Omaha, are economic institutions, driving local tourism and showcasing their host cities for weeks on ESPN.

In 2016, in the face of North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill,” which prevented transgender people from using the bathroom that matched their gender identity, the NBA famously moved its All-Star Game from Charlotte. But the NCAA also pulled several of its championships from North Carolina, costing the state an economic boost worth an estimated $3 billion. Its threats to withhold future championships helped bring about the repeal of the law and helped deter other states from pushing through their own bathroom legislation.

“They were really instrumental,” David said.

Last year, conservative activists launched a new attack on transgender girls and women, pushing state bills that would bar them from playing women’s sports as well as bills barring gender-affirming care for children. The first transgender sports ban, passed in Idaho in March 2020, was heard by a court of appeals in May after it was blocked by a judge from going into effect.

Conservative lawmakers and pundits framed their efforts as a defense of women’s sports, though few could point to concrete examples in their states of transgender girls competing at high levels. The bills have been condemned by the American Medical Association and much of the medical establishment as harmful to transgender children, and Democrats call them a discriminatory attack on transgender rights.

The fight for the future of transgender athletes

LGBTQ rights advocates said they expected the NCAA to follow a similar road map to what it had done to combat the bathroom bill in North Carolina, especially because the legislation targeted athletes. Though high school sports have attracted most of the attention, some of the bans, including Oklahoma’s, extend to college athletes, a contradiction of NCAA policy, which allows transgender women to compete if they undergo a year of testosterone-suppressing treatment.

But instead of swift action, advocates say, they were first met with silence from the NCAA. In March, three states — Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee — passed bills targeting transgender athletes. In Tennessee, the bill required students as young as fifth grade to show documents proving their sex at birth to play school sports.

National groups “all pressed for stronger statements and action from the NCAA early in the process,” said Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, a state advocacy group. “That didn’t materialize.”

Sanders said he believed immediate pushback from the NCAA and other organizations might have helped prevent — or at least slow — Tennessee’s bill. “We needed more,” Sanders said.

In mid-April, under pressure from national groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, the NCAA released a statement. It was “committed to ensuring that NCAA championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them,” the organization said. “We will continue to closely monitor these situations to determine whether NCAA championships can be conducted in ways that are welcoming and respectful of all participants.”

It was not an explicit promise to pull championships from states with bans. But in legislatures considering the bills, it was a reminder of what had unfolded in North Carolina years earlier — and a warning shot.

A month later, the NCAA awarded regional softball championships to Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee and announced baseball regionals in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. All of those states had passed bills banning the participation of transgender girls that are set to go into effect this summer.

“The NCAA says they firmly and equivocally support transgender athletes — well, that’s not what they’re doing,” said Aliya Schenck, a track and field runner at Washington University in St. Louis who had helped organize a petition of hundreds of college athletes calling for the NCAA to take action. “If you’re hosting events in states where these athletes are actively discriminated against, then that’s not a safe environment.”

David called the NCAA’s handling of the transgender sports bans so far a “sea change from what they did in 2016″ in North Carolina.

Oklahoma was not the only state where legislators took notice of the NCAA’s willingness to schedule championships in those states. In Florida, the House and Senate passed a transgender sports ban in late April that had been attached at the last minute to a charter school bill.

When the NCAA announced that Florida would host softball playoff games this spring, a Republican legislator tweeted gleefully about the organization’s decision.

“I guess the NCAA Boycott of FL is over after 2 weeks,” Rep. Chris Latvala wrote May 17. “Congrats to FSU for hosting the Women’s Softball Regionals but Go Knights!”

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed Florida’s bill into law Tuesday, the first day of Pride month.

‘That’s fantastic’

Every spring, Oklahoma City becomes the center of the softball universe when it hosts the Women’s College World Series, a wildly popular week-long affair that brings in some $24 million — and growing — to the city.

The specter of losing the tournament hung over efforts to pass a ban on transgender girls in sports from the beginning of the legislative process, according to Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma. A proposal died in the GOP-controlled state Senate early this year. But a sports ban was revived by the House, where Rep. Justin Humphrey (R) pushed a bill through the Criminal Justice Committee in a last-minute maneuver.

The bill passed the House by a large margin, but it was not introduced in the Senate.

Humphrey said he believed many Republicans were “scared” by the possibility of losing NCAA events, especially the softball tournament. The NCAA’s statement was, in Humphrey’s eyes, tantamount to an attempt at “bribery.”

“I heard a lot of people talking about it,” Humphrey said. “The conversation came up on the floor. I was called by reporters asking: ‘What are we going to do if they leave? It’s going to cost a lot of money.’ ”

When he heard that the NCAA was scheduling tournaments in states that had passed the kind of ban he had pushed for in Oklahoma, “I kind of laughed,” Humphrey said. “I think it’s just intimidation. And sure enough, that’s what happened. They went ahead and scheduled the tournaments.”

Rep. Tammy Townley, a Republican who was one of the bill’s initial architects, said she couldn’t speak for the state senators who decided not to push the bill forward. “I was told it was because of the economic impact it would have on our state — our NCAA championship softball tournament and any other events we might have,” Townley said.

Before a reporter pointed it out, Townley hadn’t heard that the NCAA had scheduled championships in states such as Arkansas and Tennessee. “That’s fantastic,” she said.

Shinn, of Freedom Oklahoma, fears the NCAA’s decision to allow the events to go forward will have far-reaching consequences in future legislative sessions, even if the organization eventually clarifies its position.

“As long as these lawmakers are in office, they will remember that when advocacy groups like ours tell them there will be a fiscal impact to their decisions, that that may not be true,” Shinn said. “That’s often the most compelling case we can make. It’s devastating, and it will be devastating for sessions to come.”

Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU of Oklahoma, urged the NCAA to do more before the legislature reconvenes in February.

“By not saying anything more, by not standing with trans folks in Oklahoma, the repercussions could be really bad as we look to the next session,” McAfee said. “We hope the NCAA realizes the power they have in this moment.”

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