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NCAA changes policy for transgender athletes; members approve new constitution

After undergoing more than two years of hormone replacement therapy, transgender woman Lia Thomas competes for the University of Pennsylvania women’s swimming team. (Kylie Cooper)

A new NCAA policy that lets each sport determine the eligibility of transgender athletes is being faulted as “not a solution” and a “missed opportunity” to address a complex issue by the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association.

The debate over transgender athletes’ right to compete in college sports is long-standing. But it has gained urgency with the record-smashing success of University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, who competed for the men’s team for three seasons. After undergoing more than two years of hormone replacement therapy as part of her transition, she has posted the fastest times of any female college swimmer in two events this season.

In a statement issued in response to the NCAA’s new policy, which was approved Wednesday night, the coaches’ association reiterated its support, along with the Ivy League, the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Athletics, of Thomas’s right to compete. The coaches further condemned the hostility directed toward her.

“While there is a desire for swift discussion and resolutions, a thorough, thoughtful, and scientific discussion about the balance of inclusion and fairness will take time,” the statement read.

A transgender college swimmer is shattering records, sparking a debate over fairness

The policy takes effect immediately and was approved by the NCAA Board of Governors as university presidents, athletic directors and college sports administrators opened their annual convention.

Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, chair of the NCAA panel, cast it as an effort to strike the proper balance between fairness and inclusion.

“We are steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and the fostering of fairness across college sports,” DeGioia said in a statement. “It is important that NCAA member schools, conferences and college athletes compete in an inclusive, fair, safe and respectful environment and can move forward with a clear understanding of the new policy.”

Under the policy, transgender athletes’ participation for each sport will be determined by the policy set by each sport’s governing body, subject to ongoing review and recommendation by the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports to the Board of Governors.

If a sport’s national governing body has no policy, the relevant international federation’s policy will be followed. In the absence of an international federation policy, the NCAA will follow the established policy of the International Olympic Committee for that sport.

Greg Earhart, executive director of the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America, said that the NCAA has the budget and access to sufficient scientific expertise to update its transgender policy to reflect the latest research and craft a solution that embraces inclusivity while also ensuring a competitive playing field.

“We appreciate the NCAA’s willingness to lean upon the expertise of each National Governing Body,” Earhart said in an email. “However, yesterday’s decision, especially given its immediate implementation for winter seasons, means they are abdicating the leadership they are uniquely qualified to provide.”

USA Swimming issued a statement supporting inclusivity and competitive equity, adding that it was doing its best “to learn and educate ourselves on the appropriate balance in this space.”

The statement noted that the IOC in November 2021 directed all international federations to develop eligibility requirements specific to their sports. USA Swimming has been working with swimming’s international governing body since then to shape those requirements, the statement said, and planned to adopt them for elite-level competitions as soon they are released.

The NCAA said that the intent behind its policy is to align transgender athletes’ eligibility to compete with recent policy changes by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and IOC. Roughly 80 percent of U.S. Olympians are current or former college athletes, according to NCAA President Mark Emmert.

In other business, the NCAA voted Thursday to approve a streamlined constitution that will shift decision-making from the national office, which has struggled to find common ground among 1,200 member schools with widely divergent sports budgets and priorities, to the three divisions and, in turn, individual conferences.

Division II and III administrators spoke strongly against the proposed constitution, voicing unease over approving a document that, in their view, didn’t reflect thoughtful deliberation and stood to benefit only Division I.

Elizabeth City State Athletic Director George Bright, president of the CIAA Athletic Directors Association, said that its provision for a pared down Board of Governors failed to ensure adequate voice and representation of historically Black colleges and universities.

Nonetheless, the new constitution was approved, 801-195 — well above the two-thirds majority required to pass it.

Before debate over the 18-page document, Emmert urged delegates to adopt it, saying that it “distills the core values of what college sports is about.”

While the NCAA now professes full support for athletes’ right to earn money from the commercial use of their names, images and likenesses, Emmert noted it does not back a pay-for-play model.

The new constitution will take effect Aug. 1. The difficult decisions will come between now and then as the Division I Transformation Committee, led by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and Ohio University Athletic Director Julie Cromer, sort out how to wield their newfound autonomy.

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That could include rewriting the requirements for belonging to Division I, which generates the vast majority of NCAA revenue through the men’s basketball championship. Roughly 350 schools belong to Division I and share richly in the tournament’s proceeds.

When revenue from the College Football Playoff is factored in, which the NCAA doesn’t control, more than $3.5 billion is distributed to schools each year by the NCAA, CFP and Division I conferences, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

The Knight Commission has proposed a model that more closely links revenue distribution and spending with core values of financial transparency and oversight, gender equity, broad-based sports sponsorship and financial responsibility.

The group held a forum before Thursday’s vote to educate NCAA delegates about their proposed financial framework.

“We’re encouraged by the leaders we’ve heard from who understand this next phase of work for Division I can’t be just a repeat of the past,” Knight Commission CEO Amy Perko said by telephone.

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