NCAA Title For Lia Thomas Is Joke With Biological Women As Punchline; Hardly a Laughing Matter
A joke was told in Atlanta last week.
It wasn’t funny.
A little more than three months after the possibility first arose, Lia Thomas captured a title while representing the University of Pennsylvania at the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships. Most times, a national championship should be celebrated, the athlete commended for her hard work, dedication, and discipline.
Not this time.
No, Thomas’ title-winning effort in the 500-yard freestyle should be met with nothing less than a head shake, an eye roll or a shrug of the shoulders. Why? Because Lia Thomas’ victory is an insult to the biological women who raced against her. Against those who fought for Title IX and equal opportunities for female athletes. Against science, and the unmistakable physiological differences between the male and female sexes.
As she trained for her three races at the NCAA Championships, there is no doubt Thomas put in considerable effort during the season. She logged thousands of yards during training, and that work yielded a time of 4:33.24 in the 500 free at the McAuley Aquatic Center. It was Thomas’ best time of the season, and it was nearly two seconds faster than the mark of Virginia’s Emma Weyant for second.
Thomas is a transgender woman whose story has been the subject of controversy since early December. A three-year member of the men’s squad at Penn, Thomas transitioned to female during the COVID-19 pandemic and joined the women’s team for the 2021-22 campaign. That move allowed Thomas to go from ho-hum male swimmer to the elite level as a woman. Want proof? In the 200 freestyle, Thomas was ranked in the mid-500s among men. She entered the NCAA Champs ranked No. 1 among women.
Because the NCAA only required one year of hormone-suppressant therapy for a transgender female to compete in women’s sports, Thomas was eligible to race for the Quakers. And, to be clear, Thomas has followed all rules. The problem is that the NCAA’s guidelines were based on outdated science and didn’t account for the advantages of Thomas undergoing male puberty and significant testosterone production. A 6-3 frame. Greater natural strength. Larger hands and feet. Enhanced lung capacity. None of these edges, for the record, can be fully mitigated.
At the Zippy Invitational in Ohio in early December, Thomas posted times in the 200 freestyle and 500 freestyle that ranked No. 1 in the nation. Through two eye-opening performances, Thomas established herself as an NCAA title contender. More, the spotlight shone much brighter on the primary issue at hand: A transgender female competing against biological females is not a fair fight.
As the winter progressed, Thomas’ story became the most hotly debated topic in the sport, and a fractured environment emerged at Penn, as team members’ allegiances were split. Some supported Thomas and her desire to live her authentic life. Others viewed the issue from another angle, which noted that unfairness was the prevailing theme. When the Ivy League and Penn told swimmers to accept the situation, it was clear that one person’s rights were valued over hundreds of others. And when the NCAA made it clear it would not protect women’s rights, it was obvious the NCAA Championships would become a circus – a combination of protestors appearing and Thomas swimming with her male-puberty-supplied jet pack.
Swimming World jumped on the issue right after Thomas’ efforts at the Zippy Invitational. We called for her to not race at the NCAA Championships, but to be given an alternative opportunity to display her talent in the pool. Because we took that approach, the transgender community and its supporters fired off accusations of transphobia. That strategy seems to be a go-to tactic, thanks to its biting nature. But this debate – once again for clarity – is about fairness, and everyone on the blocks having an equal pre-race chance. With Thomas, that has never been the case.
There have been plenty of attempts to draw attention to the inequality that has encompassed the collegiate scene over the past three-plus months. While Swimming World has repeatedly fought for fairness for biological-women athletes, Olympic champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar has spent years addressing the topic.
As the head of Champion Women, Hogshead-Makar has been a vocal leader for women’s rights and women’s sports, arguing against the infringement the Thomas case represents. Earlier this week, Hogshead-Makar released the results of two petitions that call on legislators and sports governing bodies to prioritize fairness for women athletes over the blanket inclusion of transgender women.
Between petitions organized by Champion Women and the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, more than 5,000 signatures were obtained, including almost 300 from Olympians or Olympic coaches. Among those signing their names were Tracy Caulkins, Jessica Hardy, David Marsh and Eddie Reese – obviously prominent figures who recognize the inherent advantages possessed by Thomas.
“Girls and women shouldn’t give up their hard-won sports opportunities, no matter how real the harms suffered by transgender athletes,” Hogshead-Makar wrote in a December editorial. “Allowing transgender women to change the meaning of the women’s category makes as much sense as allowing 180-pound athletes into the 120-pound weight category, because larger athletes were subject to awful bullying and harassment. Or allowing adults to compete against children, or only permitting impoverished nations compete in the Olympics. Sport has been set up as binary with males and females, and sport needs to adapt by adding new events and classifications, rather than throwing out the meaning of the ‘girls’ and ‘women’s’ categories. Rather than trying to squeeze transgender athletes into one-of-two categories, male or female, sport needs to adapt.”
At one point, the NCAA appeared as if it might act on the issue of transgender inclusion in women’s sports. Briefly, the governing body of American collegiate sports said it would defer to the rules adopted by USA Swimming. But when USA Swimming unveiled stringent guidelines that would likely have made Thomas ineligible, the NCAA backtracked. The result was a 500 freestyle that was anything but honest.
When Thomas touched the wall in 4:33.82 during the prelims of the event, that time did more than earn her the top seed for the final. Her presence kept ninth-place finisher Tylor Mathieu from Florida out of the championship final. Her presence – and the NCAA’s inaction – kept 17th-place finisher Reka Gyorgy of Virginia Tech out of the consolation final. Mathieu and Gyorgy deserved their proper moments in the spotlight. Both were denied.
Years down the road, Lia Thomas’ name will be listed as the titlist of the 500 freestyle at the 2022 NCAA Championships. There should be an asterisk next to her name. Meanwhile, the NCAA will be remembered for turning its back on biological women and producing a competitive environment that was anything but legitimate.
What unfolded in Atlanta on St. Patrick’s Day was the latest chapter in the book of slights against women’s sports. We’ve seen it before: Inferior pay. Inadequate supports. Subpar facilities and conditions. Now, an athlete racing with significant physical benefits.
Maybe the NCAA Champs should have been delayed until April 1. After all, the Lia Thomas situation, spurred by the NCAA, has long been a joke – although not a laughing matter.
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