Current and Former Transgender College Athletes Pressure NCAA on Stance

50 of them sent a letter to the organization protesting its decision to host softball tournament games in states with anti-trans sports laws.
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50 Current and former transgender and nonbinary college athletes sent a letter to the NCAA on Wednesday, pressuring it over its response to the nationwide wave of bills that restrict participation in sports by transgender athletes.

The athletes criticized the governing body’s May 16 decision to schedule new softball regional tournament events in three states—Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee—that have passed anti-trans sports bills. Those laws effectively ban trans girls and women—and in Alabama and Tennessee, for example, also boys and men—from competing in the categories aligned with their gender identity.

“We, the undersigned, are deeply disappointed and hurt by the NCAA’s choice to host Division I softball championship games in states with transgender athlete bans,” began the letter, which is addressed to NCAA president Mark Emmert; senior vice president of inclusion, education, and community engagement Derrick Gragg; and the Board of Governors. “We are a group of transgender and non-binary current and former NCAA student-athletes, the community you claimed to ‘firmly and unequivocally support’ in your statement released on April 12th, 2021. Only a month ago, you declared the NCAA ‘supports the opportunity for transgender student-athletes to compete in college sports’ and that ‘[t]his commitment is grounded in our values of inclusion and fair competition.’ This statement is in stark contrast to the decision to host championship games in states with transgender athlete bans.”

The NCAA’s current policy, established in 2010, allows transgender women athletes who take one year of testosterone-suppression treatment to compete alongside their cisgender peers. In states that have banned participation by transgender athletes, though, transgender women college athletes would not be able to compete in women’s categories at all—they’d either have to compete with men, which experts say could put undue stress on their mental health, or sit out altogether.

The letter was organized by Athlete Ally policy and programs manager Emet Marwell, himself briefly an NCAA athlete on the field hockey team at Mount Holyoke, before he transitioned and lost eligibility. It was signed by athletes from 30 schools, including Duke, Michigan, Michigan State and Colorado State.

When reached for comment, the NCAA pointed Sports Illustrated to its April statement on transgender participation, which read that the governing body “firmly and unequivocally supports the opportunity for transgender student-athletes to compete in college sports.” “When determining where championships are held, NCAA policy directs that only locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination should be selected,” the statement continued. “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.”

The bills have been signed into law in seven states (Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, West Virginia and Idaho, where a judge’s preliminary injunction prevents its enforcement for now) and have been proposed in dozens of others. In South Dakota, Republican Governor Kristi Noem passed a similar policy by executive order. The bills typically require that, if anyone—a teammate, opponent, parent or other—calls an athlete’s gender into question, in order to compete in girls and women’s sports, they must provide proof in the form of a genital exam from a doctor, a genetics test indicating XX chromosomes or a hormone test confirming natural testosterone levels fall within a certain range.

Dani Wheeler, a rising junior at Nebraska Wesleyan, where they swim and throw javelin, signed the letter. “It would be a great benefit to me and to other transgender athletes to know that the NCAA will always have our backs, even if it’s changing the location of a tournament or a championship to show their support,” they said.

Added former Agnes Scott College softball utility player and cross-country runner Jordan Keesler: “It was important to sign that letter because [as] trans athletes, oftentimes we feel like we’re few and far between, that we are alone and the only people in our institutions. … People think that we don’t make it to play collegiate sports.”

In light of North Carolina’s 2016 passage of a so-called “bathroom bill,” which prohibited trans people from using the bathroom that matched their gender identity in schools and public facilities, the NCAA boycotted the state for championship events and instituted a new nondiscrimination policy. Since 2001, the NCAA has also refused to schedule championship events at schools that use offensive Native imagery or in states where governments fly the Confederate flag.

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Earlier in May, in a written response to an Athlete Ally and GLAAD letter protesting the then-likely scheduling of the same softball championship events in states that had signed anti-trans legislation into law, the NCAA wrote, in part: “Our long-standing policy demonstrates our commitment to transgender student-athlete inclusion and fair competition. We are also concerned with the laws that you noted in several states and are tracking them and their pending effective dates closely. We will continue to follow our established championships selection process to ensure hosts for our Division I Softball Championship and all championships are able to foster an environment free from discrimination.”

The letter by Marwell and signed by current and former trans athletes countered: “Your actions speak louder than your words: you are not protecting the rights of trans and non-binary athletes to participate. We will not be silent as you perform your allyship to the world only to turn around and support those hurting trans athletes the most. We have endured too much already.”

The letter closed by asking the NCAA how it will ensure a discrimination-free environment for students in states that have passed bans, whether it will uphold its nondiscrimination policy and whether it will move championships from states, as it did from North Carolina. The note followed the Athlete Ally– and GLAAD-organized one from March demanding the NCAA pull championship events from states that had passed or were considering passing anti-trans sports bans. Nearly 550 college athletes, most of them cisgender, signed on.

“For so many people, it’s such an abstract thing, talking about trans athlete inclusion,” Marwell said. “So that’s another one of my goals with this letter, that I’m putting myself out there and that others feel comfortable putting themselves out there by signing on, that we are real people. And we exist and we have lives and we’re real names and real humans.”

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