Paula Scanlan | How the NCAA’s transgender policies affect college sports

Penn swimming catalyzed the national debate between upholding women’s rights and encouraging inclusion. 

Photo credit: Paula Scanlan

By Paula Scanlan

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in The Daily Pennsylvanian on February 9, 2022, amidst controversy over Lia Thomas competing with the Penn women’s swimming team. It was rapidly taken down from the website amidst internal disapproval from staff about the contents of the piece. Since then, Lia Thomas went on to tie for the national championship with swimmer Riley Gaines. Although this piece was initially anonymous due to the gag order placed on the Penn women’s team, Paula Scanlan has gone public with her story and would like to be recognized as the original author. The Pennsylvania Post looks forward to hopefully shedding more light on this situation and holding to our standards of reducing barriers to entry for debate on campus. We ask that if you feel strongly about this piece or its contents, you submit a counter-opinion. We look forward to continuing the conversation as a part of the comments and content of The Pennsylvania Post

The last several weeks of our swimming season at the University of Pennsylvania have been overshadowed by one big question: “Do you think Lia Thomas should be allowed to compete on the women’s team?” 

This question has been unavoidable. Friends and family alike have been asking, on almost a daily basis, to hear a unique insider’s perspective. But the truth is this is not a question that can be answered simply. 

To preface this piece, I would like to clearly emphasize one thing: The precarious situation that we, the Penn women’s swimmers, find ourselves in is not Thomas’ fault. Thomas, who began taking estrogen supplements more than two years ago has followed all the NCAA eligibility requirements. She works as hard in the pool as anyone else on our team, and she deserves a fair opportunity to swim competitively. She has not cut any corners nor done anything malicious and she does not deserve to be mocked, bullied, or humiliated in any manner whatsoever I fully support Thomas in her affirmation of her gender identity, While Thomas is an easy person to target amid the controversy of transgender athletes participating in women’s sports, this anger is woefully misplaced. The debate, instead, centers around the National Collegiate Athletic Association, whose ill-informed rules have failed to preserve integrity and fairness in women’s sports.

Swimming, like all sports, is meant to be contested on an equal and level playing field. This idea is rooted in organized sports everywhere: The separation of men and women, age restrictions, and weight classes are all means through which athletic associations level the playing field to ensure fair competition for their athletes. The idea of putting restrictions in place to increase parity is not discriminatory; rather, these restrictions exist to ensure fairness—a key pillar of athletic competition. Men’s and women’s sports are discrete due to their inherent physiological differences. On average, men possess athletic advantages over women—a gap that’s insurmountable even when comparing elite female athletes to non-elite male athletes. This difference is especially apparent in swimming, where male swimmers dominate female swimmers in every event. In the 50-meter freestyle alone, on average top men are 11.7% faster than top women, with women completing 89.4% of their swim in that same time. 

Granted, even with restrictions in place, there will obviously still exist some variability among participants competing in the same categories. For example, some women are taller than others, and some have more muscle mass. Many people have tried to write off Thomas’ participation as existing within the natural realm of variability between athletes, but this is a false narrative that is damaging to the fairness of sports. 

The NCAA’s guidelines (which were updated in 2022) for transgender athletes, which were set in 2011, states: “A trans female treated with testosterone suppression medication may continue to compete on a men’s team but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one year of testosterone suppression treatment.” 

In this statement, the NCAA clearly acknowledges that there are salient biological differences between men and women In the current regulation, once you begin testosterone hormone therapy you are no longer eligible to compete as a woman. This alone is an admittance on the NCAA’s part that male athletes have a physiological advantage over female ones. Despite requiring transgender female athletes to undergo testosterone suppression treatments to compete on the women’s team, the NCAA’s rationale for this requirement is not grounded in science. On the NCAA page on transgender policy background, there is a link to a handbook on “Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes.” In this handbook there is only one citation of peer-reviewed scientific research or literature out of over 20 sources; instead, the handbook contains mostly anecdotal data—stories, quotes, and guidance on how to foster an inclusive environment. While this information is still imperative it ignores a pivotal question: How can we promote inclusion while still giving every athlete an equal opportunity to compete? 

The NCAA claims to have received input from experts in science, medicine, and inclusion to inform its policy-making decisions. Notably, however, transgender athletes make up only a minuscule fraction of all collegiate athletes, rendering it difficult to make properly informed decisions for a population so small. But transgender athletes, despite their small numbers, are en route to making history in women’s sports: In her short time on Penn’s women’s swim team, Lia Thomas has already posted the national top time for the 2021-2022 season in the women’s 200-yard freestyle. In response to Thomas’ success, the NCAA released a policy update for transgender athletes recently. Now, transgender athletes’ participation in each sport will be determined by the policy set forth by each individual sport’s governing body. But this new policy is not a solution; instead, it allows the NCAA to evade its responsibility of ensuring integrity in women’s sports Every additional day that the NCAA postpones making a definitive commitment toward working on a policy that promotes both inclusion and fairness the integrity of women’s sports will continue to be jeopardized. 

Today, there is significantly more research on the effects of testosterone blockers and other hormone therapies compared to when the NCAA’s transgender policy first emerged in 2010. Testosterone blockers, specifically, may decrease your strength, decrease muscle mass, and redistribute body fat. While all these factors tend to negatively affect one’s athletic performance overall, the degree to which this occurs in adults is unclear at best, with one research finding that transgender women’s strength, lean body mass, and muscle area were still greater than the levels found in cisgender women even after 36 months on testosterone blockers.

In Thomas’ case, she was ranked No. 462 on the men’s team, and is now No. 1 on the women’s team—she is a likely NCAA top-eight finisher in the women’s division at the 2022 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships, despite failing to qualify for the meet while competing with then men. To put this into the statistical framework, at a recent meet, Thomas won the 200-yard free by almost seven seconds, and swam 6.22% faster than her second-place competitor; for comparison, Michael Phelps won the gold medal in the 200-meter free at the 2008 Olympics with a just under a two-second lead—only a 1.80% advantage. As Thomas continues to compete in the women’s category, one would reasonably expect her to have a relative performance on the women’s team that was comparable to her relative performance on the men’s team. Such a vast improvement should be grounded in sporting merit, for example, amending training habits or eating better—not an inherent biological advantage. 

I am hopeful that one day there will be a way to fully equilibrate the differences between men and women during a transgender individual’s transition process. It’s vital for the NCAA and other sporting bodies to devote more energy toward conducting research about the participation of transgender athletes in sports, in order to maintain fairness while ensuring the highest level of inclusion possible. 

Paula Scanlan is a fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum where she speaks out about issues facing women’s sports. She is also a 2022 graduate of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and a former member of Penn’s women’s swim team. 

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