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NCAA's new trans athlete guidelines sow confusion amid Lia Thomas debate

The policy change follows weeks of criticism of the University of Pennsylvania swimmer, but one expert said it likely won’t affect her ability to compete.
Pennsylvania Women's Swimming
Lia Thomas of the Pennsylvania Quakers after winning a race during a meet against the Yale Bulldogs and the Dartmouth Big Green at the University of Pennsylvania on Jan. 8, 2022. Hunter Martin / Getty Images

The NCAA’s new policy for transgender athletes lacks clarity and could be difficult to enforce, advocates on both sides of the issue say.

The NCAA updated the policy after weeks of pressure from critics who say it’s unfair for Lia Thomas — a transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who broke multiple records at a meet last month —  to compete on the women’s swim team. But even though the NCAA appears to have “caved,” as some advocates say, to increasing criticism, the new policy likely won’t affect Thomas’ ability to compete. 

The NCAA Board of Governors voted in support of a sport-by-sport approach to transgender atheltes’ participation “that preserves opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete,”  it stated Wednesday. It said the new policy, effective immediately, is in alignment with recent policy changes from the  U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee.

Previously, guidelines of the National Collegiate Athletic Association required transgender female athletes to have undergone one year of testosterone suppression treatment in order to compete on a women’s team in any sport. 

Now transgender student-athletes competing in swimming, for example, will look to USA Swimming for eligibility criteria. USA Swimming doesn’t have a policy available online and has not responded to a request for comment. 

The NCAA said that if the national governing body for a sport doesn’t have a policy, then athletes should look to the sport’s international federation policy. For swimming, that would be FINA, the Fédération Internationale De Natation, which is based in Switzerland. It’s unclear what FINA’s policy is, and the organization has not responded to a request for comment.

The NCAA will also require trans women athletes to document their testosterone levels at the start of the season, six months later and then four weeks before their sport’s championship selections, though it’s unclear how this will be implemented. 

John DeGioia, chair of the NCAA board and Georgetown University president, said the governing body is “steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and the fostering of fairness across college sports.” 

“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,” he said in a statement

Chris Mosier, a trans advocate and duathlete, criticized the policy on Twitter, and then again in an interview with ESPN. 

“This update complicates the NCAA policy in a way that I don’t believe they are equipped to handle,” he told ESPN, adding that many national governing bodies have not created policies for trans athletes and that policies vary between sport national governing bodies, meaning “tracking compliance is going to be a nightmare for the NCAA.” 

He added, “This creates many different standards for trans athletes.”

Anne Lieberman, director of policy for Athlete Ally, a group that advocates for LGBTQ-inclusive sports policies, said it’s hard to say whether the policy is a step in the right or the wrong direction when it comes to inclusivity. 

“I have many more questions than answers,” Lieberman said. “What is absolutely not a step in the right direction is the fact that the NCAA essentially let intense pressure about Lia Thomas specifically undermine process.”

The NCAA has not responded to a request for comment.

Lieberman, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said the first set of NCAA guidelines, released in 2011, were developed alongside many different parties, including trans and nonbinary athletes. The fact that the policy has changed overnight without that kind of process “is very alarming,” they said, particularly given the national context surrounding the decision. 

Over the last few years, dozens of states have considered bills that would ban trans student-athletes from competing on the sports teams of their gender identity, with 10 states — nine just last year — passing such bills into law. 

As a record number of anti-trans bills were considered in state legislatures, Thomas began her season at Penn. She declined an interview, but told the SwimSwam podcast that she had been on testosterone suppression treatment for more than 2 ½ years by the time she began competing on the women’s team in November.

Her participation ignited a nationwide debate after she broke multiple records at the Zippy Invitational last month. Her times in the 200-yard freestyle and 500-yard freestyle were the best in the nation this season, according to Penn Athletics. In the 1,650-yard freestyle in particular, she was 38 seconds ahead of teammate Anna Kalandadze, who finished second. 

It’s unclear how the new policy will affect her participation. A spokesperson for Penn Athletics said they are going to work with the NCAA and continue to support Thomas. 

“In support of our student-athlete, Lia Thomas, we will work with the NCAA regarding her participation under the newly adopted standards for the 2022 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship,” the spokesperson said via email.

Some former athletes say that, though the policy is unclear, it’s a positive change. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic champion in swimming and founder of Champion Women, a nonprofit group that provides legal advocacy for girls and women in sports, said the new policy shows that the NCAA is “open to having new changes based on science that has come up,” but that it’s discouraging that it said it’s prioritizing fairness, safety and inclusion equally.

Hogshead-Makar, who wrote in an op-ed that there is “nothing fair about Lia Thomas competing” on Penn’s women’s team, said she believes the NCAA should prioritize fairness and safety ahead of inclusion.  

She said the NCAA is following recent research which shows that in certain sports, there’s a greater performance gap between cisgender men and cisgender women that wouldn’t be entirely mitigated by testosterone suppression. As a result, she said, policy should vary by sport, and that trans women shouldn’t be allowed to compete in certain sports or events. Instead, they could play on recreational teams. 

“If fundamentally what you’re doing is trying to affirm your gender and your identity, you don’t need to win,” she told NBC News. “You don’t need to be in a class that is about honoring women’s accomplishments. There’s other ways to be able to participate in sports.”

She proposed that the NCAA allow Thomas to swim with her team, but that her times not count toward records and her wins not count at all. 

That stance is extreme to some. Though some transgender women do likely maintain an advantage over cisgender women even after transition, that isn’t a reason to prohibit them from competing entirely, said Joanna Harper, a trans runner and a visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at England’s Loughborough University who published the first performance analysis of transgender athletes in 2015. 

Harper is one of the lead authors of a review published last year in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which suggested that trans women retain a strength advantage over cisgender women even after three years of hormone therapy, though she notes that the review looked at nonathlete trans women.

“We allow advantage in sports,” she said, noting that left-handed baseball players have advantages over right-handed baseball players, for example. “But just saying that trans women have advantages, while true, doesn’t mean that trans women shouldn’t be competing with cis women. Advantage is part of why we have winners and losers in sport, right?” 

Harper said the new NCAA policy is a step in the right direction, because she believes it does need to take testosterone levels into account somehow. However, she noted that one 2019 study found that 94 percent of trans women have testosterone below 2 nanomoles per liter, compared with 95 percent of cisgender women. She’s certain Thomas’ testosterone levels are similar, but that she’ll still swim fast. 

“I predict she doesn’t win an NCAA championship,” Harper said. “But I bet she gets a medal or two, and is that going to make people unhappy? Yeah.”

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