On Lia Thomas and Trans Athlete Participation in Women’s Elite Sports

Like most people, I’m upset about the Lia Thomas situation. But it’s probably not for the reason you think. I’m upset by the lack of critical thinking I see around the topic. I’m upset by the sexism. I’m upset that people who never watch women’s sports all of a sudden have plenty of opinions about female athletes, and this all compelled me to weigh in on the topic.

I’m also writing this in part because I’ve recently published a dystopian novel called Surviving the Second Tier about the college sports industry and systemic issues that athletes face, where men compete against women in a co-ed fighting league. I did this to symbolize the male dominance of the college sports industry and the reality that women have to work multitudes harder than men in this environment to be respected and succeed. Women have to (metaphorically) fight men in college sports for resources, dignity, and prestige, and I wanted to personify that struggle (plus, the NCAA’s lax attitudes towards violence against women indicate they do not care about physical harm caused by men in the industry). But symbolism is tricky and I would like to clear the air that I began writing my book in 2018 before the conversation of trans athletes went mainstream. Surviving the Second Tier is in no way, shape, or form, an attack or commentary on trans athletes. In fact, I am in favor of trans athlete participation in women’s sports, and here’s why.

First, for anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m a former D1 athlete who currently studies college sports as a doctoral student at the University of Texas, and I’m a freelance sportswriter on the side. Critical thinking is my job and I am a staunch supporter of female athletes. I’ve written about trans athletes extensively in my academic work, but never publicly. It’s touchy and I don’t appreciate the highly emotive responses I get from people or being harassed or having my credibility attacked. But it’s irresponsible of me, I believe, to not apply my expertise here. So here’s a free, well-researched, publicly-available commentary about trans athletes in women’s sports. Using the Lia Thomas case as a backdrop, my case for support is as follows:

1.) Lia Thomas has done nothing wrong. She has abided fully with the NCAA’s transgender athlete participation guidelines. Whether or not those guidelines are sufficient to ensure fairness will be revealed in time (more on that later). But for now, it is simply not right to leverage such vitriol at Thomas for abiding by the NCAA’s rules. If you take issue with anyone, direct it at the institution, not the athlete.

2.) There’s still a lot that we don’t know about trans athletes and human bodies. As far as anatomy, biology, kinesiology, and other relevant fields of study have come, there are still countless unknowns about the human body and athletic performance. This certainly extends to our knowledge about the effects of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) on trans athlete performance. In this vein, Thomas actually provides a compelling case for the inclusion of trans athletes in women’s sports post-HRT. But that’s only if we are looking at her athletic performances in the correct context.

There is a common narrative circulating that pre-transition, Thomas was the somewhere around 450th-best male swimmer in the nation. This is an incomplete take. What some outlets fail to account for is the fact that at the time of that ranking, Thomas was in the middle of testosterone-mitigating HRT. At the time of Thomas’s transition, the NCAA’s trans athlete inclusion rules required male-to-female athletes to undergo at least a year of HRT before they could compete for a women’s team (The NCAA has since amended this to a sport-by-sport basis to be determined by other governing bodies). While Thomas was in the middle of her transition, she competed alongside men, hence, her lower standings on the men’s national rankings list.

Pre-HRT, Thomas was one of the top-ranked Ivy League swimmers as a freshman and sophomore. Her freshman year, Thomas placed in the top eight in the Ivy League Championships in the 500-yard freestyle, the 1,000-yard freestyle and the 1,650-yard freestyle. According to Sports Illustrated, as a sophomore, Thomas “earned second-place finishes in the same trio of Ivy championship races in which she’d excelled the previous year, earning her multiple spots on the All-Ivy team. Thomas got closer to her goal of swimming at the NCAA championships and perhaps qualifying for the ’20 Olympic trials.” 

Then, as a junior, Thomas began HRT while still competing against men and understandably fell in the men’s rankings because that’s what testosterone suppression does to athletic performance. Thomas was in the process of transitioning but still had to compete against men at a significant disadvantage because that’s how the NCAA ensures fairness.

In short, much of the media are misrepresenting Thomas. She actually provides evidence that HRT works in trans athletes exactly the way it was intended to.

Further bolstering this claim is the fact that there are other male-to-female trans athletes in the NCAA, both now and in the past, who have not dominated women’s sports at all. Natalie Fahey, the first-ever openly trans female swimmer in the NCAA, competed for Southern Illinois University from 2015 to 2019. Fahey began hormone therapy in 2018 and the drop in her performances can be clearly tracked in her athlete bio, which lists her pre-transition times, and her SwimCloud page, which lists her mid-transition times.

In 2019, Fahey wasn’t done with her HRT timeframe as prescribed by the NCAA, so she competed in the Missouri Valley Conference Championships as an exhibition swimmer, meaning that although she swam against women in the meet, her scores would not count. Fahey would have barely edged out the top swimmers at the championship while still having months to go to complete her HRT. Even without completing HRT, Fahey’s time in the 500-yard freestyle slowed down by over 17 seconds and her time in the 1,605 freestyle slowed by over a minute in a single year. That’s far from domineering, and Fahey’s times would have likely continued downward had she continued competing throughout the completion of HRT.

Another example to consider are runners Juniper Eastwood and Johanna Harper. Eastwood competed in track and field and cross country for the University of Montana from 2015-2019. Eastwood’s resume in terms of standings, contains mixed results as it pertains to her placing in various races. On one hand, Eastwood’s best placing in the her MAC indoor track championship history did improve from seventh in the men’s mile to first in the women’s 1,500 meters over the course of her transition, but other races, like the 3,000 meters and cross country events show a different dynamic completely. In 2018, Eastwood placed 22nd in the men’s 3,000 meters and in 2019, she placed 15th in the same women’s event, meaning that although Eastwood’s placing improved, she did not improve enough to even score in a conference event (in track, the top eight finishers in each event contribute to an overall team score).

Cross country is difficult to compare directly, as women run distances ranging from 5,000 meters to 6,000 meters, whereas men run anywhere fromˆ 5,000 meter event to 10,000 meters. However, in Eastwood’s most recent regional performances, she shows a decrease from 58th place in the 2017 men’s Mountain Region Cross Country Championships to 60th in the women’s 6,000 meters two years later. All the while, Eastwood’s performances continued to decrease throughout the course of her HRT, and, like Fahey, she was far from domineering. Furthermore, Eastwood told Runner’s World that although her recent performances were slower than her times on the men’s teams, she felt an increased sense of confidence amid her transition, which may account for her better placing in women’s events.

Furthermore, Johanna Harper, a master’s trans runner who is also a medical physicist at Providence Portland Medical center, has both experienced the performance-mitigating effects of HRT on athletes and is one of the few individuals on the planet who is studying it. Of the fear that trans athletes will dominate cis women, she aptly states:

“One indication of fairness is that fears of trans women dominating in women’s sports have never been realized. [Renee’] Richards was knocked out in the first round at the U.S. Open. Golfer Mianne Bagger may have seemed like a giant-killer when she was winning Australian national amateur titles, but once she began to play against the pros in the Ladies European Tour, she was quickly relegated to also-ran status. Similarly, while [Fallon] Fox’s 5-1 professional fight record may seem gaudy, she toils in MMA’s minor leagues and, as so often happens when fighters are elevated, she would be promptly dispatched if she competed in the top-tier Ultimate Fighting Championship.”

Additionally, Harper notes of her own times post-transiton: “when I looked up my times in USA Track & Field’s age-grading tables — used to compare runners of all ages and both sexes — I found that I was just as competitive as a 48-year-old woman as I had been as a 46-year-old man.”

I strongly encourage the reader to check out Harper’s Washington Post piece as well as her studies that are imbedded within it. In the meantime, consider Chris Mosier, the first-ever trans athlete competing for Team USA. Mosier is a female-to-male trans athlete and demonstrates the precariousness of biology imperativeness in the opposite direction of Lia Thomas. Mosier has an impressive athletic history of duathlon and triathlon performances, and most recently competed as a professional racewalker in September 2019. In his debut, he placed 12th in the nation in the 50-kilometer event, beating thousands of male athletes who identify with their assigned sex at birth. Where is the discourse accusing him of “stealing” spots from “biological men” if, biologically speaking, he should be at a disadvantage?

Furthermore, Outsports estimates that there have been 33 out trans athletes in the history of college sports. It is unclear how many are male-to-female and the extent of their treatment, but it is clear that none of them have been overwhelmingly dominant in their respective sports like cisgender male athletes are dominant over cisgender female athletes. I believe that Thomas is the only trans athlete making headlines now because she is an exceptional athlete, male or female, cis or trans. If being trans alone contributed to athletic performance the way the media are making it out to be, every single male-to-female trans athlete would be dominating in their sport. This is clearly not the case so it is difficult for me to isolate Thomas’s trans status alone to her recent national title (and I would argue also irresponsible to do so). 

Also, if Lia Thomas was truly at a huge biological advantage on par with cisgender men, she would have dominated every event she competed in. Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle, but she tied for fifth in the 200 yards and placed eighth in the 100 yard freestyle. Her times compared with the times of cisgender men offer an even more complete picture. Thomas finished with a time of 4:33 in the 500 freestyle, compared to a time of 4:08 from Georgia’s Matthew Sates. Thomas finished the 200 yard freestyle with a time of 1:43.30, compared to the men’s champion in the same event, Texas’s Drew Kibbler, with a time of 1:30.28. Finally, Thomas’s time in the 100-yard freestyle was 48.18, compared to 41.9 from LSU’s Brooks Curry in the same event on the men’s side. We cannot reasonably compare Thomas’s performances to those of cisgender men, and given the clear mitigating effects of HRT on Thomas’s performances, it is hard for me to attribute her success in a single event to her being trans in and of itself.

3.) Transgender individuals face tremendous amounts of harassment, discrimination, and violence, and the mental health of trans individuals is also generally much worse than that of the general population for those and other reasons. What is less researched is the effects of hate crimes, harassment, and discrimination on trans athlete performance. What research exists suggests a logical correlation between discrimination and poor mental health, and poor mental health with decreases in athletic performance. Therefore, it is plausible to assume that Thomas is actually performing at a disadvantage, it’s just harder to measure mental health impacts than, say, testosterone levels (which don’t tell the whole story either. More on that later). 

On the other hand, mental health improvements can also have dramatic positive effects on athletic performance. For example, this peer-reviewed journal article states: “positive aspects of mental health should be associated with greater success in sport,” and this one chronicled similar findings across multiple studies. As a result of her HRT, Thomas told Sports Illustrated: “I felt, mentally, a lot better and healthier pretty quickly. The relief it gave me was quite substantial.” Similar findings have been reported in trans individuals who consequently feel more comfortable in their bodies in the process of transitioning, so it is also reasonable to attribute at least some of Thomas’s success to mental health improvements rather than biology alone. Mental health improvements are not a byproduct of simply being trans (the research suggests the opposite is true) and it is impossible to isolate this variable from other “advantages” Thomas may or may not have.

It’s also worth noting that Thomas told Sports Illustrated that she struggled with mental health pre-transition. The article describes Thomas as one of the top-ranked male swimmers in the country at the time, all while struggling with anxiety, depression, body dysmorphia, and panic attacks. Imagine how good Thomas would have been then without having to deal with all of this (and how much better she could be now if she didn’t have to deal with discrimination). Suffice it to say, trans or not, Thomas is an incredible athlete.

4.) It is true that Thomas has undergone make puberty and that her body has a different experience her cisgender counterparts. However, biological diversity exists across all sports and regulating it is dangerous and discriminatory. For example, in this year’s women’s NCAA basketball tournament, Stanford forward Fran Belibi, is arguably the most formidable presence. Although the average height for a female college basketball player is 5’6” Belibi stands at 6’1” tall and is, so far, the only women in the entire tournament who has dunked a ball, making her only the third female college basketball player to dunk at the national tournament.  

On the other end of the height spectrum, Olympic gymnast, Simone Biles, stands at 4’8” an ideal height for an elite gymnast. Biles is so great that she can perform moves that male gymnasts cannot and even has moves named after her. And people love it! It’s legitimately fun to watch dauntingly physical people play the sports they were born to play. I fear that if we start policing the bodies of trans athletes, then all female athlete bodies will be up for grabs.

It’s already happening at some level. As a former distance runner, I can attest to being weighed, measured, and told to conform to an ideal body type based on patriarchal beauty standards (aka dangerously thin). There are accounts of coaches regulating the appearances of their female athletes by pressuring them to conform to mainstream beauty standards or even regulating their use of birth control to manipulate athletic performance factors. The aforementioned Simone Biles’s talent has also been regulated, as judges have allegedly devalued her most difficult moves to discourage lesser-skilled gymnasts from attempting them. What is happening with Lia Thomas is an unfortunate extension of peoples’ proclivity to regulate the bodies and skills of female athletes. 

Most, if not all, athletes have biological advantages and biological diversity make sports great. How do we know which ones (if any) are worth regulating? Will we ban WNBA players for being too tall? College gymnasts for being too short? Elite endurance athletes from being too lean? Already, female track athletes have been ruled ineligible at multiple Olympic games for having completely natural levels of testosterone levels that were deemed too high. The athletes affected here were all Black women, and I worry about the racial implications of these dynamics. Where do we draw the line at regulating the performances of elite female athletes?

5.) Fairness in sports is a myth and this extends far beyond biology. If we wanted sports to be truly fair, we would have to sort athletes by a plethora of categories, including mental health status, nutrition, family dynamics, sleep habits, education, socioeconomic status, access to athletic facilities/gear, healthcare status, etc. Athletes compete on un-level playing fields all the time.

Consider spending habits in college sports. There is a $4 billion revenue gap between Power Five collegiate programs and mid-major programs and this has a direct effect on recruiting. The University of Alabama can win six football titles in 12 years due in large part to donor involvement and we call that fair. Consequently, athletic recruiting classes are consistently skewed to favor Power Five teams. No mid-major team has ever won a championship under the College Football Playoff format, and the last mid-major team to win a men’s college basketball championship was UNLV in 1990.  And yet, we love to watch the Davids take on the Goliaths every March precisely because, statistically speaking, they shouldn’t win. Inequity, I would argue, is what brings madness to March and makes the tournament the spectacle that it is today. 

On a personal level, consider Athlete A and Athlete B, two high school baseball players of equal genetic advantages and talent. But Athlete A comes from an upper-class family. He has well-educated parents who mitigated his injury risk growing up by enrolling him in multiple sports. He’s had a few aches and pains in his career, but no serious injuries. His bat, glove, and cleats are current models and can be replaced without issue. He’s on an elite travel team and regularly showcases his skills to college recruiters. He lives in a big house with heat and air conditioning, has regular access to running water, eats to contentment every day, and sleeps well at night. He works hard and is talented, and has every advantage to be great.

Now consider Athlete B who comes from a lower-class family. Because his parents don’t have good health insurance, he’s been sidelined for multiple preventable injuries. His bat, glove, and cleats are worn out and he can’t afford replacements. He plays for his single-A high school team and can barely afford fast food dinner after away games. He lives in a cramped house with no heat and air conditioning, has sporadic access to running water, barely eats enough every day, and sleeps in between his night shift and school in the morning. He works hard and is talented, but has none of the monetary advantages athlete A does. Athlete A simply won the socioeconomic lottery.

Yet, these two athletes can play for rival teams and it’s considered “fair.” Fairness in sports is a myth and the best we can do is mitigate inequity as much as possible. That’s what trans athlete inclusion guidelines are designed to do. Directing any kind of vitriol toward athletes who follow them is fruitless and, if you have trans friends and loved ones, can do more harm than good.

Here’s why. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and everyone is entitled to disagree with me on this topic. That’s completely fine with me. However, your trans friends and loved ones read comments where people they love misgender Thomas, call her a “biological male,” a “cheater” a “thief,” or any number of insults I’ve seen circulating the internet for the past couple of weeks, or otherwise disrespect or dehumanize her. You are entitled to freedom of expression but you are also not exempt from the consequences of that freedom.  

Lia Thomas does not know you and will never read half of the disrespect aimed at her. But your trans friends and loved ones, whether they are out or not, will. Please think of them and treat this conversation seriously before you call yourself an ally or a supporter of women. 

On a final note, I have a request for those whom I had no idea were even remotely interested in women’s sports but have nonetheless used the Lia Thomas conversation to pontificate about how much they support female athletes, women’s sports, gender equity, and fairness. 

If the Lia Thomas conversation is the first piece of media about female athletes you have read all year, I don’t want your opinions about female athletes because your “support” of female athletes is hollow and lazy.

If you cannot name five active female athletes (any league, and not the obvious ones like Serena, Simone, Naomi, Meagan, and Sue) without using Google, I don’t want your opinions about female athletes. Same for women in sports media.  Because if you can’t name us, you don’t actually care about women’s sports enough to admire our hard work within the industry. 

If you do not regularly watch women’s sports, I don’t want your opinions about female athletes because you are not an actual fan of women’s sports nor a supporter of female athletes.

If you fill out a men’s bracket but not a women’s bracket every March, I don’t want your opinions about female athletes because you are at least a little bit sexist. 

If you don’t follow female athletes, coaches, sportswriters, and other women in sports on social media, I don’t want your opinions about female athletes because you don’t know us.

If you do not regularly consume women’s sports media or follow women’s teams, I don’t want to hear your opinions about female athletes because you have research to do and you should get busy.

If the only time you ever comment about women’s sports is when you have a problem with trans women, I don’t want your opinions about female athletes because you are inconsistent at best and malicious at worst.

If you were silent during the Larry Nassar scandal, I don’t want your opinions about female athletes now. No elaboration needed.

If you say that you value equity and fairness in women’s sports without doing anything to ensure these things, I don’t want your opinions about female athletes. Because if you truly care, you would have done something, anything, to create the future for women’s sports you claim to want to see. Criticizing Lia Thomas does not meaningfully forward gender equity and in my book, does not count.

If any of the above apply to you, please reconsider if Lia Thomas is the one who is truly contributing to inequality and unfairness in women’s sports. Then ask how you can be a part of the solution.

I’ll help you. 

Luckily, it’s really easy: watch women’s games. Buy women’s merch. Fill out a women’s bracket. Follow women’s teams. Support the labor of women in sports. Hire and pay them fairly if you are in a position to do so. The woman in sports writing this piece believes that one’s place in this conversation is earned. If you are not willing to put in the work, perhaps it’s best to stay on the sidelines.

Katie (M.K.) Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin where she studies NCAA discourse and policy. She is also a freelance sportswriter and creative writer on the side. She is the author of a new book Surviving the Second Tier available on AMAZON. Follow Katie on  Twitter and Instagram@leverfever.

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