The Impacts of Conference Realignment on College Athletes

Last week, USC and UCLA made big moves–both schools announced their commitment to move to the Big Ten Conference in 2024. Naturally, sports media descended on the storylines and speculation of what other teams from other conferences might make moves, or even of a potential Pac-12/Big Ten merger sometime in the future.

Perhaps even more naturally, the people whom conference realignment arguably affects the most–college athletes–went unnoticed in the media flurry. This is a glaring oversight. As the forces that drive the college sports industry, college athletes and their interests should always come first when making/covering such decisions. Here are just two ways that conference realignment impacts college athletes

1.) Conference realignment affects travel. Now, Big Ten athletes from the northern U.S. will have to travel to Southern California and Pac-12 athletes from the Southwestern U.S. will have to travel to Michigan on a fairly regular basis. Although it’s easy to look at that situation from the outside and envy these athletes for the free travel they’re getting, it’s important to remember that these aren’t vacations. Traveling with a college team is a business trip and traveling is tiring. Not to mention, it’s a lot of wear and tear on the body, especially for athletes who are nursing injuries or who need access to a full training room to feel and perform at their best.

2.) More traveling affects academics. Because athletes will be flying across the country more frequently, they will have to miss more class and do more assignments on busses and planes which is less than ideal. It also calls the idealist notion of “student-athlete” into question. When college athletes have to fly across the country multiple times a semester and miss classes nearly every week, they’re functioning as what Isaiah Thomas famously coined “athlete-students.” 

Conference realignment isn’t just jarring for fans and coaches. It’s also a big change for the athletes and athletes deserve a say in decisions that majorly impact them.

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.

What FINA Gets Wrong in its New Trans Athlete Participation Policy

Early this week, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) announced its new transgender participation policy, which effectively bars trans female athletes from competing in women’s events. FINA’s proposal, while having the advantage of simplicity, is nevertheless, incomplete. Here’s why:

  1. FINA’s new policy prohibits trans individuals who did not start hormone replacement therapy at age 12 from competing and there are a couple of issues here. First, this age limit seems arbitrary. Although boys start puberty at age 12 on average, the onset of puberty varies widely, typically from ages 8 to 14. If FINA truly wants to limit biological advantages, why are they taking aim at such a broad range of dates? Science isn’t black and white here, so slapping a narrow prohibition seems unnecessary and inaccurate. Second, in states like Texas, where parents of trans kids can be charged with child abuse for providing gender-affirming care, trans athletes will all be barred from competing, should smaller governing bodies like the NCAA, follow FINA’s lead (and lesser organizations are likely to do so).
  2. FINA is proposing adopting an “open” category in which trans athletes can compete against each other. While this may sound logical in theory, it’s unlikely that there will be enough trans athletes to field an entire event. According to Outsports, the NCAA has only seen 33 trans athletes in its history, male or female, across all of its sports. FINA may be an international organization, but trans athletes represent an incredibly small sliver of the world’s population as well. An even smaller sliver are elite swimmers, so FINA’s proposed “open” category will likely not comprise of enough competitors to fill a podium.
  3. Trans athletes are not a significant threat to fairness in women’s sports (and I’ve outlined why here).

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.

Are Trans Athletes Really Threats To Women’s Sports? Five Arguments For Trans Inclusion From a Former D1 Athlete

Even as a cisgender woman, the topic of trans inclusion in women’s sports is exhausting and disheartening. I’ve heard trans female athletes be called everything from cheaters to thieves to threats, but as a former Division 1 athlete and current doctoral candidate who studies college sports, I see this discourse as alarmist, degrading, and misleading. I’d like to use the recent Lia Thomas case to illustrate why I believe this is true and to offer five reasons I support trans athlete inclusion in women’s sports. 

1. LIA THOMAS HAS ABIDED WITH THE NCAA’S GUIDELINES. 

Thomas has done nothing wrong, and her participation is in line with NCAA guidelines for transgender athletes. Whether or not those guidelines are sufficient to ensure fairness will be revealed in time (more on that later). But for now, it’s not right to leverage vitriol at Thomas for abiding by the NCAA’s rules. Criticism should be aimed at the institution, not the athlete.

2. HORMONE THERAPY REDUCES ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE SUBSTANTIALLY.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about trans athletes and there are still countless unknowns about the human body and athletic performance. This uncertainty extends to our knowledge about the effects of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) on trans athlete performance. Thomas actually provides a compelling case for the inclusion of trans athletes in women’s sports post-HRT. But that’s only if we look at her athletic performances in the correct context.

There is a common narrative circulating that pre-transition, Thomas was somewhere around the 450th best male swimmer in the nation. However, 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. During Thomas’s transition, the NCAA’s trans athlete inclusion rules required male-to-female trans athletes to undergo at least a year of HRT before they could compete for a women’s team (The NCAA has since amended their policies). 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, she 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. As a sophomore, she placed second in the same races, earning multiple All-Ivy team honors, getting closer to her goal of swimming at the NCAA championships and “perhaps qualifying for the ’20 Olympic trials,” according to Sports Illustrated

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.

There’s also 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. 

  • Natalie Fahey, the first-ever openly trans female swimmer in the NCAA, competed for Southern Illinois University from 2015 to 2019. Fahey began HRT in 2018 and the drop in her performances can be 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 so, 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.

  • Juniper 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. On one hand, her best placing in the 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 show a different dynamic completely. In 2018 (listed as Jonathan Eastwood), she placed 22nd in the men’s 3,000 meters and in 2019, she placed 15th in the same women’s event, meaning that although her 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 to 6,000 meters, whereas men run anywhere from 5,000 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. Throughout the course of her HRT, her performances continued to decrease, 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.

  • 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 that trans women, like Fallon Fox, Mianne Bagger, and Renee’ Richards, have been competing in women’s sports for decades without dominating the rankings. Additionally, Harper notes of her own times post-transition: “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.”

  • Outsports estimates that there have been 33 out trans athletes in the history of college sports, none of whom have been overwhelmingly dominant in their respective sports like cisgender male athletes are dominant over cisgender female athletes. Thomas has likely been the only trans athlete making headlines lately 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. 

Therefore, if Thomas was truly at a huge biological advantage on par with cisgender men, she would have dominated every event she competed in, but that was not the case: She won the 500-yard freestyle, but 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. 

Thomas’s performances cannot be compared to those of cisgender men, and given the mitigating effects of HRT on Thomas’s performances, it’s illogical to attribute her success in a single event to her being trans in and of itself.

3.) HARASSMENT, DISCRIMINATION, AND VIOLENCE ARE LIKELY FACTORS IN PERFORMANCE.

Studies have shown that the mental health of trans individuals is worse overall than that of the general population. What is less researched is the effects of hate crimesharassment, and discrimination on trans athlete performance. What research exists suggests a logical correlation between discrimination and poor mental health, and a correlation between poor mental health with decreases in athletic performance. Therefore, it is plausible to assume that Thomas is 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’s 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.

4.) BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY EXISTS ACROSS ALL SPORTS AND REGULATING IT IS DANGEROUS AND DISCRIMINATORY. 

While it is true that Thomas has undergone male puberty and that her body has a different experience than her cisgender counterparts, this is just one of many forms of biological diversity, and attempting to regulate it would put us all on a slippery slope. 

For example, in this year’s women’s NCAA basketball tournament, Stanford forward Fran Belibi was 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 was the only woman in the entire tournament who has dunked a ball, making her only the third female college basketball player ever 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 makes sports great. How do we know which aspects of biology (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.  

On a personal level, consider Athlete A and Athlete B, two high school baseball players of equal genetic advantages and talent levels. But Athlete A comes from an upper-class family, while athlete B’s family has a much lower income. Athlete A has had a few aches and pains in his career that were promptly taken care of by his parents’ excellent health insurance, while Athlete B has been sidelined countless times because he can’t afford decent healthcare. Athlete A’s bat, glove, and cleats are current models and can be replaced without issue, while Athlete B’s gear is all worn out and he can’t pay for replacements. 

Both athletes work hard and are talented, but Athlete A is at a massive athletic advantage because he won the socioeconomic lottery. Yet, these two athletes can play for rival teams and it’s considered “fair.” 

So-called “fairness” in sports is a slippery concept and in my opinion, the best we can do is mitigate inequity as much as possible. That’s what trans athlete inclusion policies are designed to do. Directing vitriol toward athletes who follow them is fruitless and, if you have trans friends and loved ones, can do more harm than good.

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. Especially if the Lia Thomas story was the first piece of women’s sports media you consumed all year.

This begs the question: are trans athletes the true threat to women’s sports?

I don’t think they are. Rather, I think the real enemies to fairness and equity in women’s sports are those sports fans who don’t watch women’s games or buy women’s sports merchandise, or follow women in sports on social media. The true threats to women’s sports are the coaches and trainers who abuse female athletes and the social media warriors who stay silent when those stories break, but insist they desire “fairness” when a trans athlete enters the chat. You don’t have to openly oppose women’s sports to threaten the industry, all you have to do is stay on the sidelines as the battle for equity in funding, airtime, and hiring practices rages on, even as we approach the 50th anniversary of Title IX. 

Tweeting vitriol at Lia Thomas does nothing to promote equity in women’s sports. If fairness for female athletes is what you truly want, I suggest you turn on the TV and start watching them in action.

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.

Bribing College Athletes is Old News

What if I told you that colleges have always been “buying athletes” and that NIL hasn’t changed that dynamic at all?

If you’re a Power Five football coach, that may come as a surprise. Earlier this week, legendary Alabama football coach, Nick Saban made headlines for claiming that SEC competitor Texas A&M engaged in dishonest recruiting practices and “bought every player” in its current recruiting class with name, image and likeness deals. Saban also claimed that Jackson State head football coach, Deion Sanders, “paid a guy a million dollars last year” to play for him, an allegation that Sanders vehemently denied on Twitter, tweeting “I don’t even make a million!”

Neither of Nick Saban’s claims are easily provable but let’s pretend for a minute that they are undeniably true (and that directly paying players to attend certain universities wasn’t a NCAA violation). How is paying players to attend a school any different than what universities did to lure in recruits before NIL was a thing?

My take is that it’s really not all that different from spending money on flashy facilities to attract recruits, like the University of Alabama itself has been doing for years. In summer of 2020, amid the budgeting chaos that the coronavirus pandemic brought to universities across the country, Alabama Football’s Twitter account advertised its impressive locker room and stadium renovations that totaled $107 million. If you’re questioning whether or not that’s actually a strategy to draw in recruits, look no further than Alabama’s Crimson Tide Foundation’s website, which states a key goal of its current 10-year, $600-million funding initiative is to “transform our facilities and provide the environment necessary to recruit and train the best student-athletes and position our programs as nationally competitive in the future.”

It’s not just Alabama who’s buying college athletes. In 2017, Clemson University built a $55-million-dollar locker room that included a bowling alley and a slide. In 2019, LSU finished its $28 million locker room renovations that included a mini-theatre, sleep pods, and a pool. More recently, in 2021, Auburn University released plans to install flight simulators in their locker rooms as a part of its new Football Performance Center that cost $91.9 million. If these universities are thinking like Alabama, the goal of these renovations is clear: build the best facilities to attract the best athletes.

So, hypothetically, even if college athletes are getting a million dollars to attend a school, who cares? It’s not like they haven’t been bribed before. At least direct payments and NIL deals actually benefit them, rather than the universities.

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.

The NCAA is Telling on Itself

The NCAA recently released a statement outlining its newest NIL guidelines, which regulate collectives and boosters their involvement with name, image, and likeness activity. In a sense, this is old news–the NCAA has historically been against NIL and is continuing to try to regulate the economic activities of college athletes. What makes this announcement significant is its timing.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and, to put it lightly, the NCAA seems pretty unaware of this. Since the new year, a total of three college athletes have committed suicide: James Madison softball player, Lauren Bennett, Wisconsin track athlete, Sarah Shulze and Stanford soccer player, Katie Meyer. Instead of doing something to stop these tragedies, the NCAA is doing what it does best: restricting college athletes.

It’s a common misconception that college athletes are the pinnacle of health. After all, competing at an elite level requires immense amounts of physical strength, endurance, and fortitude. What this stereotype ignores completely is the mental component. College athletes deal with tons of performance pressure, anxiety, and issues with tying their entire sense of self-worth to their identity as an athlete. It’s no wonder college athletes generally have worse mental health than their non-athlete peers as well as higher rates of suicide and self-harm.

Instead of addressing this, the NCAA wants to put its time, effort, and energy into regulating college athletes’ NIL rights. It’s completely unacceptable, considering that the NCAA has done a fair amount of research about college athlete mental health and has handbooks full of “best practices” (which, unlike NIL rules, are not enforceable) for schools to follow at their convenience. To top it all off, the NCAA cut funding to mental health services for college athletes during the coronavirus pandemic (and I’d bet that money instead went to the fund legal battle the NCAA was waging–and continues to wage–against NIL laws).

The bottom line is that the NCAA knows college athletes are suffering. They’d just rather regulate them than help them.

What is WNBA Star, Brittney Griner Doing in Russia?

WNBA star, Brittney Griner, has been detained in Russia since February when airport security found vape cartridegs in her luggage at the Moscow airport. This past week, her pre-trial detention has been extended, meaning she could be heading to trial soon. Puzzlingly, media coverage has been inconsistent for the last few months and it’s ridiculous. We have a professional athlete likely unjustly detained in a warzone. Where has the uproar been all this time?

As difficult as it is to wrap my head around the whole situation, I’ve been pondering several more questions as Griner’s trial date looms. Here are a few: What would have happened if Tom Brady had been in Griner’s position? Would he have been detained for three months or would American officials intervened immediately? Honestly, if any male professional athlete had been stuck overseas in the middle of a warzone, I’m inclined to believe they wouldn’t have been in that position for as long as Griner has been.

Another serious question I’ve heard is: What was Griner doing in Russia in the first place? That’s one I have an answer to. She was probably earning a living wage. Lots of people assume that WNBA players earn lucrative salaries like their male counterparts, but that isn’t close to true, and as a result, many female basketball players have to compete in the offseason for professional leagues overseas in countries like Russia.

The average median salary for a WNBA rookie ranges from around $60,000-$70,000 per year. Veterans can expect closer to $100,000-$120,000, but even the best of the best in the WNBA cap at roughly $200,000 per year. Though these may look like fairly comfortable salaries at first glance, the average career of a professional athlete, male or female across leagues and sports, is roughly 3 years, meaning that the very best professional women’s basketball players in the world can expect to earn about half a million dollars when all is said and done before they have to find a “real job” for the rest of their lives.

It’s hard for me to imagine an athlete like Tom Brady traveling to Russia every summer to supplement his income, but WNBA legends like Brittney Griner do it all the time. It’s time to raise salaries for female athletes not only because they deserve it, but because it can help keep them safe, comfortable, and close to home.

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.

As Seen in Sportico: “Title IX is 50, but Women’s Sports Still Get Less Than 50% of Resources”

I’m not looking forward to the 50th anniversary of Title IX

That might be surprising coming from a former Division I athlete who has greatly benefited from the law, but the lack of critical discourse surrounding milestone anniversaries of historic events gets old fast. Looking ahead to June, I’m preparing for overwhelmingly celebratory claims that women’s sports are equal to men’s thanks to Title IX.

If that were true, it would be cause for celebration. But the reality is that female college athletes have yet to see the promise of Title IX. The NCAA’s most recent financial data from Title IX’s 45th anniversary indicate that Division I women’s programs at FBS institutions only receive 18% of total operating expenses, 29% of recruiting dollars, and 41% of scholarship allocations.

Read more HERE

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.

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.

The NCAA is a Dystopia: Why I Wrote “Surviving the Second Tier”

I’m someone who writes about collegiate athletics regularly, but I really wish I could stop writing about the topics I cover.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I’m a former D1 athlete, sportswriter, and doctoral candidate who studies collegiate athletics, so there are few things I enjoy more than writing about college sports. But the writing I do extends far past typical game day coverage and fun, feel-good underdog stories. Instead, I cover the abuse, policy failures, politics, injuries, inequities, and exploitation that permeate collegiate athletics. These are the things that negatively affect NCAA athletes and so writing about these things isn’t really an option, it’s a necessity to me. That’s why I wrote my book.

I never actually intended to write, let alone, publish my debut novel, Surviving the Second Tier, but I was strongly driven to do so. My novel is a fictional dystopia that covers the real-life issues within the college sports industry, and it began as a metaphor. I study sports policy (and love to talk about it), and I needed a more engaging way to talk about my research—when you tell people you study collegiate athletics, they expect a more exciting follow-up than just diving into a policy book, which I’m prone to do. After too many conversations where peoples’ eyes would deaden the minute I began recounting policy to them, I began livening up my research by telling them  “the NCAA is a dystopia” instead. The dystopia metaphor piqued enough interest for me to then dive into the policy issues I’m passionate about: protection against coach abuse, better healthcare for college athletes, employment status, gender equity, and workplace protections, to name just a few. Those conversations seemed to stick and my plot was born.

Surviving the Second Tier tells the story of collegiate athletes in the first-person, allowing the reader to live their lives and face their struggles for a while and along the way, experience the tensions and hurdles college athletes face today. Unlike modern-day college sports, my story takes place in the future under a college sports model where, after years of overspending on designer gear for athletes, expensive, high-tech equipment, and fancy facilities in order to attract recruits, athletic departments became financially depleted. Then, the governing body of collegiate athletics came in with the idea to downsize to a single college sport to save money: fighting. Competition is cheap sport, fighting requires few officials and hardly any equipment, and, as a bonus, the flash of televised fights draws many viewers. My book follows a team of fighters through the postseason as they train and compete through high stakes, injuries, relational tensions, as well as the pressure and stress of being a college athlete that current college athletes will relate to.

I wrote Surviving the Second Tier to teach readers so it’s designed for athletes, parents of parents, and anyone else who wants to learn more about the college sports industry from an athletes’ perspective, and covers topics including recruiting ethics, abuses of power, academics, work/life balance, performance anxiety, and more. It’s also, importantly, a human story about resistance, resilience, grief, fear, dreams, friendship, and solidarity. Athletes, whether college or professional, are frequently dehumanized and often reduced to their statistics or salary totals so the human aspect of my book was a key priority. It is my hope that it changes the way people consume sports and see athletes as advocates push for change in the flawed, but still promising, college sports industry. If any of this sounds interesting, Surviving the Second Tier is available for purchase on Amazon here.

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.

The Adults in the Room

If you’re a fan of college basketball, you probably weren’t expecting a fight night when you tuned into the Michigan/Wisconsin game on Sunday. But although it’s not yet March, it looks like the madness has already begun.

The game ended like all college basketball games typically do: after Wisconsin defeated Michigan 77-63, both teams lined up to shake hands before heading to the locker rooms. But when Michigan head coach, Juwan Howard, and Wisconsin head coach, Greg Gard reached each other, things got tense. Gard appeared to grab Howard, and Howard retaliated, resulting in a brawl on the court in which Wisconsin assistant coach, John Krabbenhoff was eventually struck in the head. The Big Ten Conference has since suspended Howard for the remainder of the regular season and fined him $40,000, while fining Gard $10,000. It is a black eye for both programs in more ways than one.

Naturally, there has been a flurry of media coverage around the fight, and I think it’s important to not overlook the role the athletes played here. When Howard and Gard began to get heated, athletes from both teams took active steps to break up the fight, including some putting themselves in harm’s way to physically separate their coaches. Which leads to what is quite possibly my number one pet peeve within the the college sports industry: the proclivity of broadcasters, fans, and coaches, to casually call college athletes “kids.”

Language use like this is such a big deal that it’s a huge topic of interest in my dissertation in progress, which discusses how paternalistic language functions to control, infantilize, and ultimately harm college athletes. In an academic sense, paternalism refers to practices in which authority figures infantilize subordinates by controlling their conduct under the guise of protecting them. In a non-academic sense, paternalism looks like enforcing punitive team rules, like monitoring and censoring social media use or banning romantic relationships to keep athletes out of trouble and focused on their sport. Calling college students “kids,” similarly implies that they need such restrictions in place for their own benefit.

Language, even casually used, is often rooted in ideology, and thus has the power to shape mass belief. Kids are not responsible. They need to be controlled and protected for their own good. So conceptualizing college athletes as children obligates them to all kinds of restrictions and guardrails, some of which are codified in state-level NIL laws which monitor and prohibit certain economic activities, while others are found in team policies that track athletes to make sure they attend class or make them stay in hotels for home football games to keep them all in one place and in bed on time.

Isn’t it ironic that coaches can literally throw punches and never once be called “kids” for it, while the athletes who break up these brawls are infantilized through both language and policy initiatives simply for being college students? On Sunday night, Howard and Gard showed us who the true adults of the college sports industry are–and it wasn’t them.

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 AMAZONTwitter and Instagram@leverfever.