At this year’s NCAA swimming championships, organizers allowed a biological male, Lia Thomas, to compete against female athletes on the basis of transgender status. And so, what should have been a moment of sporting pride — a celebration of some of the best female swimmers in the country — became a scandal.
Thomas, a fifth-year senior at the University of Pennsylvania, went by his given name of Will and swam for the men’s team until 2019 without issue. When competing against men, Thomas was a top-tier swimmer, though far from a national champion. But since Thomas underwent hormone-replacement therapy during the pandemic and was allowed to join the women’s team in the 2021–2022 season, the swimmer has dominated the female competition. At the NCAA swim championships last week, Thomas reached the podium in every event the swimmer competed in, an honor bestowed on the top eight finishers in the nation. Thomas finished first in the 500-yard freestyle (beating two Olympic medalists), fifth in the 200-yard freestyle, and eighth in the 100-yard freestyle.
The NCAA’s reasoning is that Thomas, having taken testosterone suppressants, is now biologically equivalent to the championship’s female athletes. It requires nothing short of magical thinking to come to such a conclusion. Menopausal women do not cease to be women after their estrogen levels drop. And neither do biological men cease to be biological men after their testosterone levels have been chemically manipulated. The sex-based advantages conferred on Thomas during puberty are as irreversible as they are obvious. It is literally impossible to change sex.
Thomas’s defenders emphasize that no rules have been broken. But the rule-makers have abdicated responsibility. In January, the NCAA’s response to the Lia Thomas controversy was to punt and defer to the rules set by each sport’s governing body, in this case, USA swimming. But this change wouldn’t happen until 2023. USA swimming’s own policy was similarly evasive. It decided to lengthen the required hormone-replacement-therapy period (effectively tripling the twelve months that the NCAA has been requiring) and defer to a panel of experts to review “evidence that the prior physical development of the athlete as male, as mitigated by any medical intervention, does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors.”
Any panel using the nonsense term “cisgender” cannot be taken seriously. The competitive advantages males have over females are well documented (if not self-evident) and need not be rehearsed here.
Even if Thomas had finished last in every race, the effect would still have been to deprive female athletes of their hard-earned opportunities to compete. Reka Gyorgy, a Virginia Tech swimmer, wrote in an open letter to the NCAA that she was bumped out of the competition because of the organization’s decision to allow “someone who is not a biological female to compete.” One father told National Review how the same thing happened to his daughter. And a mother, whose daughter had also been displaced in an event with Thomas, spoke of how “heartbreaking” it was to watch her daughter sacrifice so much only to be beaten by a male.
The trouble is that most people know that the emperor is naked but are too intimidated to say so. Inside the McAuley Aquatic Center, cheers and applause for Thomas were relatively muted compared with that for the female athletes. Some crowd members even booed Thomas, and one women’s-rights protester shouted, “He’s a man!” If the reaction to Thomas seems unsporting, consider how the female athletes feel. Parents report that their daughters have been instructed by their coaches to smile, stay silent, and step aside. So much for Title IX, which was supposed to protect women from this kind of discrimination.
Instead of allowing, indeed actively encouraging, this fiasco, adults should have taken a hand from the beginning and politely but firmly said “no” to a biological male competing in a women’s sport.
Thomas’s college swim career is now over. And for the female swimmers at this year’s NCAA championships, the damage is done. Yet, whether or not the embarrassment continues at the Olympic level, this scandal has far graver consequences than even the injustices endured by individual female athletes. It is not only the female achievements that are under attack but the very definition of female.