In 2011, the NCAA released a set of guidelines on the inclusion of transgender student-athletes in collegiate sports. It was nothing short of "groundbreaking," Chris Mosier, a pro athlete, transgender advocate, and founder of Transathlete.com, told POPSUGAR. The guidelines provided set-in-stone policy that mandated trans athletes' ability to play. Yet despite this important first step, transgender athletes still experience backlash, discrimination, and harmful misconceptions, both in the NCAA and beyond. Nine years after its publication, the shortcomings in the NCAA's policy have become ever more apparent — especially as it faces recent and serious setbacks in the form of exclusionary state laws and continued discrimination.
What Is the NCAA's Policy on Transgender Student-Athletes?
According to "NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes," published in 2011, a "trans male (FTM) student-athlete" may compete on a men's team in the NCAA, whether or not they choose to take testosterone as hormone therapy. "Trans female (MTF) student-athlete[s]," however, are required to take testosterone suppression medication for one year in order to compete on a women's team. ("FTM" stands for "female to male," while "MTF" stands for "male to female.") The guidelines expressly state that "a trans female transgender student athlete" who doesn't take hormone therapy is not allowed to compete on a women's team.
As they stand now, the guidelines are exclusionary to trans women who are not taking testosterone suppression medication. This is an issue because, as Mosier pointed out, "there's not just one way to be a transgender person. Trans people can choose many different paths for what transition may look like for themselves."
One of these paths is a medical transition, which may include hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgery. Another is a social transition, which could include changing one's name, pronouns, style of dress, and the locker room facilities one uses. There's also the possibility of a legal transition, which could include legally changing one's name or gender marker on IDs and birth certificates. "There's no one way and no singular 'right' way, and a trans person may do some, any, or none of these in any order they wish," Mosier explained. That makes it complicated to set one policy in place, he added. "Trans people are as diverse as anyone else, and many of the policies in competitive sports, including the NCAA, are centered around hormones."
The guidelines also fail to address the needs of nonbinary student-athletes, while assuming that all transgender student-athletes identify as FTM or MTF. According to the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans's website, "Not all people conceptualize their gender as a transition from one binary sex to another. Some understand themselves to be transgender, neither male nor female, some combination of both, or a third or alternative gender, such as genderqueer or trans."
According to a spokeswoman for the NCAA, rationale for the policy "noted that issues of student-athlete well-being and protection of competitive equity requires an Association-wide policy that addresses transgender student-athlete participation. The policy sought fair opportunities for student-athletes from diverse backgrounds while ensuring that women's sports would be equitably conducted. It is important to note the policy does not [require] the reporting of testosterone levels."
What Is the Controversy Around Transgender Athletes?
To understand the issues at play in the NCAA, it's worth looking at the bigger picture. "At all levels of play, athletes who are transgender face discrimination and backlash about their identities due to lack of understanding about what it actually means to be transgender, and why we want to play sports," Mosier told POPSUGAR. Trans women athletes in particular face damaging stereotypes and misconceptions, he said.
Some people argue that trans women have an unfair advantage when it comes to physical athletic competition. Research on the subject tends to be conflicting. A 2017 review stated that neither transgender men or transgender women retained an athletic advantage over cisgender athletes at any stage of their transition. But according to a 2019 essay written by physiologists, "science demonstrates that high testosterone and other male physiology provides a performance advantage in sport suggesting that transwomen retain some of that advantage." Still, policy around transgender athletes goes beyond pure science, the researchers added. "To determine whether the advantage is unfair necessitates an ethical analysis of the principles of inclusion and fairness."
"Trans athletes want to participate in sports for the same reasons as anyone else."
Meanwhile, transgender athletes are the ones bearing the brunt. In late May, a Connecticut policy that allowed transgender girls to compete in girls' high school sports was found to violate the civil rights of athletes who have always identified as female. The lawsuit was brought forward by three athletes, all cisgender girls, after two transgender girls saw success in high school track meets; according to the lawsuit, the transgender athletes won a combined 15 championship races since 2017.
Yet according to Helen Carroll, an advocate for LGBTQ+ athletes who worked on the NCAA's handbook, that level of success — whether relevant or not — doesn't seem to be the norm. In a 2019 interview with Wired, she estimated that there are 150 to 200 transgender student-athletes in the NCAA. A few stand out for their successes, such as sprinter CeCé Telfer from Franklin Pierce University, who won the Division II national championship in the 400-meters, and cross country runner June Eastwood of Montana. But "you don't hear a thing about" most of the other transgender athletes in the NCAA, Carroll said; their performances haven't led to controversy.
What Challenges Do Transgender Athletes Face in the NCAA?
In addition to backlash and discrimination, transgender student-athletes in the NCAA face additional hurdles. One of these, Mosier said, is a "discrepancy in policy."
In March 2020, Idaho passed a law banning transgender women and girls from competing in women's sports, applying to all sports teams sponsored by public schools, colleges, and universities. As Mosier observed, the new law (HB500) "directly conflicts with the NCAA guidelines that allow trans athletes to participate, so athletes in Idaho or who are at a school that would play in Idaho are at risk of being fully banned from participating." Many other states are considering, or have considered, similar bills that prohibit transgender women from competing in women's sports.
How Can the NCAA's Policy on Transgender Student-Athletes Evolve?
The NCAA's guidelines have created opportunities for students "to be their authentic selves and continue to play the sports they love," Mosier said. He noted that hundreds of transgender athletes have competed in college without issue. Nine years after the passage of the inclusion guidelines, though, it may be time for an update.
"The NCAA must update its guide for transgender athletes, which still uses outdated terms that were removed from common use in 2013," he said. The policy should also make an effort to recognize nonbinary athletes, "who also need policies for participation," Mosier said. According to an NCAA spokeswoman, "The policy is currently under review by several NCAA committees."
There are various medical, social, and political aspects at play when it comes to transgender inclusion in college sports. But at the heart of the issue is this: "Trans athletes want to participate in sports for the same reasons as anyone else," Mosier stated. "Playing sports at any level leads to positive outcomes in all areas of our lives. All people should take an interest in ensuring trans athletes are included in sport and protected from harmful legislation and policy."