The NCAA Board of Governors voted on Jan. 19 in favor of a sport-by-sport approach to regulations surrounding transgender athletes, set to start during the 2022 winter sport championships. 

The national governing body of each sport will determine the specific regulations for transgender athletes, according to the policy, with the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports making ongoing reviews and recommendations.

The NCAA stated this new approach “preserves opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete.” 

Some Emory University students expressed doubts as to if the policy will effectively protect the trans community. Jay Jones (22Ox), who identifies as trans, believes the policy will ultimately have a negative effect on trans athletes.

“[The new policy] sends the message that our inclusion, despite incessant attacks on trans humanity, is not worth a stance,” Jones told the Wheel. “Having access to recreation and athletics should not be up for debate, and giving each sport’s national governing body the option to exclude trans people is unacceptable.”

Jones has contributed to the Wheel’s opinion section. 

Emily Wilhem (23Ox), who runs on Oxford’s cross country team, also finds the policy problematic due to “the lack of a clearly outlined plan in some sports for what trans athletes should do.”

Similarly, Emily Freestone (23Ox), who plays varsity tennis at Oxford, said the policy is not sufficiently clear. 

“The pro to a sport-by-sport approach is that the people deciding would have the best understanding of that given sport and could best ensure that policy is fair, but there also needs to be an overarching policy from the NCAA to eliminate confusion,” Freestone said. 

Ben Zamler (25C), a member of Emory’s varsity track and field team, expressed concern about how the policy might affect athletes who don’t want to transition completely.

“There are certain biological advantages that need to be adjusted to make competition fair,” Zamler said. “But I know there are people who don’t necessarily want to fully transition. They deserve to be respected and able to play on the team they identify with too. It’s a really tough issue.”

The policy change follows recent national debate around the success of Lia Thomas, a transgender woman at the University of Pennsylvania who previously swam on the mens’ team. 

She came out to her team in 2019, competing intermittently on the mens’ team while undergoing hormone therapy. She dropped out of Penn for the 2020-2021 school year when the coronavirus canceled her last season to preserve her eligibility, returning this year to swim on the womens’ team. 

Thomas has broken multiple records. At the Zippy Invitational in Dec. 2021, she won three events, swimming the fastest time in the country in both the 500 free and the 200 free. 

She faced transphobic attacks from anti-trans groups and conservative media following her performances.  

Penn swimming parents wrote a letter to the NCAA in protest of Thomas’s participation. Olympic Champion Nancy Hogshead-Makar wrote an editorial citing why Thomas shouldn’t be allowed to compete. 

Zamler believes that Thomas’s wins were well earned, explaining that “if she met all requirements for participation, then her records are definitely valid.”

Emory Athletic Director Keiko Price wrote in a Jan. 24 email to the Wheel that “Emory Athletics has and will continue to abide by NCAA guidelines for college sports,  including its transgender participation policy.” Price declined an interview request.

Jones was disappointed by the University’s response.

“Valuing trans people cannot just be someone else’s job or someone else’s decision,” Jones said. “It is the job of all of us to take an active role in allowing trans people to be people, and that includes allowing trans people to participate in sports.”

OxPride Secretary Ayanna Kakar (22Ox) agreed, stating that Emory needs to use its influence to fight the policy.

“Emory needs to prioritize its students, and that includes trans students,” Kakar said. “They have the institutional power to push back, and by sticking to the status quo, they’re failing to support all their students.”

Recent conversation about transgender athlete rights has extended past the NCAA. In his Jan. 14 State of the State speech, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp promised to “ensure fairness in school sports,” alluding to state legislation that would force high school athletes to compete in sports according to their birth gender. 

The statement concerned some students. Wilhem said she is worried about how this policy might affect high school athletes who want to be recruited. 

“New laws could really hurt transgender athletes in high school and their process of getting recruited,” Wilhem said. “If Emory supports its current student athletes, they should also support the high school athletes they’ll be recruiting from. This means lobbying for high school trans athlete participation.”

Jones explained the danger they foresaw in the vagueness of Kemp’s statement.

“The surveillance of trans people’s hormones, chromosomes and bodies for the sake of ‘fairness’ is absolutely transphobic violence,” Jones said. “Cis people do not need to be protected from trans people, sex is not a valid marker of athletic ability, and reducing people to their sexual characteristics in the way that trans people have long experienced is undeniably dehumanizing.”

The Eagles swim against the University of North Carolina (UNC)-Wilmington in the WoodPEC for an Alumni and Family Weekend crowd. The women’s team defeated UNC-Wilmington, 152-142, while the men lost 157-131. The teams take on Birmingham-Southern College away this Saturday. | Photo Courtesy of Jason Oh