NAIA bars transgender women from women’s sports


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Transgender women wanting to enter women's sports in community colleges will not be able to after a new national policy has prohibited them from doing so.

On April 8, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) released a policy barring transgender women from competing on female sports teams.

The policy will take effect on Aug. 1 of this year and states that only people “assigned female at birth” are allowed to compete on NAIA Women’s teams.

According to Zeb Hoffman, associate director of Intercollegiate Athletics at Evergreen State College, this decision was a surprise and  “came out of nowhere.” 

The decision was reached by a unanimous vote from the NAIA Council of Presidents after the Transgender Task Force proposed this policy in April. The Transgender Task Force was formed in April 2022 at the request of the Council of Presidents. 

Brad Anawalt, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, felt the April NAIA decision lacked “nuance.” 

He said that “they (NAIA) are failing to recognize that these issues are related to social justice, and they’re societal issues. The decision of how to include transgender athletes in sports competitions is not solely based in medicine or science.”  

This new policy is not aligned with current National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) standards regarding trans participation. Both organizations emphasize transgender women need at least one year of hormone-suppressing therapy before competing in women's sports. Olympic standards also have sport-specific requirements, as the competitive advantage gained from masculine features differs from sport to sport. 

The global Olympics framework states: “The Framework recommends a multifaceted approach to eligibility criteria for sex-segregated sports competition. This is because the factors that matter to sports performance are unique to each sport, discipline, and/or event. The Framework also recognizes that populations of trans people and people with sex variations are highly diverse, including with regard to their athletic abilities.”

While the NAIA is the first major sporting organization in the United States to take such a drastic stance, there are currently 25 states with laws or regulations that ban transgender athletes from competing under the gender they identify with. 

On April 19, President Joe Biden expanded Title IX protections to include discrimination based on gender identity. However, the administration delayed actions addressing the question of transgender athletes. In 2023, Biden proposed a policy that would outlaw outright bans of trans athletes. However, action has yet to be taken on this proposal. 

Without Title XI addressing the question of fairness in sports, little can be done by those who disagree with the new NAIA policy. 

“We’re waiting to see how Title XI interacts with this and how Washington State law interacts with this,” said Hoffman, Associate Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at Evergreen State College.

“Anyone with any skin in the game wanted to have a knee-jerk reaction to this, but I don’t think this is the time to do that.” Hoffman goes on to say.

Anawalt said the science surrounding fairness and trans participation in elite sports is not conclusive enough to generalize broadly. Anawalt wrote a report for the NCAA in 2019 in which he concluded “Science cannot provide a fair and just answer on how to include all individuals who self-identify and want to compete as women in NCAA sports.” 

In this 2019 report, Anawalt and his co-authors emphasized the important difference between those who transition before puberty and those who transition in adulthood. “Boys and girls before they go through puberty, they compete pretty equally,” Anawalt says. “Competitive differences in sports between sexes are due primarily to increases in male muscle mass, height, hand or foot size, and other masculine characteristics that occur during puberty.” 

When asked if trans women who transition before puberty should be treated differently by sports policies than those who transition after Anawalt responded, “Probably.” 

The NAIA policy makes no distinction between those who transitioned before and after puberty. 

The issue of trans participation in elite sports is highly controversial, with 69% of Americans believing that athletes should only be allowed to play in sports matching their birth gender in 2023.  

Athena Baches, a former Coxswain for the University of Washington Women's rowing team, says about the NAIA decision, “Of course, everyone has their own views and their own opinions,” Baches said. “And I think it’s sad that they [NAIA] are taking sports as a way to enforce their beliefs on others.” 

Anawalt understands how money led to this topic becoming such a prominent issue. 

“When you’re talking about something that can lead to a lot of money, which sports can, or lots of fame, then you start getting questions about what’s fair and right,” Anawalt says. “Fair and right are not necessarily the same thing.” 

Anawalt hypothesizes the potential for a third league open to all genders. He recognizes, however, that this is outside of social norms and would likely not be instituted in elite and collegiate athletics. 

“Well, it may change,” Anawalt says regarding adding a third league, “lots of things change, so that’s a perfectly reasonable choice to make.”