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Editorials

There Are Many Obstacles Facing Women’s Sports. Trans Athletes Aren’t One.

By Jonathan G. Yuan
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

The political culture wars have found a new victim: transgender athletes competing in intercollegiate athletics.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics effectively banned transgender women from competing in most athletic competitions last week, a decision viewed as the first of its kind amongst major intercollegiate athletic conferences.

We’ve all heard the arguments in favor of such bans: transgender women hold a biological edge over their cisgender opponents, some say, and the sanctity of women’s sports is in jeopardy as a result.

As enticingly clear as the rhetoric may sound, the science is far less conclusive.

According to the National Institute of Health, testosterone levels of transgender women after 12 months of hormone therapy resemble those of their cisgender counterparts, while their muscle strength either decreases or remains unchanged after a year of treatment.

Some of the studies measuring athletic aptitude among trans individuals contradict each other, and many are limited by their small sample sizes and lack of comparative groups. The NIH itself cites “small sample sizes” and “limited data on endurance, cardiac or respiratory function” as reasons why the current data is insufficient to inform sweeping policy changes.

The science clearly indicates that the focus on trans participation in female sports is misplaced: Fair, competitive, and equitable women’s athletics face many obstacles, but trans women aren’t one of them.

For starters, consider the strikingly minuscule number of total trans athletes, let alone trans women competing in collegiate athletics: Out of the more than 500,000 athletes that compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, an estimated 4o are trans. That’s less than 0.008 percent.

Though the NAIA has not released similar statistics for its 83,000 participants, we see no reason to expect the percentage to be meaningfully different.

Athletes like trans female swimmer Lia C. Thomas may receive intense scrutiny, but outside of her and a handful of other high-profile names, their presence in sports is extraordinarily low relative to the amount of attention they receive.

A study from the Women’s Sports Foundation found that 86 percent of institutions within the NCAA offered disproportionately more athletic opportunities to male athletes — gaps that translate to upwards of 58,000 missed opportunities for female athletes a year.

That disparity poses a much more distressing threat to collegiate women’s athletics than the small number of trans participants whose “biological advantages” are unclear.

In heavily policing women’s sports, we must also consider how this ban and similar regulations risk harm to trans and cis women alike.

At what point does a woman become too strong or too fast or too good at her sport before she is accused of being trans? Will we subject every woman to invasive tests to prove that she is cisgender before she can compete?

These aren’t abstract fears. In Utah, a cis high school athlete was investigated after the parents of two girls who lost to her accused her of being trans. At elite levels, there is a documented history of sporting bodies imposing various sex tests on female athletes.

Given the paltry numbers of trans athletes, without science strongly supporting the conclusion that transgender athletes hold an advantage, the NAIA’s hard-line approach to an essentially edge-case issue is reductive and discriminatory.

Instead, the NAIA should have adopted regulation that is based on data and engages meaningfully with trans athletes.

By shutting out trans athletes altogether, the NAIA has also fallen conspicuously out-of-step with organizations at the highest echelons of competitive sports, including the International Olympic Committee, which centers evidence-based reasoning and non-discrimination in its establishment of sport-by-sport policies.

The NCAA must not follow the NAIA’s ill-supported decision, and, in the interim, Harvard must vocally oppose this ban and support the rights of its trans athletes.

Until better research is conducted into trans athletes and the effects of hormone therapy on the body over time, blanket bans must not be implemented. Nuanced, science-driven, sport specific policies are clearly better than culture war-motivated crusades. The NCAA must take note.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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