It’s not bad enough that Lia Thomas bested female competitors throughout this past swim season. Now, the University of Pennsylvania has nominated the transgender swimmer to be the NCAA’s “Woman of the Year.”
As colleges and universities across the country were sending in their nominations to the NCAA for its annual Woman of the Year award, the University of Pennsylvania chose to nominate Thomas for the 2022 award.
Nominating Thomas, a biological male, for the award not only deprives Thomas’ teammates, all of them biological females, of any chance of winning, but also suggests the NCAA Woman of the Year should be given to a person based solely on gender—or in this case, transgender—rather than merit.
Thomas has won several races swimming on the women’s team for the University of Pennsylvania, including becoming the first transgender NCAA champion in Division I history after winning the women's 500-yard freestyle in mid-March. Thomas previously swam for the men’s team at UPenn, began hormone therapy in 2019, and joined the women’s team in 2020 after taking a year off, per NCAA protocol.
Just nominating Thomas for Woman of the Year is an affront to female athletes everywhere, including the rest of Thomas’ entire swim team, which includes more than 40 biological women.
What message does this send to them?
Of course, Thomas began sweeping races and besting colleagues, but that was due to significant physiological advantages, not necessarily skill. On the men’s team, Thomas was at best an average swimmer; on the women’s team, Thomas consistently wins.
In February, 16 athletes on the team sent an open letter to UPenn and the Ivy League requesting they abide by new transgender guidelines put in place by USA Swimming. They, too, had noticed these differences.
We fully support Lia Thomas in her decision to affirm her gender identity and to transition from a man to a woman. Lia has every right to live her life authentically.
However, we also recognize that when it comes to sports competition, that the biology of sex is a separate issue from someone’s gender identity.
It has often felt like Penn, our school, our league, and the NCAA did not support us.
Riley Gaines, Thomas’ swimming rival from the University of Kentucky, appearing Monday night on Fox News Channel’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” expressed frustration with UPenn’s decision.
Gaines, nominated for the NCAA Woman of the Year award by her university, called the nomination of Thomas “a slap in the face” for female competitors and scolded the NCAA for making a “mockery” of women who compete in sports.
UPenn chose to ignore the 40 other female swimmers on its team to make a political statement. That’s the wrong message to send to women who worked hard to earn a spot at that elite level and for other girls hoping to do the same in the future.
It really does threaten girls sports.
The fact that UPenn nominated Thomas also suggests it cares more about gender than merit. While Thomas might have won more races due to biological advantages, the NCAA Woman of the Year is often a college athlete who demonstrates not just athletic prowess, but dedication to the community and academic promise, too.
Last year’s finalists for NCAA Woman of the Year were an incredible group of women who had been studying in various fields and excelling in sports from fencing to track to swimming. Their resumes were robust and interesting. According to the NCAA, they “demonstrated excellence in academics, athletics, community service, and leadership throughout their collegiate careers.”
In other words, most nominees had accomplished more than just winning regularly at their sport, as Thomas has. That suggests UPenn would like Thomas to be recognized for gender alone, rather than merit and accomplishing the kinds of things previous nominees have in academics, in athletics, and in their community.
A true reading of the law as it was intended when it passed in 1972 does not include transgender “women” in sports because, frankly, lawmakers couldn’t possibly have anticipated a wave of biological men transitioning to live as women then vying for a place on their sports teams.
In fact, doing so would bring inequality back to sports, as we are seeing now with Thomas’ wins and this NCAA Woman of the Year nomination.
A generation of girls growing up now could see their dreams dashed and their hard work decimated in sports if more and more people acknowledge that there are no physiological differences between men and women, and that when it comes to sports, both genders should compete, figuratively, on level playing fields.
UPenn’s purposeful decision to nominate Thomas—rather than any of the biological women on the team—sends a clear signal it means to make a political statement.
Let’s hope the NCAA doesn’t take the bait.
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