Society / StudentNation / June 20, 2024

As the NCAA Debates New Rules, Trans Athletes Are Left Out of the Conversation

At least 24 states have restricted transgender athletes’ participation in sports, and these policymaking decisions often lack input from those most affected.

Liam Beran
A press conference by the Congressional Equality Caucus in 2023.

Rebekah Bruesehoff, a transgender student athlete, speaks during a press conference by the Congressional Equality Caucus in 2023.

(Olivier Douliery / Getty)

Water polo was part of Emmett Lockwood’s life early on. “I began in elementary school,” he told The Nation. “Going into fifth grade, I was on a soccer team—quite literally the worst player on the worst team in the league. I was talking to my parents that summer and realized I needed to be in a sport that was in the pool.”

A love for water polo’s technical plays and warm community would stick with Lockwood in the coming decade. “It was a major part of when I was looking for colleges, making sure there was a club team, an intramural team, some sort of competitive team,” Lockwood says. “I knew going into college, that just knowing both where I was as a swimmer, but also knowing that I was, like transitioning in my last year of high school, that I didn’t want to go down the NCAA recruitment route. And as an athlete with disabilities, that wouldn’t be the most sustainable route for myself.”

After signing up at a student organization fair, Lockwood, a trans man, joined the men’s club water polo team at University of Wisconsin–Madison and has been competing with them ever since—through late night practices, cross-state competitions, and other tournaments.

Over the past few years, conservatives have increasingly pushed anti-trans legislation, ostracizing athletes like Emmett. At least 24 states have restricted transgender athletes’ participation in sports; 18 of those states specifically restrict college athletics. Wisconsin came close to joining their ranks in October 2023 with Assembly Bills 377 and 378, pieces of Republican-led legislation that would define collegiate and high school teams by biological sex and prevent trans women from competing in women’s sports.

When the bills were introduced, Lockwood realized that the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s rules meant he would still have to compete on the women’s team, despite being a trans man. “Collegiate Water Polo Association [CWPA] and these other athletics competitions and associations, they’re not taking into account state-level laws when they’re making decisions on what teams folks can play on,” Lockwood said. He noted that the CWPA prohibits trans men who have been on hormone replacement therapy from playing on the women’s team.

“It’s tremendously hard to think about having to give up or be forced out of an endeavor and athletic support that you’ve been pursuing for a decade,” Lockwood said, explaining his decision to oppose Assembly Bill 378, which would require University of Wisconsin institutions to designate athletic teams by sex. “I didn’t want it to go down without a fight.”

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Lockwood was just one of a number of advocates, activists, and organizers who testified against the bill during a packed October public comment session. And for Lockwood, the testimony had some of the highest stakes possible—his ability to continue playing as a water polo athlete. Communicating the impact it could have on him was vital, he said.

“Often when we talk about trans people in sports, it’s kind of this abstract, like, almost mythologized, like, scary trans person,” Lockwood said. “And I think a lot of times like, folks don’t realize that this is going to be impacting someone’s real life on the day to day.”

Efforts to restrict trans athletes are not just happening on the state level. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, an athletics association which serves smaller private and liberal arts universities, voted to ban trans athletics from women’s sports in April 2024. Pressure is on the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) to follow suit: Lobbyists both for and against the participation of trans athletes hoped for a Board of Governors vote by the end of May, so that any policy scheme would be in place by the fall.

But a vote in May did not happen, and the NCAA’s policy for the participation of trans athletes remains “under review,” according to an April 25 statement from the NCAA.

“What’s worrisome is that a decision was supposed to be made in April, and it wasn’t made,” Dr. Anna Baethe, a former collegiate soccer coach and director of research at Athlete Ally, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ athletes’ equality, tells The Nation. “Whatever decision is made is going to impact athletes and those who are responsible for those athletes over the next months.”

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Though AB378 and its high-school athletics version passed the Legislature in October 2023, Wisconsin Democratic Governor Tony Evers vetoed them in April. Governor Evers sharply criticized the legislation, saying it codified discrimination and may violate Title IX guarantees for equal athletic participation for all student athletes. “States across this country may give way to radical policies targeting LGBTQ individuals and families and threatening LGBTQ folks’ everyday lives and their ability to be safe, valued, supported, and welcome being who they are,” Evers said. “As long as I am the governor of this great state, Wisconsin will not be among them.”

Benjamin Leibovitz, a UW-Madison educational leadership and policy analysis predoctoral student, wrote a report on the testimony provided at the hearings. In the manuscript, Leibovitz, a former high school teacher and coach, wanted to know how often youth testified for the bills, what identities the youth held and what position they had on the bills. What they found was that young people don’t have much of a voice in the process. “Predominantly, youth are a minority of those that are present for these legislative hearings,” Leibovitz told The Nation. “One can imagine why: They’re typically offered during the school day—the academic year is tied to in many ways the legislative cycle as well.”

Representation is a key issue for trans athletes, who constitute a small number of competing athletes and an even smaller number of elite athletes. Baeth estimated that around 40 of the NCAA’s over 522,000 athletes are trans. The lack of representation extends throughout media coverage on trans issues broadly. A March 2024 Media Matters report found that The New York Times = failed to quote a trans person in 66 percent of its 2023–24 stories on anti-trans legislation.

“Sadly, I think it’s quite regular in terms of policy conversations, not to involve those constituents that they most directly impact,” Leibovitz said. They noted that education bills often incorporate the policy preferences and viewpoints of parents more readily than that of a “direct student voice.” Even if students are encouraged to testify on education bills, their feedback is often treated without proper credence.

Lockwood echoed this sentiment, saying he had come to the hearing prepared to answer follow-up questions that never came, despite lawmakers asking many questions of supporters of the bills. “In my brain, I’m like, ‘OK, was anything heard that I said?’ I had readied myself, in my mind, to answer questions about what it is like to be a trans athlete, what my experience had been being a trans athlete for a University of Wisconsin school,” Lockwood said. “Not getting any questions made me feel like they were just waiting for the next person to come up and speak.”

This lack of representation in testimony extends to policymaking. Baeth said that, to Athlete Ally’s knowledge, no trans athletes have participated in the NCAA Board of Governors’ policy-crafting process on the ongoing regulations. “Some of [the Board of Governors] are former athletes, but most of them are university and college presidents with no athletic experience or who did not compete in the NCAA, and certainly haven’t competed in the NCAA in recent years.”

Change in trans athletics policy is ongoing on the federal level. The Biden-Harris administration rolled out new regulations for Title IX, the landmark law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in public education, in April. Though the regulations enacted some protections for trans students, Department of Education officials chose not to include a proposed April 2023 policy rule that would have prohibited states from categorically banning trans athletes.

The difference between categorical bans, as seen in states like Florida or Texas, and per-sport restrictions is notable. The NCAA began recommending in 2022 that individual sports’ governing bodies craft policies for trans athlete inclusion, modeled largely on the International Olympic Committee’s approach.

This approach leaves a “patchwork of different regulations per sport,” Leibovitz said, adding that those regulations will be less structured and subject to oversight from any one governing body. Baeth noted that fragmenting trans athletics policy leaves knowledge gaps in the policy-making process and added that the NCAA, in contrast to the small number of elite Olympic athletes, is responsible for the health and wellbeing of over 500,000 young athletes.

“When you look at the majority of our governing bodies, when the NCAA put this forward, most of those governing bodies didn’t even have a policy on trans athletes,” Baethe said. “Sport governing bodies do not typically expertise in this. Even when they do, I think there’s also a level of reticence to put forward guidelines and policies as well.”

The delayed rollout was largely due to concerns for Biden’s electoral prospects stemming from controversy around the move to protect trans athletes, according to reporting from The Washington Post. Unsurprisingly, these delays have been deeply frustrating for advocates. “I so often hear, ‘let’s keep politics out of it.’ This is a very clear example of politics being injected into sport and sport being utilized as sort of this pawn within the political sphere,” Baeth said.

She criticized the delay as “abhorrent” and said it will prevent some athletes from participating in the interim period. “To have that dictated by politicians is incredibly worrisome,” Baeth said, “[It] again, indicates to me that there is a heightened sense of politicians deciding who has access to their body, who doesn’t, and whose bodies are going to be policed or not.”

These Title IX delays leave potential changes for trans athletics in the air. When asked if the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletics Conference would support a more inclusive trans athletics policy, Danielle Harris, WIAC commissioner, told The Nation that the WIAC will support “whatever the [NCAA] guidelines are regarding transgender participation” and said the NCAA is in a “holding period.”

The same holds for Title IX. “I believe this past October, we were supposed to hear something from [the Office of Civil Rights] and Title IX. I believe they decided to wait to do that because we were close to an election year and I think with change over in the administration and things like that from a federal perspective,” Harris said. “So we haven’t gotten guidance on that. You know, we’ll just have to see what comes out after that.”

“All of us are still just trying to navigate this space,” Harris said. “There’s going to be questions that come up that maybe have not necessarily been thought about, and so, you know, there’ll be some growing pains. But that’s with any new rules or policy or regulation that any of our institutions deal with from a federal perspective.”

It is unclear where the policies will go in the future in the face of ardent lobbying on both sides. The NCAA declined an interview with The Nation or to answer e-mail questions, instead saying in a statement that “the Association and its members will continue to promote Title IX, make unprecedented investments in women’s sports and ensure fair competition in all NCAA championships.”

Lockwood, though not an NCAA athlete, has continually explained the impact anti-trans athletics policy would have on his athletic career and life. Those conversations have been with his teammates. “I penned a piece to the [Milwaukee] Journal Sentinel about my experience as a trans athlete. It was on a van ride on the way to our Big 10 championships that year.” Lockwood said his experience with his team has been nothing but supportive. “While there are folks who are athletes who are transphobic, I think [for] the vast majority of athletes like having a trans person on their team isn’t the issue.”

He graduates next May, but Lockwood plans to continue with water polo on a recreational level—and coaching when he is older. “Madison has a local men’s recreation team called The Hippos,” he said, laughing. “I can’t see a world without me being in the pool in some way,” Lockwood said. Being an athlete throughout college was an indelible part of his educational journey and belonging at UW-Madison. “I didn’t grow up in Wisconsin. I didn’t grow up with the UW brand being something I was born into,” he said. “I was so proud the first time I got handed a water polo suit with Bucky Badger on it. I mean, like that really tells you, like you are part of our university. We are claiming you.”

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Liam Beran

Liam Beran is a 2024 Puffin student writing fellow focusing on LGBTQ+ issues for The Nation. He is a journalist and student at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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