NAIA bans transgender women from competing in women’s sports

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, which oversees more than 83,000 athletes at mostly smaller colleges, has rolled out a new policy that bans transgender women from competing in women’s sports, making it the first major college sports governing body in the U.S. to do so.

The policy states that only student athletes whose assigned sex at birth is female will be allowed to compete on NAIA-sponsored women’s sports teams. The organization’s Council of Presidents voted 20-0 to approve the policy on Monday, and it will take effect Aug. 1.

Under the new policy, transgender men and trans masculine students can compete on women’s teams if they haven’t started masculinizing hormone therapy. Those who have will also be barred from NAIA competition, but they can participate in workouts, practices and team activities for women’s teams. However, the NAIA policy states their participation is “at the discretion” of their college. All students, including trans men and trans women, will be allowed to compete on men’s teams, according to the policy.

The NAIA did not immediately return a request for comment. Jim Carr, the organization’s president and CEO, told The Associated Press that the policy was deemed best for member schools but also acknowledged that it will likely be seen as controversial.

“We know there are a lot of opinions, and a lot of people have a very emotional reaction to this, and we want to be respectful of all that,” Carr said. “But we feel like our primary responsibility is fairness in competition, so we are following that path. And we’ve tried as best we could to allow for some participation by all.”

The move makes the NAIA, which oversees more than 200 schools, the latest sports governing body to restrict the participation of transgender students as trans people’s participation in various aspects of public life has become increasingly politicized. Half of states have passed laws or regulations in recent years that restrict or completely bar trans students from competing on the elementary, middle, high school and/or college sports teams that align with their gender identities.

The NAIA had a transgender sports policy that was similar to the NCAA’s, the body that oversees collegiate athletics for more than 1,000 colleges and universities. Since 2011, the NCAA allowed trans women to compete on women’s sports teams if they underwent one year of testosterone suppression.

The NCAA changed that policy in January 2022, following controversy over Lia Thomas, a trans University of Pennsylvania swimmer who won a number of races early in her season and went on to win an NCAA championship. The NCAA adopted a sport-by-sport approach that determines eligibility based on guidelines set by the national or international governing body of each sport.

In response to the NCAA’s policy change, the NAIA formed a Transgender Task Force in April 2022.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, denounced the NAIA’s new policy Monday.

“Today, the NAIA decided to bar an entire category of people from competition simply because of a right-wing outrage campaign that purposefully misrepresents and distorts the realities of transgender athletes while doing nothing to support women’s sports,” Kelley Robinson, the organization’s president, said in a statement. “The benefits of sports to the mind, body, and spirit are well known. Every student, including transgender student athletes, deserve the opportunity to be a part of a team and to learn about sportsmanship, self-discipline, perseverance and more.”

Sasha Buchert, director of the Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project at Lambda Legal, a national LGBTQ rights legal organization, went a step further, saying the NAIA’s new policy is “inconsistent with the law and science.”

“It is unconscionable that an organization that touts its ‘strong history of advocacy’ has chosen to use its power to smack down, rather than lift up these vulnerable athletes,” Buchert said in a statement.

Both Buchert and Robinson touted recent comments by South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, who said before her team won the NCAA championship game on Sunday that she supports trans women’s inclusion on women’s sports teams.

“I’m on the opinion of, if you’re a woman you should play,” Staley told reporters Saturday. “If you consider yourself a woman and you want to play sports, or vice versa, you should be able to play. That’s my opinion.”

LGBTQ rights organizations have filed lawsuits against a number of states with laws restricting transgender student athlete participation, arguing that they violate Title IX, a federal law that protects students from sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools, and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Carr, the NAIA president, said he believes the group’s new policy conforms with Title IX. “For us, we believed our first responsibility was to create fairness and competition in the NAIA,” he told CBS Sports. “We also think it aligns with the reasons Title IX was created. You’re allowed to have separate but equal opportunities for women to compete.”

So far, President Joe Biden’s administration has largely supported trans students’ access to sports teams that align with their gender identities, but more recently said it might allow some restrictions on their participation. In January 2021, the Education Department published a federal notice that it would interpret Title IX to protect LGBTQ students from discrimination.

Then, in April 2023, the department proposed a rule that would change Title IX to bar blanket prohibitions on trans students competing on sports teams that align with their gender identities. However, the measure would permit some restrictions in more elite levels of sports competition, such as high school and college. The department planned to finalize and release that rule in March, though there have been multiple delays.

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