Three states with legislation banning transgender athletes from interscholastic competition were named Sunday by the NCAA as hosts for the upcoming postseason softball tournament, angering advocacy groups and rebutting statements made last month by an influential NCAA governance body that suggested the future hosting of postseason events may be impacted by such legislation.
SEC schools within the three states — Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee — will serve as regional hosts for the 64-team tournament, which begins Friday and is scheduled to conclude in early June at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
The announcement comes at a time when the participation of transgender athletes has become the latest front in the ongoing political debate over inclusivity and discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, which has unfolded along highly partisan lines.
"Selecting championship sites in states with discriminatory policies directly contradicts the NCAA's stated commitment to providing environments that are safe, healthy, and free of discrimination," said race walker and triathlete Chris Mosier, who in 2020 became the first known transgender athlete to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials in the gender they identify.
"The NCAA's lack of action in remaining silent as these bills were being discussed was a passive offense to transgender student-athletes, but this is an actual attack — the NCAA is saying, clearly, 'We do not care about our transgender student-athletes.'"
Last month, the NCAA Board of Governors, which is comprised of university presidents and chancellors across all levels of college athletics, issued a statement saying it “firmly and unequivocally supports the opportunity for transgender student-athletes to compete in college sports."
The statement implied that decisions on hosting for major postseason events such as the World Series would be impacted by legislation limiting participation for transgender athletes, which has been signed into law in five states and introduced in dozens more.
“When determining where championships are held, NCAA policy directs that only locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination should be selected," the Board of Governors said.
"We will continue to closely monitor these situations to determine whether NCAA championships can be conducted in ways that are welcoming and respectful of all participants.”
The NCAA did not respond to USA TODAY Sports' request for comment.
Hosts for the regional and super-regional rounds of the softball tournament were predetermined based on a location's ability to meet the guidelines created by the NCAA COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group, which will allow up to 50 percent capacity while mandating masks and physical distancing at championship events held this spring.
The decision to move forward with events in Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee has nonetheless roiled national and local advocacy groups who have called on the NCAA to take a more forceful stand against transgender discrimination.
The NCAA has adopted a firm approach on the issue in the past, including a boycott in 2017 of events in North Carolina to protest a bill that required transgender people to use public restrooms matching their sex at birth. The NCAA lifted the ban after the law was repealed.
"Policies don’t mean much unless people are willing to enforce them," said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. "If the NCAA wants to be seen as a real leader in the sports anti-discrimination and athlete-wellness space, they need to take clear actions to back up their statements on trans inclusion."
The NCAA "should be ashamed of themselves for violating their own policy by choosing to hold championships in states that are not healthy, safe, or free from discrimination for their athletes," the Human Rights Campaign said in a statement.
"It also undermines their commitment to transgender participation in NCAA events, for which they have had an inclusive policy for years. While we have remained hopeful about the NCAA stepping up to the plate and taking action like they have done in the past, they are willfully ignoring that commitment this time.
"The NCAA must face scrutiny and public pressure to do the right thing."
The increasing amount of legislation banning transgender athletes in many states has likewise concerned current student-athletes. A group of more than 500 athletes sent NCAA president Mark Emmert and the NCAA Board of Governors a letter in March saying it was "extremely frustrated and disappointed by the lack of action taken by the NCAA to recognize the dangers of hosting events in states that create a hostile environment for student-athletes."
The letter continued, "The harm these bills will cause will be felt by generations of athletes to come."
Similar legislation has been debated in Oklahoma but is unlikely to reach Gov. Kevin Stitt before the World Series begins early next month. The state Senate passed a bill in early March that was then amended last month by the House to require parents to sign an affidavit "acknowledging the biological sex of the student at birth" for their child to participate in youth sports.
To be enrolled into law, the amended legislation would need to be passed again by the Senate. The governor would then have five days from the moment the legislation arrived on his desk to sign or veto the bill before it would be enacted without signature.
Oklahoma City is the longtime host of the Women's College World Series, which brings in between $22 million to $27 million annually, according to the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau. NCAA events may generate upwards of $100 million for the Oklahoma economy.
The list of potential regional hosts for the men's baseball tournament includes three schools — Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt — located in states where transgender legislation has already been written into law. The tournament will open on June 4 and conclude with the Men’s College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, beginning June 19.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NCAA picks states with transgender athlete bans for softball regionals