The NAIA’s Transgender-Athletes Policy Is a Triumph

The college sports association has crafted rules that are both fair and unideological.

Since transgender swimmer Lia Thomas won a Division I national championship in women’s swimming in 2022, policies surrounding the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports have been sources of significant controversy. Fueled by zealous activism and lobbying, colleges, athletics associations, and state legislatures have been choosing sides in this increasingly contentious debate.

Those opposed to allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sports argue that permitting such biologically male students to take the field with women undermines the spirit and letter of Title IX, which was meant, in part, to give female athletes an equal opportunity to compete. In a 2022 examination of the issue, the Cato Institute described fair competition as crucial to both Title IX and the existence of women’s sports on campuses. Fair competition entails a careful stratification to sort athletes into groups matching their natural abilities. By controlling for biological advantages and the advantages afforded by medical interventions such as steroids or hormone therapy, one can isolate individual effort, skill, and training as the determinants of athletic success.

Sports, especially at the elite collegiate and Olympic levels, are by their nature only for “a select few.”Efforts to ensure fair competition have led to the development of, for example, the isolation of specific age groups for sports teams; Paralympics and Special Olympics for those with physical or mental disabilities, respectively; and the separation of men’s and women’s sports. Thus, one can easily see how fair competition might require a separate league for transgender athletes—or for transgender athletes to compete against those who share their biological sex.

However, proponents of allowing transgender women to compete in women’s sports dispute the premise that separating transgender women from biological women is necessary to ensure fair competition. Some contend that “transgender women do not have an advantage over cis women in sport.” (The word “cis” is a made-up qualifier that should be understood to mean “not trans.”) They argue that athletes have a right to engage in college athletics with the sex with which they identify and that failing to allow transgender athletes to join the team of their self-identified sex amounts to sex discrimination. In a letter last month urging the NCAA not to bar transgender women from women’s sports, over 400 current and former Olympic and college athletes stated that “sport should never be for a select few” and called on the NCAA “to be on the right side of history and affirm that sport is truly for us all.”

Despite this rhetoric, it is obvious that sports, especially at the elite collegiate and Olympic levels, are by their nature only for “a select few.” For example, though I am reasonably athletic, I am entirely incapable of competing in sports at the collegiate level. Extrapolating from the activists’ argument, my exclusion from college athletics results in my being wrongfully deprived of an opportunity to “develop a sense of self and identity,” improve my “physical and mental health,” and learn “valuable lessons on teamwork and discipline.” Silliness aside, one must recognize that elite athletics organizations are necessarily exclusionary. When devising eligibility criteria for athletics associations, the primary focus must be on ensuring fair competition, not inclusion.

However, progressives argue that, even if men do possess biological advantages, those advantages can be eliminated after a sufficient period of hormone treatment. While this may close the gap to some extent, some advantages, especially those obtained when athletes “transition” post-puberty, are more permanent.

A difficult policy decision awaits governing bodies: Will there be fair competition in women’s sports, or will there be “inclusion”?According to Mayo Clinic physiologist Michael Joyner, “the emerging evidence is that there are legacy effects of testosterone, especially [for] people who have been through puberty as males, and had exposure to testosterone for prolonged periods of time.” These advantages are wide-ranging. Joyner states that “height’s probably not reversible, hand size, foot size. Some of the issues related to muscle mass, lung size, and other things probably are never gonna revert completely, if at all.”

If treatment could close the performance gap between men and women entirely, then it would arguably be consistent with a fair-competition model to allow transgender women to participate in women’s sports after the conclusion of their treatment. However, the imperfections inherent to current gender-transition treatments necessitate a difficult policy decision for colleges, athletics leagues, and other governing bodies: Will there be fair competition, or will there be inclusion?

In April of 2024, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) unanimously passed a new transgender policy, which states that only “student-athletes whose biological sex is female” may participate in women’s sports. Additionally, athletes whose biological sex is female, but who have “begun masculinizing hormone therapy,” are ineligible for intercollegiate competition. On the other hand, all eligible NAIA athletes may participate in men’s sports, regardless of their biological sex.

A victory for practicality and fairness, this policy avoids heavy-handedly addressing the nuances of modern legal and scientific debates on transgender issues. It does not address, for example, the controversial question of whether “trans women are real women” but, rather, focuses purely on the strength and agility advantages of those with greater and more prolonged androgen exposure, whether this occurred naturally for males during puberty or artificially via hormone therapy for females. Additionally, the policy enables transgender athletes whose biological sex is female to continue participation in women’s sports, provided they have not undergone “masculinizing hormone therapy.”

By leaving men’s sports open to all regardless of biological sex, the NAIA policy protects women’s sports from those with biological advantages while leaving men’s sports open to transgender athletes. Though the latter move may deviate from a strictly fair competition model, it affects primarily the lower bound of the performance distribution in men’s sports, whereas opening women’s leagues to transgender women would heavily affect the upper bound of the performance distribution. (See, for example, the swimming victory of Lia Thomas.) In other words, allowing women who “transition” to men to compete in men’s sports is unlikely to negatively impact fair competition among men, while allowing men who transition to women to compete in women’s sports is likely to negatively impact fair competition for women.

The NAIA’s transgender policy provides a promising framework for protecting fair competition in women’s sports.Two schools in North Carolina, Montreat College and St. Andrews University, are member institutions of the NAIA. Starting August 1, 2024, both schools will be required to uphold the NAIA transgender policy. The policy does, however, leave to the discretion of member institutions whether to permit students who have begun “masculinizing hormone therapy” to participate in internal “workouts, practices, and team activities.”

In addition to the transgender policy revisions occurring within athletics associations, several state governments have enacted conflicting laws pertaining to transgender athletes’ participation in college sports. According to the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, states have generally taken four different approaches to the issue. Some require that athletes compete with members of the sex listed on their birth certificates; some require that transgender women be integrated unconditionally into women’s sports; others allow transgender students to compete with members of their self-identified sex after hormone treatment; still others have no official state policy. In 2023, North Carolina overrode a gubernatorial veto to pass a bill in the first category, which went into effect for the 2023-24 school year. For schools under North Carolina’s jurisdiction, including both public and private colleges, the policy supersedes the transgender-athletics policies of any athletics associations or constituent institutions.

Policymakers who find themselves swamped in the chaotic political landscape of transgender-athletics regulations must ground themselves by recognizing the importance of fair competition. They should also, however, navigate the issue with care, sensitivity, and objectivity, both for transgender student athletes and participants in women’s sports. The NAIA’s transgender policy provides a promising framework for protecting fair competition in women’s sports while steering clear of the ideological fervor surrounding transgender issues in our current politics.

Harrington Shaw is the managing director of the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance, a former intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, and a recent economics and philosophy graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill.