NCAA's new transgender athlete rules defer to national and international governing bodies

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The NCAA has made changes to its rules for transgender athletes in an attempt to align its policies with international competition standards. 

Instead of an NCAA-specific approach for college athletics, the new rules instead defer to each sport’s national and international governing bodies. The NCAA’s policy is effective immediately and the governing body said Wednesday that athletes will need to document their testosterone levels four weeks before their sport’s championships this season. 

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Like the Olympics, the updated NCAA policy calls for transgender participation for each sport to be determined by the policy for the national governing body of that sport, subject to ongoing review and recommendation by the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports to the Board of Governors. If there is no NGB policy for a sport, that sport’s international federation policy would be followed. If there is no international federation policy, previously established IOC policy criteria would be followed.

The Board of Governors urged the divisions to provide flexibility to allow for additional eligibility if a transgender student-athlete loses eligibility based on the policy change provided they meet the newly adopted standards.

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The NCAA said in its statement that it was instituting the new rules because over 80% of United States Olympians were either current or former college athletes. 

Penn swimmer setting women’s records

The NCAA’s new rules come as Penn swimmer Lia Thomas has been breaking records in women’s swimming after switching from the men’s team where she swam for the past three seasons. Previous NCAA rules said that a transgender woman needed at least a year of testosterone suppression treatment to compete, criteria that Thomas met before switching teams.

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However, it’s murky at best how Thomas’ status is affected by the new NCAA rules. USA Swimming does not have formal policies governing transgender athlete participation and the International Olympic Committee said in November that its previous policies that governed the testosterone levels of transgender athletes were outdated.

In its November statement, the IOC said it was up to each sport’s governing body to determine what its participation guidelines should be. 

“In issuing this framework, the IOC recognizes that it must be in the remit of each sport and its governing body to determine how an athlete may be at a disproportionate advantage against their peers, taking into consideration the nature of each sport. The IOC is therefore not in a position to issue regulations that define eligibility criteria for every sport, discipline or event across the very different national jurisdictions and sport systems.

Therefore, the aim of this framework is the offer sporting bodies — particularly those in charge of organizing elite-level competition — a principled approach to develop their criteria that are applicable to their sport. Sports bodies will also need to consider particular ethical, social, cultural and legal aspects that may be relevant in their context.”

The College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association tweeted Wednesday night that it was unhappy with the NCAA’s announcement given the lack of clarity from the sport’s governing bodies. 

We have been in communication with the NCAA BoG and are disappointed in their failure to take the lead in this important discussion. We will comment further following our BoD mtg tomorrow. https://t.co/Dq88LCH1lg

— CSCAA (@CSCAA) January 20, 2022

You can view a full list of governing bodies’ transgender athlete policies here. Like USA Swimming, USA Track and Field also used to follow the IOC’s previous 2015-era policy that no longer exists as of the November framework. Given that national federations are still trying to adapt to the IOC’s recent announcement, the NCAA’s Wednesday announcement could cause more confusion than it solves in the short term.

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