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Transgender athletes face tough road to compete

Swimming Center at the Olympic Sports Complex, Moscow, which hosted the 1980 Summer Games.
Olympic City project
Courtesy of Jon Pack and Gary Hustwit
Swimming Center at the Olympic Sports Complex, Moscow, which hosted the 1980 Summer Games.

In the furor that has erupted over the presence of transgender athletes in women’s sports, it’s become standard procedure for some to look past the people and focus on the numbers.

During the recent NCAA Division I swimming championships, for instance, Lia Thomas’ winning time of 4 minutes 33.24 seconds in the 500 meter freestyle became the center of attention.

The time, nearly two seconds ahead of the second-place finisher Emma Weyant, was a season’s best for Thomas, a senior at Penn.

Thomas finished fifth in the 100-meter freestyle and eighth in the 200-meter freestyle later in the meet.

Her presence in the championships, coming after she’s competed for three years in college as a man, has touched off a firestorm of protest, partly from other swimmers, but mostly from conservatives, looking to score points in the so-called culture wars. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, has loudly proclaimed that he would not acknowledge Thomas’ win in the 500 meters, declaring that Weyant is the winner, which is of significance, perhaps, because Weyant is from Sarasota.

Caitlyn Jenner, who once won an Olympic gold medal as a decathlete, competing as Bruce Jenner, echoed DeSantis, saying that it was quote just not fair unquote to allow athletes who were assigned at birth as male to compete against female athletes. Meanwhile, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has been concerned recently about three numbers associated with athletics in his state, namely 75,000, four and one.

The largest of those three represents the number of high school student-athletes in Utah. The second is the total of openly transgender teens who play in the state. The third is the number of transgender teens who play on a girls team.

Cox vetoed a bill from the Utah legislature that would ban transgender athletes from participating in girls sports in the state.

In his veto letter, Cox cited a “broad misunderstanding” about the participation of transgender athletes.

He also worried about the potential financial impact of such a measure, as the state will almost certainly face protests and boycotts. Most importantly, Cox noted a 2020 study from the National Library of Medicine concerning the suicidality of transgender youths. The study found that 86 percent of trans youth have considered suicide and 56 percent have made an attempt.

Cox wrote “Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what this is all about. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are part of something.”

Sadly, Cox’s veto was overridden by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the legislature. But there’s always hope that all this discussion will perhaps move the conversation past fear and numbers and towards humanity. That conversation needs to happen and soon, for Lia Thomas will not be the last transgender athlete to want a chance.

And that’s how I see it for this week. You can reach us via email with your questions and comments at Sports at Large at gmail.com. And follow me on Twitter at Sports at Large.

Until next week, for all of us here, I’m Milton Kent. Thanks for listening and enjoy the games.

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.