Plunge into fairness: Lia Thomas, UPenn, swimming and Title IX

·2 min read

Lia Thomas, a 22-year-old UPenn student, was born male, then a few years ago transitioned to female. She — we respectfully call her by the pronoun of her choice — should be free to use the women’s bathroom, and to be treated equally in all public accommodations.

But the question of competitive college sports, with winners and losers, is trickier. Thomas for three years was on the men’s swim team; now, following two years of hormone therapy, she has joined the women’s squad, where she competes against women born as women, and routinely breaks records. In two meets, she posted the fastest times of any female college swimmer this season.

Specialists in human physiology know this is wholly unsurprising, especially in swimming, where muscle mass and other factors are decisive. (Across track and field, elite men always outperform elite women; in just one sample year, female Olympic champion runners’ lifetime bests were beaten 15,000 times each by men and boys.) Twenty-four months of hormone therapy cannot undo years of growth driven by testosterone that gives Thomas a powerful innate edge against swimmers who are biologically female.

Title IX of federal education law, passed 50 years ago, says “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Over years of executive regulations and court precedent, this has been interpreted to mean, per the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, that “the athletic interests and abilities of male and female students must be equally and effectively accommodated.” In opening doors to athletic competition by creating parallel but level playing fields, the statute has been a rousing success.

As Thomas rewrites Penn’s women’s swimming record books, the NCAA must question if she is undermining the spirit if not the letter of the law meant to safeguard women’s sports. She deserves to be treated fairly — but so do all the women against whom she competes.

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