If you’ve wanted to read the stirring—and controversial—story of Lia Thomas, Penn’s transgender swimmer who is setting NCAA records, you wouldn’t be able to do so in the pages of the Inquirer.
I’ve written before about the liberal bias in American newsrooms, and the Inquirer’s relative absence on this story is yet another example. The story of Lia Thomas makes liberals—like me—uncomfortable. Because we want to celebrate Thomas finding her authentic self. But we also spent decades fighting for Title IX, which uplifted the value and integrity of women’s sports. What happens when progressive values collide?
Liberals are great at putting together 2,700-page, policy-laden bills like the Build Back Better behemoth, but they’re terrible at speaking pithily to hot-button cultural issues.
I’ll tell you what shouldn’t happen: You shouldn’t let your discomfort over that conflict—or of being called a hypocrite on Twitter—keep you from engaging the issue. The era of transgender athletes competing in sports is here, and we ignore the nuances of the issue at society’s peril.
Here’s the backstory: For her first three years at Penn, Lia Thomas was a male swimmer who, despite making six Ivy League finals, was nowhere near a dominating talent. But last month, competing as a trans woman after spending more than a year taking hormone replacement therapy to lower her testosterone level, Thomas’ 1:41:93 200-yard time was the 17th fastest of all time—less than three seconds from a national record. And her 4:34:06 500-yard time was 21st in history—stunningly close to the record set by women’s swimming GOAT Katie Ledecky.
Penn is no aquatic powerhouse, but Thomas is on the road to becoming the nation’s first transgender All-American. She has exhibited stunning grace under pressure, movingly speaking about her journey to find her “authentic self” while praising the NCAA and International Olympic Committee for “promoting inclusivity while keeping competition integrity going.”
But is that integrity in jeopardy?
The women on Thomas’ team, and at least some of those who compete against her, say it is. Two teammates and at least one opposing swimmer have anonymously complained about how her dominance has corrupted fair competition. “It’s hard working your whole life at a sport and going to big competitions and seeing someone who is more physically talented than you,” a senior on the Niagara University team told The Daily Mail. “However, it is even more discouraging to have them right next to you and knowing you won’t ever be on the same physical level as them.”
“It is disturbing that Penn would do this the year before Title IX turns 50,” Kara Dansky, a Penn law grad and author of The Abolition of Sex: How the ‘Transgender’ Agenda Harms Women and Girls, told Fox News. “These young women deserve a fair shot at competition, and it is demoralizing for them to have to compete against male athletes. My alma mater should be ashamed of itself.”
Let’s all come to this issue with an open mind, willing to learn something. How about that for a change?
Of course, this isn’t on Penn, as a letter sent to the NCAA by the parents of 10 of Thomas’ teammates makes clear. Penn, after all, is just complying with NCAA guidelines, despite studies showing that strength advantages remain after hormone therapy, which Thomas’ newfound dominance would appear to bear out.
“At stake here is the integrity of women’s sports,” the parents wrote, according to The Daily Mail. “The precedent being set—one in which women do not have a protected and equitable space to compete—is a direct threat to female athletes in every sport. What are the boundaries? How is this in line with the NCAA’s commitment to providing a fair environment for student-athletes? It is the responsibility of the NCAA to address the matter with an official statement. As the governing body, it is unfair and irresponsible to leave the onus on Lia, Lia’s teammates, Lia’s coaches, UPenn athletics and the Ivy League. And it is unfair and irresponsible to Lia to allow the media to dictate the narrative without the participation of the NCAA.”
That seems about right, but, let’s widen the aperture of our lens
In the big picture, is this really a job for the NCAA? Transgender athletes competing in sport is an issue that is not going away, folks. Seems like this debate—navigating the fragile line between individual rights and collective responsibilities—is one we ought to have in public, out in the open. Yet this story is clearly hostage to the political divide. The only news outlets giving it space appear to be places like Fox News and British tab The Daily Mail.
Right wing media sees it as a wedge issue, and liberal media sees it as an intellectual landmine. There’s probably a lot at play in this case study: progressive hypocrisy. Discomfort over the nature of the issue. Hesitancy about not really knowing what the answer to such a conflict ought to be. And, as always, there’s the keen ability of Democrats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
My instinct is to celebrate Thomas’ finding of who she is meant to be, and to want to fight for her right to do so. But I also suspect that doesn’t mean she thereby has a right to swim on the women’s team, given what her participation appears to be doing to the integrity of the game and the very real rights of those in it.
Liberals are great at putting together 2,700-page, policy-laden bills like the Build Back Better behemoth, but they’re terrible at speaking pithily to hot-button cultural issues. And then they wonder why, after they’ve passed laws to help the working class, said class says thank you and then votes Republican. It’s because you don’t sound like you’re on my side, vote tallies, most recently from Virginia, virtually cry out.
Can’t you just picture the eye roll from voters—including the independents responsible for Joe Biden’s narrow 2020 presidential win—upon their reading of Penn’s response to the letter from the swim team parents, proclaiming its commitment to being a “welcoming and inclusive environment” and pledging to “help our community navigate Lia’s success in the pool this winter”?
It hits all the predictable buzzwords, right out of the academy’s halls of indoctrination, and does nothing to address the parents’ very real concerns about the integrity of competition itself. It’s a paternalistic pat on the head, which is how so many Democrats tend to sound. (Remember Terry McAuliffe: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”)
How refreshing would a little straight-talk and humility be right about now?
Well, let me kick it off. Hell, when it comes to transgender students competing in collegiate sports, I don’t know what the answer is. There are some interesting ideas out there—like staggering the swim start times of races, thereby leveling the playing field—but…I don’t know, that doesn’t feel right. But why doesn’t it feel right to me? Do I need to reorient my way of thinking? Here’s a novel idea: Let’s all come to this issue with an open mind, willing to learn something. How about that for a change?
What doesn’t work is to have pandering state legislatures, as in six states, passing laws effectively outlawing what Thomas has done. Here in Pennsylvania, Republican State Rep Barbara Gleim’s bill bans transgender students from competing in women’s sports. Is that an answer? How confident are you that legislatures in 2021 are equipped for smart, nuanced policy fixes in our culture wars?
We need to get beyond the political team colors and have a full and robust give and take—assuming the best of intentions on the part of those with whom we disagree.
This clash between competing rights? That’s really what we have courts for, at least ideally. For me, my instinct is to celebrate Thomas’ finding of who she is meant to be, and to want to fight for her right to do so. But I also suspect that doesn’t mean she thereby has a right to swim on the women’s team, given what her participation appears to be doing to the integrity of the game and the very real rights of those in it.
But, hell, I’m open to being persuaded otherwise, and there’s probably a whole lot of stuff I don’t know. “There’s no room in our public debate for wrestling with your soul,” says my spiritual advisor, the ever spiffily dressed Rev. Bill Golderer, and it’s true. On outsports.com, in a piece headlined “Anti-Trans Panic Comes to an Ivy League Pool,” for example, there’s a whole lot of certainty, but far more shedding of heat than light: “Transgender women can play against cisgender women as long as the transgender woman always loses,” for example, is more hyperbole than good faith argument.
We need to get beyond the political team colors and have a full and robust give and take—assuming the best of intentions on the part of those with whom we disagree. At a time when nothing seems to exist independent of charged political fault lines—not vaccines, not masks, not college sports—everything is either a threat to the natural order or a chance for progress.
If this is what change feels like, newspapers like the Inquirer do a disservice to their duty to help navigate those choppy waters when, whether due to liberal hypocrisy, subject matter discomfort, or the fear of being called out on Twitter, they ignore the issue in the first place.
Header photo of Lia Thomas by Kylie Cooper