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College Swimmers and Volleyball Players Sue NCAA Over Transgender Athlete Policies

— March 15, 2024

The lawsuit cites several incidents involving transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, a former member of the UPenn men’s swim team–who, in 2022, beat several Olympic athletes to secure first place in the 2022 NCAA women’s 500-yard freestyle swim event.

A coalition of current and former collegiate athletes have filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA, claiming that the organization violated Title IX protections by “purposefully adopting and amending policies” that permitted a transgender athlete to compete on the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s swim team during high-level competitions.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of other women athletes, alleges that the NCAA abrogated its obligations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972—benchmark legislation that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools and universities.

Attorneys for the women claim that the NCAA broadly violated their clients’ constitutional rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by “treating women unequally in comparison to men, depriving women of competitive opportunities equal to those afforded men, and violating women’s right to bodily privacy.”

According to CNN, the swimmer—Lia Thomas—became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I title after winning a women’s 500-yard freestyle event in 2022. Thomas, who had swum on the university’s men’s swim team before transitioning, won her even by a significant margin, placing ahead of three Olympic medalists.

“A lot of people ask us, why did we wait this long to file a lawsuit? Well, we waited this long to allow the NCAA every opportunity to make the right decision,” said plaintiff Kaitlynn Wheeler, a former collegiate swimmer at the University of Kentucky. “The NCAA’s most basic job is to protect the fairness and the safety of its athletes, and it has failed on that simple task.”

The complaint cites another incident involving Thomas, which indicates that the NCAA tried using Thomas’s gender identity to its own advantage.

A gavel. Image via Wikimedia Commons via Flickr/user: Brian Turner. (CCA-BY-2.0).

During the 2022 NCAA national swimming championship, for instance, Thomas tied for fifth in the 200-yaerd freestyle event with University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines. However, during the awards ceremony, the NCAA insisted that only Thomas would be allowed to hold the fifth-place trophy.

“I’m so sorry,” an NCAA official purportedly told Gaines, “[but] we have been advised that when photos are taken, it is crucial that Lia Thomas holds the trophy.”

The lawsuit states that the only reason that Thomas has been conferred special privileges, and has managed to obtain such success in the women’s division, is because she has retained a “male advantage.”

“The secret of Thomas’ meteoric ascendance and dominance in NCAA women’s swimming was retained male advantage,” the lawsuit alleges.

The Associated Press notes that, aside from swimmers, the lawsuit represents plaintiffs who compete in sports including volleyball and track.

In a statement, the plaintiffs explained their decision to initiate legal action by saying that they hope “to secure for future generations of women the promise of Title IX that is being denied [to] them and other college women.”

The NCAA declined media requests for comment, but did emphasize its continuing commitment to women’s sports.

“College sports are the premier stage for women’s sports in America, and while the NCAA does not comment on pending litigation, the Association and its members will continue to promote Title IX, make unprecedented investments in women’s sports and ensure fair competition in all NCAA championships,” the NCAA in its statement.


College swimmers, volleyball players sue NCAA over transgender policies

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