A new glass ceiling? How the equity crusade hurts female athletes

As transgender swimmer Lia Thomas continues to shatter women’s collegiate swimming records, a new glass ceiling has quietly been placed atop the dreams of female athletes. And instead of loudly…

As transgender swimmer Lia Thomas continues to shatter women’s collegiate swimming records, a new glass ceiling has quietly been placed atop the dreams of female athletes. And instead of loudly protesting, these athletes feel pressured to stay silent.

For centuries, hard-working women encountered the proverbial glass ceiling. They’d see future success, crystal clear, but that invisible barrier kept them from reaching it. The situation has greatly improved since the 1960s, when anti-discrimination laws gave women more opportunities to grow and advance. And today, girls grow up with the notion that with hard work, faith and perhaps a bit of luck, they can accomplish whatever their heart desires. 

Yet as our society continues its equity crusade, laws originally intended to protect women are beginning to hurt them, instead.

The latest example centers on equal opportunity in athletics, as NCAA swimmer Lia Thomas has catapulted the issue of transgender athletes into the national spotlight. For three years, the fifth-year senior swam on the men’s team at the University of Pennsylvania as “Michael Thomas.” He subsequently “transitioned” to become a female. 

Now competing on Penn’s women’s team, Thomas is not only winning races; she’s shattering previously held records. She now holds NCAA records for the 200 and 500-yard freestyle, as well as Ivy League records for the 100 and 200-yard freestyle. 

According to the Editor-in-Chief of Swimming World Magazine, Thomas had been an average male swimmer at best. “The fact that the University of Pennsylvania swimmer has soared from a mid-500s ranking (554th in the 200 freestyle) in men’s competition to the top-ranked swimmer in women’s competition tells the story of the unfairness which is unfolding at the NCAA level,” he said.

Thomas’ newfound superiority in the pool is thanks to the innate biological differences between men and women. According to Harvard Professor Carole Hooven, an expert on these differences, boys who have gone through puberty are taller and leaner with larger muscles, longer wingspans, greater lung capacity, and larger bones and hearts. Collectively, these traits give transgender individuals like Thomas a clear advantage – even after testosterone suppression treatment has begun.

While Thomas’ right to participate has been supported by some fellow swimmers, many others, including teammates and competitors, remain silent about their concerns.

At the recent Ivy League championships, tension mounted as Thomas won race after race. Suzy Weiss shared some of the concerns from parents of these swimmers in a recent post on Common Sense. “No amount of hormone suppression will ever roll back the advantages Lia possesses because of male puberty,” one Penn parent said.

“Whether you think it or not, you can’t go against her,” said the father of a Brown University swimmer. “No one wants to take the hard stance because they don’t want to be demonized.” A Penn mom added that her daughter won’t speak up, because “she’s worried about getting into grad school, and she doesn’t want my name or hers to come up on Google attached to this.” 

Aside from the fear of being labeled “transphobic,” these parents have a deeper concern: that colleges and universities will soon recruit transgender athletes over hardworking, biological females, slashing these girls’ gold medal dreams. 

How valid is this concern? On his first day in office, President Biden effectively cemented the right for transgender college students to participate in women’s sports, by signing an executive order that changes the legal interpretation of Title IX. The Title IX laws were originally passed in 1972 to prohibit sex-based discrimination. Biden’s executive order modified the definition of “sex-based discrimination” to encompass discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well. And this position hasn’t changed, even in light of Thomas’ recent record-breaking victories.

Although athletes and their families feel pressured into silence, there is an ongoing legal battle on their behalf. This past October, the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) joined 20 states in filing a lawsuit against the Biden administration to reclaim the original intent of Title IX. 

According to ACSI spokesperson Larry Lincoln, there’s been no movement in the lawsuit yet, but advocates for these female athletes are standing at the ready: “ACSI along with the other plaintiffs remain committed to protecting the safety and dignity of female student athletes to uphold fair competition,” he told The Lion, “recognizing the biological fact of differences of sex; and supporting the rights of individuals to hold to a biblical view of creation and sex.” 

As the legal battle moves forward and public debate continues over transgender athletes, the future of women’s sports remains uncertain. But the potential of a new kind of glass ceiling for biological females should be a wake-up call for activists, since progress for one group shouldn’t hinder that of another. In other words, glass ceilings are meant to be shattered, not bolted into place.