The N.C.A.A. said Wednesday that it was uncertain whether a new U.S.A. Swimming policy for transgender athletes, which increases the burden of proof for transgender women to show that they do not have a competitive advantage against cisgender women, would be adopted ahead of next month’s N.C.A.A. swimming championships.
The N.C.A.A. had revised its own policies with regard to transgender athletes last month, requiring transgender women to submit to testosterone testing and, pending reviews, deferring to the policy of each sport’s governing body, or, if no such guidance exists, the International Olympic Committee.
But that eagerness to align with governing bodies is being put to an early test by U.S.A. Swimming’s more stringent policies, which halve the permissible limit for testosterone in transgender women and call for an extensive review of other physical characteristics before they can compete at the elite level.
Questions over how to balance fair play and inclusion with opportunities for transgender athletes have come to the fore recently with the emergence of Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania.
Thomas, who was a top Ivy League swimmer for the men’s team as a sophomore in 2019, began transitioning shortly after that season and has competed against women this winter for the first time. Her times are considerably slower than when she raced in the men’s division, but she has turned in the top times in the country in the 200 and 500 women’s freestyle.
Those times have made Thomas the presumptive favorite for the Division I N.C.A.A. championships in March, as well as for the Ivy League championships later this month.
Still, the new U.S.A. Swimming policies may stir debate — and raise questions among college policymakers — about whether she will be able to participate.
The N.C.A.A.’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports will meet at the end of February to review the new U.S.A. Swimming policy, said Gail Dent, an N.C.A.A. spokeswoman, who would not specify when the meeting would take place. Any recommendations the committee has will be passed on to the N.C.A.A. Board of Governors for consideration.
Though the N.C.A.A. moves notoriously slowly on legislative matters and is not scheduled to meet until April, Dent said the board could meet earlier in a remote format, possibly in advance of the N.C.A.A. swimming championships, which begin in Atlanta on March 16.
Robin Harris, the executive director of the Ivy League, said the N.C.A.A.’s willingness to change eligibility standards in the middle of a season was unprecedented and ill-considered.
“It’s wrong. It’s unfair,” Harris said. “This is a perfect example of the risks and the uncertainty that is created when the N.C.A.A. chose to implement a policy immediately without any specificity. This is reactionary and it creates uncertainty, and the impact it creates on our transgender athletes is something I’m concerned about.”
What has caught the eye of experts about the U.S.A. Swimming guidelines is the requirement that a transgender woman maintain a testosterone level below 5 nanomoles per liter, down from 10 nanomoles per liter, for 36 months before being able to compete in women’s events. Most sports require their benchmarks to be met for 12 months, though some require as much as 24 months. (The N.C.A.A. requires transgender women to be on hormone therapy for 12 months before they are eligible to compete in women’s divisions.)
“There is just no justification for three years,” said Joanna Harper, a visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. While Harper generally supports testosterone requirements for transgender athletes, she said a 36-month requirement was unprecedented and not based on any science to date.
Suppressing testosterone in transgender women decreases hemoglobin levels within the first few months of hormone therapy, affecting how much oxygen can be carried in red blood cells. It also decreases muscle mass. Though such changes typically occur more slowly, the largest changes in strength occur over the first year, Harper said. In her own experience as a transgender woman and as a long-distance runner, Harper said she saw her competitive advantage decline after nine months of hormone therapy.
Katrina Karkazis, an author of the book “Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography,” said the focus on testosterone testing for transgender athletes is misplaced given how murky the science is. “You cannot single out the effect of any one biovariable on a complex athletic performance,” she said.
Though the new policy includes welcoming talk of inclusion, several experts pointed to how ill-defined the guidelines are for assessing physical development, leaving them open to a troubling degree of subjectivity.
Some experts also found it worrisome that nominees for the three-person panel of medical experts that would review transgender swimmer applications could be vetoed by an athletes’ advisory council.
“The concern I have about many of these policies is they’re very onerous to the athletes to prove their gender, which have involved some pretty invasive questions and physical exams,” said Carol Ewing Garber, a professor of movement sciences at Teachers College, Columbia University who studies transgender athletes. “There’s lots of hoops for the athlete to go through, but they haven’t considered the inherent bias we have in our culture against them.”