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State Bills Restricting Transgender Athletes Threaten Clashes With NCAA


Transgender women are facing their own challenges in sports - a new crop of bills in state legislatures aimed to restrict which teams transgender girls and women can play on. And as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, the NCAA plays a big role in that debate even when it's not saying much.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: In February, Utah State Democratic Representative Andrew Stoddard spoke against a bill to keep transgender girls and women from playing on girls' and women's sports teams. And he brought up a men's basketball game from more than 40 years ago.


ANDREW STODDARD: In 1979, Salt Lake City hosted the NCAA Final Four. Michigan State played Indiana State in the championship - Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird. This game is important to me because my grandpa was an associate athletic director at the University of Utah and helped organize it. If this bill passes, we won't have any more moments like that.

KURTZLEBEN: Stoddard was afraid the NCAA would pull sporting events from Utah, and he pointed to North Carolina as an example. In 2016, that state passed a bill restricting which bathrooms transgender people could use. Because of that law, the NCAA and other sports organizations pulled events from the state. Thomas Lee worked to bring sporting events to Charlotte back then, and now he has a similar role in Sioux Falls, S.D.

THOMAS LEE: That really hit the hardest in Charlotte, and who it's going to hit here is the hospitality community - the hotels, the taxis, the restaurants - anything and everything that is associated with visitors.

KURTZLEBEN: He's worried now because South Dakota's state legislature has passed a bill restricting transgender women athletes. Lee lists the NCAA events that he fears the state could lose.

LEE: Two of those are going to be D1 hockey events, which are quite large in impact. And as well as D2 wrestling and D2 women's volleyball have impact as well.

KURTZLEBEN: On Friday, Governor Kristi Noem sent the bill back to the legislature, saying in part that she wants to avoid a clash with the NCAA. Similar laws have been proposed in more than 20 states. Proponents believe the laws will keep girls' sports free of unfair competition. Opponents point out that overwhelmingly, the bill's backers can't show examples of transgender women's participation creating fairness issues in their own states and that these laws may further marginalize transgender youth.

The NCAA is uniquely situated in this debate in that it is an economic force and a sporting organization - one that already has a policy on transgender athletes. That 2011 policy does allow transgender athletes to participate on their gender's teams. Amy Bedient is a board member at transgender advocacy organization the Transformation Project.

AMY BEDIENT: The NCAA kind of is one of the places that a lot of sporting organizations look to as far as policies, and that they have backed that up by saying, you know, you're opposing our NCAA policies, so we're pulling our tournaments out has actually played a role.

KURTZLEBEN: Idaho passed the country's first transgender sports ban last year. The NCAA called that bill, quote, "harmful to transgender student athletes." But the question of moving March Madness games from the state was ultimately moot because of the pandemic. That leaves many wondering if and how the NCAA might take action in other states now. Montana Republican Representative John Fuller sponsored one transgender sports bill. He says he's not worried.

JOHN FULLER: Does a sovereign state of Montana going to kowtow to the - what I consider the empty threats of a semi-professional athletic association? No. And with 20 other states passing similar legislation, I don't think the NCAA is going to weigh in.

KURTZLEBEN: More than 500 student athletes, meanwhile, have signed onto a letter asking the NCAA not to host events in states with these laws. In a statement to NPR, the NCAA said it, quote, "continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student athlete participation."

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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