Tennis legend Martina Navratilova said on Thursday that the NCAA should change its rules as long as trans athletes like University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas continue to participate. Navratilova made the comment hours before Thomas became the first openly transgender woman to win an NCAA swimming championship with her victory in the 500-yard freestyle in Atlanta. The nine-time Wimbledon champ suggested that Thomas have an asterisk placed beside her name, arguing that the swimmer has a biological advantage over her opponents because she was born male.
“It’s not about excluding transgender women from winning ever. But it is about not allowing them to win when they were not anywhere near winning as men,” Navratilova, 65, said told NewsNation.
“But right now, the rules are what they are. Maybe put an asterisk there, if she starts breaking records left and right.”
Navratilova is a member of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, whose mission statement rejects “both the effort to exclude” transgender women from sports and the effort to have female athletes compete against them. Navratilova also criticized the NCAA and other sports governing bodies for establishing the rules that allowed Thomas to compete in the women’s division.
“When she was swimming as a man, she was finishing 200th, 300th, 400th. Now, she is finishing first, which shows to me if she had been born as a female in the first place, she would not be succeeding the way that she is succeeding now,” she said. Navratilova has been criticized in the past for what some see as transphobic remarks about transgender athletes.
Navratilova insisted that the rules regarding transgender athletes need to change “because this is not a fair fight. If I was a female swimmer… I really don’t have a chance to be competing against Lia.”
Thomas, 22, competed for the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s team for three seasons before starting her transition in 2019. She has become a symbol of the debate over sports and identity. Her recent triumph was met with disapproval as a group of demonstrators from Save Women’s Sports and Young Women for America (the college branch of Concerned Women for America) protested Thomas’ inclusion in the women’s category outside of the venue.
The audience was notably quiet when Thomas claimed her trophy.
Prior to the championship, 16 of Thomas’ female teammates sent a letter to school and Ivy League officials, claiming that she “holds an unfair advantage over competition in the women’s category.”
Thomas declined to attend the NCAA-required post race news conference following her victory, but after the competition she told an interviewer that she has been trying to ignore the distractions coming from naysayers, ESPN reports. “I try to focus on my swimming, what I need to do to get ready for my races,” Thomas said. “And just try to block out everything else.”
Until recently, the NCAA’s transgender participation policy deferred to the national governing body in each sport, NewsNation reports. In February, USA Swimming announced new rules for transgender women athletes. Under the guidelines, they must demonstrate testosterone levels below five nanomoles per liter for three years before competing and provide evidence that they do not have a “competitive advantage” over their “cisgender female competitors.”
Ultimately, the NCAA chose not to adopt those guidelines for the 2022 swim season because it “could have unfair and potentially detrimental impacts on schools and student-athletes intending to compete in the 2022 NCAA women’s swimming championships,” NewsNation reports. The NCAA requires demonstrated testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per liter to compete.
Navratilova suggested that sports governing bodies collaborate with scientific experts on the best way to categorize transgender athletes.
“In the future, maybe it should be an open category for everybody and then biological females, so trans women can compete but they compete against men and trans men have a choice,” she told NewsNation.
This wasn’t the first time Navratilova has spoken out against Thomas. In December, Navratilova tweeted that it was “not fair for women to race against transgender Lia Thomas,” News Nation reports.
Navratilova has been labeled a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) over the years but she said she doesn’t believe that is accurate.
“I’m not scared nor am I exclusionary or any of that. I welcome all athletes. I love competing so I understand that people want to compete,” she said. “The climate is such that people can’t speak out or even ask questions, and then the athletes themselves are not allowed to speak out.”
She added, “In normal society, in normal day life, absolutely. One-hundred percent inclusion. [But] when it comes to sport, we have categories based on biology.”
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