Inclusive Athletics

The NCAA clarifies its policies on when transgender athletes can play on the teams they identify with.
September 16, 2011

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has clarified its policies on when transgender athletes can compete, largely embracing the recommendations of advocacy groups and making clear the circumstances under which a transitioning male can play on a female team, and vice versa.

“There was pretty much unanimous endorsement,” said Mary Wilfert, the NCAA associate director in health and safety. “It is a significant move.”

The new policy, which embraced the suggestions in the 2010 report from the National Center on Lesbian Rights and the Women’s Sports Foundation, ensures that athletes are allowed to participate on male or female teams, so long as they adhere to two key rules. The policy required no new legislation but rather clarified two pieces of existing legislation regarding banned substances – namely, testosterone -- and a team’s official “status,” determined by the gender of its players.

The final policy states that:

  • “A trans male (female to male) student-athlete who has received a medical exception for treatment with testosterone for gender transition may compete on a men’s team, but is no longer eligible to compete on a women’s team without changing the team status to a mixed team. A mixed team is eligible only for men’s championships.
  • A trans female (male to female) student-athlete being treated with testosterone suppression medication for gender transition may continue to compete on a men’s team, but may not compete on a women’s team without changing it to a mixed team status until completing one calendar year of documented testosterone-suppression treatment.”

Helen Carroll, director of the NCLR Sports Project, worked closely with the NCAA to develop this policy and said that while the change is not unexpected, the group applauds it.

“The NCAA has been looking at transgender athletes -- the issues, the situations -- for a number of years,” Carroll said. The topic certainly has the potential to be controversial, she said. But dating to a 2009 meeting on how to address transgender student athletes, “There just was not pullback. There was an acknowledgment that the time has come to examine this issue.”

Until this month, the NCAA had left it up to colleges to decide things such as how to count transgender athletes when reporting participation rates, or whether to allow them to compete on the team whose gender they identified with.

In November, the issue came to the forefront when Kye Allums, a George Washington University junior and player on the women’s basketball team, publicly announced that he is a transgender man – and, many believe, the first transgender man to play Division I college basketball. The following month, the NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports proposed for the first time that the organization offer some guidance on when transgender athletes should be allowed to compete alongside players of the gender they identify with. That proposal, and the policy the NCAA adopted this month, largely followed what the advocacy groups recommended nearly a year ago.

“As a core value, the NCAA believes in and is committed to diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators,” Karen Morrison, the NCAA's director of inclusion, wrote in a memo to NCAA member institutions. “Since participation in athletics provides student-athletes a unique and positively powerful experience, the goals of these policies are to create opportunity for transgender student-athletes to participate in accordance with their gender identity while maintaining the relative balance of competitive equity within sports teams.”

The NCAA has published a number of resources to guide member institutions on issues related to LGBT athletes, including a new booklet on transgender athletes and inclusion. Wilfert said the association has received “probably about 30 or 40 inquiries in the last three years” from colleges asking questions about transgender or anti-discrimination policies.

With the policies and educational materials in place, the first step in tackling this issue has been accomplished, Carroll said. But now the NCAA and others need to work with athletic leaders, she said, to make sure they understand transgender athletes -- what it means, for instance, for a transitioning female to play on a women’s team.

“Are there still going to be barriers? Yes. The biggest barrier is that there’s a lot of education that needs to be done. We’re on the path to do it, but it’s not completed yet,” Carroll said. “The transgender athletes know that they can step forward now. But I don’t think any of us who are not transgender can even imagine the amount of courage it takes to step forward and say, ‘I’m transgender, can you let me play?’ ”


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