For months I have thought about the transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania and the national publicity surrounding a young woman who two years ago was a male and recently won the NCAA 500-meter freestyle championship, as well as setting four women’s school records.
Is it fair?
This question has rattled my justice scale for months. I wondered if the raging controversy was one in which I wanted to dive.
So here it goes. Lia Thomas began taking testosterone suppression drugs two years ago. A former member of Penn’s men’s swimming team, Lia saw her speed diminish. Yet she was setting records as a woman.
Sixteen teammates complained in a well-publicized letter. A few teammates supported her. I wondered how she could cope with the increasingly intense media attention. I worried about her mental well-being, though the university strongly supported her participation.
I was torn and anguished. The fairness question dominated my thinking.
Meanwhile, some of my 76-77-year-old college classmates, when approached by me for 55th Reunion donations, adamantly criticized the school’s “woke” (progressive) environment. What about a contribution? In one case, the response was a flat no.
Still, I was still undecided. Were a daughter of mine a member of Penn’s swim team, having spent most of her sports life anxious to break records, she might have found the aspiration closed to her because of Lia Thomas. She might have been angry. And so might I have been.
Pictures of Lia show a powerfully built woman. Her size and strength are impressive, let alone her talent in the pool. Mind you, tennis greats Serena and Vanessa look strong to me. They are tremendous athletes.
My knowledge of biology is minuscule. What I do know is that puberty changes the makeup of a boy, enabling him to outrun and our-swim most young women. Of course, there are exceptions. I am not questioning determination, competitiveness and inner toughness.
The line between men’s and women’s sports is blurring. That’s possible. Maybe I am blind to that phenomenon. Transgender athletes may become more commonplace as our society accepts biological changes that roil a pool’s lanes.
Anyone who reads this column knows I disdain discrimination. While I honor and respect Lia Thomas’ decision, I cannot ignore the fairness factor. As a former college lacrosse jock, I well understand the difference in athletic ability between outstanding athletes and average ones (like this writer). I easily accepted my limited ability compared with teammates blessed with superior athletic talent. I compensated with scrappiness.
The crunch point is athletic prowess based upon the physiological difference between men and women. Is it completely understood?
I believe that the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater) did not take sufficient time to study Lia’s physical attributes and the impact on the performance metrics of her teammates. Was the decision inherently fair? That question continues to hound me.
The decision was fraught, I am sure, encompassing respect for Lia and her difficult decision to become a woman and the legal complexities involved in appearing to punish a person for a courageous action. I hope, however, that Penn considered Lia’s teammates and their athletic goals and dreams.
The resulting criticism by Lia Thomas’ teammates and the intense media controversy have proved harmful to Penn’s image.
Thomas and her teammates have dealt with emotional pain on top of the normal physical exertion. It will be a season steeped in historical significance, punctuated by troubling undercurrents. Penn could have handled this explosive situation in a more balanced way.
In time, these decisions may become routine, barely requiring media attention. That’s not the case now.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.