By Cory Franklin
“When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel, ah how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.”
– Bob Dylan (1965)
Consider now the University of Pennsylvania Women’s Swim Team, Lia Thomas, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lysistrata, Spartacus, transgender rights and fair play.
Lia Thomas is a transgender senior on the University of Penn Women’s team, who, before transitioning from male to female, was an All-Ivy swimmer on the men’s team –a successful, but not a remarkable swimmer. Now, after completing the NCAA’s requirement of one year of testosterone suppressant use, she is competing against women.
To call her current performances dominating would be something of an understatement.
Thomas has basically obliterated the competition, smashing pool and meet records. Her times compare favorably not only with the best current female collegiate swimmers in the country but with the best American female swimmers ever. In one event Thomas has swum the 17th fastest time in history, less than three seconds off the American record. In another event, she is currently ranked 21st all-time. The NCAA championships are in March, and she has already swum faster times in two events than the winning times in last year’s championships.
Needless to say, her Penn teammates and most of her opponents have very little chance against her, and naturally this is discouraging. One competitor from Niagara University said, “Swimming against Lia, I knew deep down it was going to be impossible for me to swim as fast as her …I knew I could drop my time but I also knew there was no way I would physically be able to beat her in the race or even catch up to her… it’s hard working your whole life at a sport and going to big competitions and seeing someone who is more physically talented than you, however it is even more discouraging to have them right next to you and knowing you won’t ever be on the same physical level as them.”
Is this what sports is about? At odds are two values – transgender rights versus fair play – and there is very little way to square the two in this situation. Lia’s Niagara competitor acknowledged as much, “At the end of the day I respect her decision to compete and I do feel that people are going to have a bad reaction to her life choices which isn’t fair on her. But from an athletic standpoint I do see why a lot of athletes are going to be upset.”
Well put. Transgender rights are certainly important, but on the field of competition, or in this case the pool, fair play must prevail as the highest principle. Otherwise, there is no point to the contest.
The parents of some of the Penn swimmers acknowledged as much in a letter they wrote to the NCAA and forwarded to the Ivy League and Penn officials, “At stake here is the integrity of women’s sports…The precedent being set – one in which women do not have a protected and equitable space to compete – is a direct threat to female athletes in every sport. What are the boundaries? How is this in line with the NCAA’s commitment to providing a fair environment for student-athletes?”
Fair environment being the key term. So far, their protests have largely fallen on deaf ears, although one USA Swimming official has resigned in protest. Cynthia Millen wrote in her resignation letter, “Everything fair about swimming is being destroyed. If Lia came on my deck as a referee, I would pull the coach aside and say, ‘Lia can swim, but Lia can swim exhibition or a time trial. Lia cannot compete against those women because that’s not fair.’” There’s that word “fair” that keeps coming up.
Ms. Millen also said in an interview, “While Lia Thomas is a child of God, he is a biological male who is competing against women and no matter how much testosterone suppression drugs he takes, he will always be a biological male and have the advantage….All these women who worked so hard before Title IX when they didn’t have the opportunities that men had. It would be such a shame, such a travesty to throw it away now. This is what will happen.”
The Penn Athletic Department appears unmoved by this logic. As does the Penn swimming coach, who is described by one of his swimmers as someone who “likes winning.” Lia, herself, has shown pride for her record-breaking performances – but not much else. Sportsmanship, respect for the opponent and fairness are not the coin of the realm here.
One person with some credible experience in this area has voiced concern. Caitlyn Jenner, before transitioning male to female, won the 1976 Olympic gold medal in the men’s decathlon as Bruce Jenner and was considered the best athlete in the world—and a cover boy on the Wheaties box.
“This is a question of fairness,” Jenner said. “That’s why I oppose biological boys who are trans competing in girls’ sports in school. It just isn’t fair. And we have to protect girls’ sports in our schools.”
Spot on, the only problem being that Ms. Jenner is not in much of a position to be of help to the Penn swimmers.
In competitive sports, fair play is the sine qua non. And as the above notes, what’s going on here is simply not fair. Unfortunately, nothing will change this unless all the other women on the Penn swim team refuse to swim; it would help if their competitors did the same. It is the only way to change the situation.
It appears the Penn swimmers have considered this option but rejected it. One swimmer said, “There are a bunch of comments on the internet about how, ‘Oh, these girls are just letting this happen. They should just boycott or protest.’ At the end of the day, it’s an individual sport. If we protest it, we’re only hurting ourselves because we’re going to miss out on all that we’ve been working for.”
Understandable, but then in the next breath, she makes it clear why they should not swim, “When I have kids, I kinda hope they’re all boys because if I have any girls that want to play sports in college, good luck. [Their opponents] are all going to be biological men saying that they’re women. Right now we have one, but what if we had three on the team? There’d be three less girls competing.”
The consequences for women go far beyond the individual swimmers. We want more girls competing, not fewer. That’s why refusing to swim has to be a group decision by the Penn swimmers. It is not simply about swimming – it is about justice.
The Penn swimmers have the chance to join the long tradition of women who have acted publicly in the name of justice. As far back as the Ancient Greeks, Aristophanes wrote the play Lysistrata, about one woman’s efforts to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading all the women of Athens and Sparta to withhold sex from their husbands to have them make peace between the city-states.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the noted 19th century activist and first woman to organize the call for women’s suffrage. She was instrumental in organizing the historic Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 that enumerated women’s rights. Her address at that Convention is not well known today, but it should be part of every history book and familiar to every schoolchild (and most certainly to the Penn women’s swim team).
She said, “I should feel exceedingly diffident to appear before you wholly unused as I am to public speaking, were I not nerved by a sense of right and duty—did I not feel that the time had fully come for the question of woman’s wrongs to be laid before the public— did I not believe that woman herself must do this work—for woman alone can understand the height and the depth, the length and the breadth of her own degradation and woe.“
Shortly after that, Ms. Cady began working with Susan B. Anthony in the quest for the rights of women and African Americans. Ms. Cady is not the household name Ms. Anthony is, but Cady is just as important to securing those rights. And along those lines, where would the story of the civil rights movement be without Rosa Parks, who refused to give her seat up on the bus?
Even today, in the face of the cowardice of our politicians, corporations, athletes, and sports franchises in kowtowing to Communist China (CCP), one group has stood up – a group of women.
In response to the scandalous treatment of Chinese female tennis star Peng Shuai by the CCP, the Women’s Tennis Association has pulled out of China, taking a financial loss of up to one-third of all its revenue. With the support of stars including Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, the CEO of the WTA decided to “put principles ahead of profit.” Women acting in concert.
But if the historical precedents and current events are not enough of an incentive, perhaps popular culture can convince the swimmers to act together. Generation Z may not be big on old movies, but the swimmers might benefit from a viewing of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 movie epic Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas as the leader of a slave revolt. In the climactic scene, a Roman general demands that a group of former slaves identify their leader, Spartacus. Spartacus is just about to step forward when the entire group steps forward. In one of cinema’s most famous scenes, in unison they shout, “I am Spartacus!”
That scene was written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, may have borrowed from an equally famous movie, Billy Wilder’s 1953 masterpiece Stalag 17, where a group of prisoners of war defy a Nazi commandant the same way.
These two scenes are meant to demonstrate how individuals can act as a group to defy authority effectively in support of an ideal – in the current case support of fair play.
It is not surprising that the Penn swimmers are reluctant to act. They fear opprobrium (the inevitable claim of transphobia) and lost opportunity. They do not receive scholarships but refusing to swim could conceivably affect their chances to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Those fears have merit. The Romans, after all, ultimately did crucify all the slaves in Spartacus.
But unless they act as a group, they will essentially be prisoners. If Bob Dylan’s lyrics are not enough to make them realize they cannot be free unless they act, maybe songwriter Kris Kristofferson’s words will encourage them.
After all, in his classic folksong, Me and Bobby McGee, he observed,
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
update: The University of Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas’ swimming domination has finally come to an end. She was defeated by another transgender swimmer, Yale’s Iszac Henig, who is transitioning from female to male, in the 100 meter freestyle. “Henig had a time of 49.57 seconds with Thomas finishing behind him with a time of 52.84 seconds,” according to news reports.
Cory Franklin is a doctor who was director of medical intensive care at Cook County Hospital in Chicago for over 25 years. An editorial board contributor to the Chicago Tribune op-ed page, he writes freelance medical and non-medical articles. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, Guardian, Washington Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books. Cory was also Harrison Ford’s technical adviser and one of the role models for the character Ford played in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive.” His YouTube podcast Rememberingthepassed has received 900,000 hits to date. He published Chicago Flashbulbs in 2013, Cook County ICU: 30 Years Of Unforgettable Patients And Odd Cases in 2015, and most recently coauthored, A Guide to Writing College Admission Essays: Practical Advice for Students and Parents in 2021.