By Cory Franklin
It wasn’t much of a surprise that Lia Thomas, the transgender swimmer from the University of Pennsylvania, performed quite well at the 500-yard freestyle preliminary of the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, finishing first, setting a new record, and beating an Olympic swimmer from Stanford.
This performance caused angry lines to form inside and outside the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center as transgender rights activists and supporters of women’s rights argued heatedly about, guess what? Rights.
Like so many disputes in America today, l’affiare Thomas has devolved to an issue of rights – women’s rights versus transgender rights. The concept of fair play, which is essential to competition and is on the women’s side, has become a tertiary concern.
One outraged observer, as she watched Thomas dominate the competition, used the word “cheat.” Perhaps a bit of an overstatement – what Thomas is doing might not be cheating, but it doesn’t take much to see it is hardly fair.
Look into the crystal ball. This being America, you’ll see whenever an issue of competing rights is involved, the future unfortunately lies in the courtroom. A conservative group has filed a Title IX complaint against the University of Pennsylvania. (Fun fact – the original Title IX text signed into law in 1972 was 45 words long. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on personnel, compliance, and litigation since then. Never have so many done so much over so few words).
Not to be outdone, according to The New York Post, the University of Pennsylvania has threatened lawsuits if Thomas is barred from swimming. As a country we have pretty much abandoned deciding right and wrong for ourselves and left it to the lawyers and judges. Make of that what you will.
The Penn swimmers might have prevented this controversy if they refused to swim en masse. They did not do so in part because they worried about retaliation now and in the future, and in part because some of them see transgender rights as paramount in this question, which is their right. Without a unified stance, the Penn women lose the power to decide the issue.
Meanwhile, the typically craven administrators at Penn, the Ivy League and the NCAA level hardly acknowledge the threat this poses to women’s swimming. Lia Thomas is likely to swim away with trophies and maybe some records as well. In the wake will be some disappointed swimmers who trained their whole lives for this moment. The establishment has basically said, “too bad for you.”
Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest women’s tennis players in history with 18 Grand Slam Titles, is one of our generation’s toughest competitors and no stranger to controversy. She came out as a lesbian forty years ago and has been a tireless supporter of gay rights.
Navratilova has been critical of transgender women competing in women’s sports, a stance which put her at odds with Athlete Ally, an LGBTQ athletic advocacy group which removed her from their board. Undaunted (she is a survivor of communism and breast cancer), she said recently there should be an asterisk when Thomas wins a race (shades of the Roger Maris/Babe Ruth controversy).
Navratilova even proposed an alternative for individual sports such as swimming, “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…
“You try to keep it as close as possible to what it would have been, were you born in the female biological body in the first place,” she said. “And even saying that, people take exception to – biological female. People don’t even want to use those words. I don’t know what else to say. Other than that. But the solution perhaps for now is to swim in a lane; you can compete, but you don’t get the medal.”
A decent compromise – for individual sports. We can create separate lanes in the pool or on the track. If there are enough transgender athletes, we can establish separate divisions for them to compete against each other.
But what to do in a team sport where there are no separate lanes? How do we handle a 6’8” transgender power forward?
Lia Thomas should not get a pass in this contretemps. Her interviews have been particularly narcissistic and tone-deaf. She constantly refers to being able to swim in terms of herself, barely acknowledging that there are others with a stake in what happens in the pool.
You can pretty much sum up her obliviousness by examining one of her quotes. While insisting that she is a woman and belongs on the women’s team, she says, “”I’m a woman, just like anybody else on the team.”
The problem is she is not a woman like anybody else on the team. She is different.
If she were like anybody else on the team, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
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