The NCAA has reached a delicate moment: It must decide whether to punish states that have passed laws limiting the participation of transgender athletes by barring them from hosting its softball and baseball tournaments.
Legislation requiring athletes to compete in interscholastic sports according to their sex at birth has been introduced in dozens of states this year, and governors have signed bills in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia. The Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia laws also cover college sports teams.
The NCAA Board of Governors issued a statement April 12 saying it “firmly and unequivocally supports the opportunity for transgender student-athletes to compete in college sports."
“When determining where championships are held, NCAA policy directs that only locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination should be selected," the board added. "We will continue to closely monitor these situations to determine whether NCAA championships can be conducted in ways that are welcoming and respectful of all participants.”
Last week, the NCAA announced a preliminary list of 20 schools being considered to host the early round of the NCAA softball tournament; the 16 regional sites will be announced when the field is unveiled May 16. The 20 potential regional sites for baseball will be announced next week and that list will be pared to 16 on May 31.
Three of the possible softball hosts — Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee — are in states with signed transgender sports bans.
“This is kind of where the rubber meets the road for the NCAA,” said Mac McCorkle, a Duke University professor of public policy.
Karen Weaver, a former college field hockey coach and athletic administrator now on the faculty at Penn, called the NCAA statement as “wishy washy as you can get.”
Weaver said the NCAA is in a precarious position because of separate, highly charged issues that are likely to impact its bedrock amateurism model: it is depending on Congress to create legislation allowing athletes to make money on use of their name, image or likeness. The Supreme Court also is considering a case weighing whether the NCAA's prohibition on compensation for college athletes violates federal antitrust law.
The NCAA's statement on transgender sports bans was “carefully worded,” Weaver said, “and I think it’s a tenuous time to be taking any kind of stance that might be viewed as political because they’re trying to craft their future in the Congress and Senate with the NIL legislation.”
“They’re trying to not tick off any potential folks who might vote for something that benefits the NCAA the most,” Weaver said.
Jeff Altier, the NCAA Division I Baseball Committee chairman and the athletic director at Stetson, said last month that his committee had been given no directive to exclude any school from consideration for hosting a regional.
Altier referred other questions to the NCAA. Gail Dent, spokeswoman for the Board of Governors, did not respond to questions about the NCAA’s willingness to pull events out of states with bans.
“It’s surprising the NCAA would say one thing, that they are monitoring it, and then select site locations that are in areas of the country that are doing anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ legislation,” said Shane Windmeyer, founder and executive director of Campus Pride, a national organization advocating for safer college environments for LGBT students.
Windmeyer said the NCAA’s Office of Inclusion has been an ally. He said Campus Pride and similar organizations have received grants from the NCAA to fund diversity and inclusion summits and other programming.
The NCAA has had policies in place since 2011 that allow for transgender participation in sports. Testosterone suppression treatment is required for transgender women to compete in women’s sports.
Last year, following the Southeastern Conference’s lead, the NCAA announced it would not hold championship events in Mississippi unless a depiction of the Confederate flag was removed from the state flag. The Mississippi Legislature acted swiftly to remove the symbol.
In 2016, the NCAA made good on its threat to pull championship events out of North Carolina in response to the “bathroom bill,” which required transgender people to use restrooms according to their sex at birth and not their gender identity. Greensboro lost first- and second-round games in the men’s basketball tournament in 2017; they were moved to Greenville, South Carolina. The law was repealed before the NCAA could take away more events.
“When they got involved with the bathroom bill in North Carolina, that was, in my opinion, a bold step for them,” Weaver said. “I’m not seeing that same enthusiasm right now.”
The NCAA traditionally selects baseball and softball regional sites based on a team’s performance as well as quality of facilities and financial considerations. This year, potential sites were pre-determined because each must be evaluated for its ability to meet the NCAA's COVID-19 protocols.
Four of the top five teams in this week’s D1Baseball.com Top 25 — No. 1 Arkansas, No. 2 Vanderbilt, No. 4 Mississippi State and No. 5 Tennessee — ordinarily would be considered shoo-ins to be regional hosts. The four schools confirmed to The Associated Press they submitted bids to host but declined interview requests on the topic of the NCAA's decision.
Since 2000, the home team has won 67.5% of baseball regionals and there is money to be made, too. A University of Arkansas study showed baseball fans visiting the Fayetteville area spent about $2 million during a three-day regional in 2018, excluding cost of tickets and in-stadium purchases.
The NCAA is limiting attendance to 50% of stadium capacity at its spring sports championships because of the pandemic, so the windfall won't be as great this year.
For now, everyone waits to see the next step on site selections from the NCAA, which has referred all questions to the Board of Governors statement.
“Speaking as a consultant, you can say to the NCAA, ‘Oh well, you made this problem, you shouldn’t have said anything,'” McCorkle said. “I don’t know how they navigate it, but I don’t think there’s any way to have avoided this.”