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NCAA summit focuses on gender identity, student-athlete participation

Participants point to importance of college athlete input, more research and data

More than 60 people attended the NCAA Gender Identity and Student-Athlete Participation Summit on Oct. 5-6. Many left the two days of Zoom meetings with changed perspectives. 

The summit sought feedback about creating a framework for potentially developing policy on gender identity and student-athlete participation. The focus was on inclusion, fairness, student-athlete well-being, health and safety.

“I was surprised that in those two days I saw my conceptual framework shifting,” said Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer. Specifically, Hainline said his participation in the summit challenged his early opinions around the need to measure testosterone levels as a primary determinant of participation eligibility at the college level. 

“The NCAA might be in a unique position to take a different sort of leadership voice,” Hainline said.

In particular, two components of the summit contributed to this shift: participant discussion around the glaring lack of research and available data related to transgender and nonbinary athletes, and the input provided by the student-athletes who attended the summit. 

Hainline was far from alone in seeing viewpoints shift. 

Dr. Stephanie Chu, team physician at Colorado, said she entered the summit with “preconceived notions and thoughts on transgender athlete participation” that also moved by the end of it.

“I think the greatest takeaway I took from the summit,” added Chu, co-chair of the summit’s steering committee and a member of the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports, “was the humanity of things.” 

The humanity of the issue came to life through feedback provided by several participants. Specifically, current and former transgender and nonbinary student-athletes shared the extreme barriers and challenges they have experienced in college athletics. 

Other participants included university presidents, athletics directors, conference representatives, athletic trainers, team physicians, mental health professionals, faculty athletics representatives, cisgender student-athletes, and cisgender and nonbinary coaches. There were also external industry and subject matter experts on collegiate athletics, the broader higher education community, medicine, science, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Amy Wilson, NCAA managing director of inclusion, likened the summit to what she’s seen and experienced at events for the NCAA Common Ground initiative

“It was essential that current and former student-athletes’ voices and experiences were central to the summit as we discussed very personal and core identities,” Wilson said. “We are doing our best for our student-athletes when we bring them together with leaders from the membership and thought leaders from across the country to explore ways forward that support student-athlete well-being.”

Chu agreed. She said listening to the perspectives on the NCAA’s current transgender policy, established in 2011 by the Board of Governors, from those it impacts most directly was extremely valuable. 

“Getting their voices included is huge because we can all think we know what it feels like and try to put ourselves in those shoes, but it’s really hard to put yourself in those shoes if you’re not living it,” she said. “I think hearing just a couple of those voices that we heard during the summit opened up a lot of people’s eyes to wanting to hear more of those stories.”

Similarly, the summit shone a light on a need for more relevant data and a stronger focus on research in the area of transgender and nonbinary athletes. 

“What most people talked about more than anything is that while our transgender and nonbinary student-athletes in the NCAA might consist of a small percentage, sport is a very important part of their lives,” Chu said. “We need to be sure that the implementation of any policies or rules that may impact access to sport are appropriately evidence based. That’s the biggest thing a lot of us took away. We need to look at what research there is, and if there isn’t enough, we need to start it. If there is, we need to really take a deep dive into the research.”

Research is one of several areas this summit could help. Similar NCAA-hosted summits have led to massive research projects, most notably the Association’s partnership with the Department of Defense to conduct the most comprehensive study of concussions ever. 

“I think we’re at the same crossroad here,” Hainline said, “and we can really move in a positive direction.”

The participants will continue to work together to further develop a consensus framework. This framework is likely to be composed of foundational statements that may inform future policy and practice developments. 

The efforts of summit participants also may fuel educational initiatives within the NCAA membership (for example, student-athletes, administrators and coaches) and inform future updates to the NCAA transgender student-athlete participation policy and broader NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes handbook. Pat Griffin, a professor emerita at Massachusetts and co-author of that handbook, said the summit was a positive start toward achieving the group’s goals. 

“The input from summit participants should provide the NCAA with important feedback as they evaluate the policy and identify how it might better serve the needs of collegiate student-athletes of all gender identities,” Griffin said. “I especially value the comments of transgender and nonbinary student-athletes at the summit on how the membership can more effectively address their mental and physical health needs. It is also clear that more research is needed if policy revisions are to be based on the best current available information.”