Some of the same professional athletes who have publicly pushed for equal opportunity and pay for women now want to punish Idaho for trying to assure women don’t have to compete against males who identify as female.
World Cup soccer champion Megan Rapinoe, former tennis star Billie Jean King, WNBA standout Sue Bird, and hundreds of pro-LGBT groups and athletes sent a letter to the NCAA on June 10 asking the organization to bar Idaho from hosting NCAA basketball tournament play unless it repeals the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. Boise State University is scheduled to hold first- and second-round men’s games in 2021.
When the act takes effect on July 1, Idaho will become the first state to protect girls and women from competing against males who identify as female in sports at all public schools, colleges, and universities. After the law passed in March, the American Civil Liberties Union asked a judge to block it and sued the state on behalf of two transgender athletes.
The NCAA opposes the law and said in a statement it would address calls to boycott Idaho at its August board meeting. In 2016, the governing body for college athletics barred North Carolina from hosting its athletic events because the state required people to use single-sex restrooms and changing rooms that corresponded to their biological sex. After lawmakers repealed the restrictions, the NCAA reinstated championship games in the state.
Athletes like 19-year-old Madison Kenyon of Johnston, Colo., are closely watching the debate. During her freshman year as a cross-country and track runner at Idaho State University, Kenyon raced five times against a man who identifies as a woman.
“You can tell the difference. … They’re taller, they’re broader, they’re bigger, they can run faster,” she said. “No matter what I do, I can’t keep up with them. It’s unfair and discouraging.”
Kenyon, now a sophomore, and her teammate, sophomore Mary Kate Marshall, joined the lawsuit on May 26 to defend Idaho from the ACLU attack. Like a group of female high school athletes taking action in Connecticut, they want a fair shot at podium spots. Kenyon said competing against transgender athletes leaves her little chance. If the NCAA favors biological men who identify as women over biological women, Kenyon said, “They will be sending the message to all female athletes that they are boycotting fair competition.”
In February, June Eastwood, a male runner from the University of Montana who identifies as female, took first place in the women’s 1-mile run at the Big Sky Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships in Idaho. Eastwood beat his female competition by more than 3.5 seconds. When the conference named Eastwood its “Women’s Cross Country Athlete of the Week” in 2019, it didn’t mention the athlete was transgender and formerly a winning runner for the Montana men’s track team.
“This is about bullying and gaslighting Idaho girls,” said Blaine Conzatti, advocacy director for the Family Policy Alliance of Idaho. “It’s telling them they’re intolerant” unless they’re willing to compete against men.
But the federal government has given the women a boost. The U.S. Department of Justice on Friday filed a statement of interest in the Idaho case, saying the law provides equal protection for women.
“Allowing biological males to compete in all-female sports is fundamentally unfair to female athletes,” Attorney General William Barr said.
And in a recent 45-page letter, the U.S. Education Department threatened to withhold federal funding from Connecticut public schools for failing to protect female student-athletes under Title IX, the federal law designed to ensure equal opportunities for women and girls in education and school-based athletics.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of LGBT employees could affect future court decisions about women’s sports. Justice Samuel Alito in his dissenting opinion warned the high court’s reasoning may “force young women to compete against students who have a very significant biological advantage.”
Christina Holcomb, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney representing the Idaho athletes, remains hopeful.
“Courage begets courage,” she said. “As these female athletes are starting to stand up and lend their voice publicly to this highly controversial issue, that’s … emboldening other women across the country.”