Sports have always been a big part of my life. In the first grade, I started playing basketball in a South Philly CYO league and played in very competitive leagues well into my 40s. Sports appealed to me because of the competition, the thrill of winning, and learning how to deal with defeat.
The playing of sports was only surpassed, eventually, by the fun and thrill of coaching my sons in various sports. I also enjoyed seeing my five sisters play in CYO leagues and eventually at the high school and college levels. When they started, society was just beginning to realize the value of women’s sports in developing young women as teammates and leaders.
Therefore, when I see the controversy over transgender Penn swimmer Lia Thomas shattering women’s swimming records, I ask, isn’t anybody in authority going to step in and restore opportunity for women to compete fairly in their sport?
On my radio show last week, I asked that question of Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time gold medalist and four-time medalist in swimming at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and now a civil rights attorney who is advising 16 Penn women’s team swimmers who recently drafted a letter that said they didn’t believe Thomas should be allowed to compete.
Hogshead-Makar told me women who objected to Thomas were told, “If they speak out, they will never get a job again.” In other words, their desire to have an even playing field would be seen as discriminatory and they would carry that stigma for a long time. Hogshead-Makar likened the situation American swimmers faced during her career when they faced East German women swimmers who were doping. She recalled that they were coached to be gracious losers.
Whether or not her comparison is completely correct, she is right that the other Penn swimmers can’t compete with Thomas.
She went on to clearly detail Thomas’ advantages. First, she pointed out that the average qualifying differential for NCAA swimming events is 11.4 percent faster for men. To put this in perspective, legendary swimmer Michael Phelps held just a .08 percent of an advantage over his U.S. teammates in the 100-meter butterfly in the 2004 Olympics. However, she points out, Phelps held a 12.62 percent advantage over the women’s gold medalist, Australian Petria Thomas.
Throughout my talk with Hogshead-Makar she repeated that she is not in any way anti- transgendered people. However, she thought the situation involving Thomas would only breed resentment. She wants sports to make space for transgendered athletes but not at the expense of opportunities for women.
The most compelling part of my interview with Hogshead-Makar was our discussion of what could be done to aid the Penn swimmers. We know that if they speak out publicly, they will be stigmatized now, and they will have difficulty with being hired in many situations in the future. She proposed a solution. She told me she is on a public and private campaign to get swimming icons, sports icons, and others to stand up for women in sports and particularly the Penn swimmers who object to Lia Thomas.
That would seem to be an easy thing to do, but I believe it will also take a lot of courage. Twitter and the rest of social media will not be kind to those who speak up for the women. I hope they also remind the University of Pennsylvania that they are not fulfilling their duty to protect female athletes and they shouldn’t posture that they are a place that truly wants to advance women.
Women athletes have come a long way, but this university is not continuing their progress.