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NCAA Looms Large In Debate Over Transgender Sports Restrictions

Kristi Noem, governor of South Dakota, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.
Kristi Noem, governor of South Dakota, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

When the South Dakota state legislature passed HB 1217 in early March, South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem tweeted that she was "excited" to sign it.

That bill would have stopped transgender girls and women from playing on sports teams designated for girls and women. These types of bills have been introduced in 25 states nationwide and have become a nationwide cause for social conservatives like Noem.

So it may have surprised some of her supporters when on Friday she sent the bill back to South Dakota's legislature asking for changes. Among those is making sure the bill does not apply to college athletes. On Twitter, she pointed to the NCAA as one reason.

"Competing on the national stage means compliance with the national governing bodies that oversee collegiate athletics," she tweeted, later adding, "While I certainly do not always agree with the actions these sanctioning bodies take, I understand that collegiate athletics requires such a system – a fifty-state patchwork is not workable."

The ongoing fight in South Dakota is indicative not only of the way the issue of transgender girls in sports has become a nationwide phenomenon, but of the way that the NCAA looms over debates over transgender rights, and especially over the fight over transgender sports bans — even when the NCAA doesn't say much.

That was evident when Fox News' Tucker Carlson accused Noem of "caving to the NCAA" when she appeared on his show.

"I'm not going to let anybody from the NCAA, from any big business, I'm not even going to let conservatives on the right bully me," she told the host.

This year, four state legislatures have sent bills restricting transgender girls' sports participation to governors' desks. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves signed one bill this month, and Tennessee and Arkansas statehouses passed their own bills this week.

Legacy of the "bathroom bill"

The NCAA has come up repeatedly in debates over transgender sports bills in state legislatures this year. In February, Democratic Utah state Rep. Andrew Stoddard brought up a men's college basketball game from more than 40 years ago.

"In 1979, Salt Lake City hosted the NCAA Final Four. Michigan State played Indiana State in the championship - Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird," he said. "This game is important to me because my grandpa was an associate athletic director at the University of Utah and helped organize it. If this bill passes, we won't have any more moments like that."

Stoddard was afraid the NCAA would pull sporting events from Utah, and he pointed to North Carolina as an example.

In 2016, that state passed a bill restricting which bathrooms transgender people could use. Because of that law, the NCAA and other sports organizations pulled events from the state. That included seven NCAA championship events, among them two rounds of men's March Madness basketball games.

In state debates over transgender rights, that makes North Carolina a recurring example of the NCAA's economic power. In 2017, when Texas proposed its own "bathroom bill," a study for San Antonio found that the city could have lost $234 million, were the NCAA to pull men's Final Four games. That study made news even without the NCAA even commenting on the bill.

Thomas Lee knows this well — he worked in bringing sports events to Charlotte, N.C., when its so-called "bathroom bill" passed, and now he holds a similar role in South Dakota, as executive director of the Sioux Falls Sports Authority.

"That really hit the hardest in Charlotte, and who it's going to hit here is the hospitality community — the hotels, the taxis, the restaurants — anything and everything that is associated with visitors," he said.

He's worried now because South Dakota's state legislature has passed a bill restricting transgender women athletes. Lee spoke to NPR before Noem sent the bill back to the legislature, and he listed the NCAA events that he fears the state would lose.

"Two of those are going to be D1 hockey events, which are quite large in impact," he said. "And as well as D2 wrestling and D2 women's volleyball have impact as well."

In other words, it's a variety of NCAA events — well beyond March Madness — that can affect a city's economy, especially a small city like Sioux Falls. For now, people like Lee will be watching closely to see what the South Dakota legislature does next with the bill.

The NCAA's unique role

Proponents believe the laws will keep girls and women's sports free of unfair competition. Opponents point out that overwhelmingly, the bill's backers can't show examples of transgender women's participation creating fairness issues in their own states and that these laws may further marginalize transgender youth.

The NCAA is uniquely situated in this debate in that it is an economic force and a sporting organization - one that already has a policy on transgender athletes. That 2011 policy does allow transgender athletes to participate on their gender's teams.

"The NCAA kind of is one of the places that a lot of sporting organizations look to as far as policies, and that they have backed that up by saying, you know, 'You're opposing our NCAA policies, so we're pulling our tournaments out,' has actually played a role," said Amy Bedient, a board member at transgender advocacy organization the Transformation Project.

Idaho passed the country's first transgender sports ban last year. The NCAA came out against that bill, calling it "harmful to transgender student athletes."

As a result of the law, pro-LGBTQ groups asked the NCAA to move 2021 men's March Madness games from Boise. After a judge blocked the law, the NCAA Board of Governors said it was "premature to act," and said it would "continue to monitor the potential impact of this law," as Outsports reported.

But then, the question of moving those basketball games from the state was ultimately moot after the pandemic caused all games to be moved to Indiana. That leaves many wondering if and how the NCAA might take action in other states now.

More than 500 student athletes have signed onto a letter asking the NCAA not to host events in states with these laws.

Meanwhile, Republican Montana state Rep. John Fuller, who sponsored one transgender sports bill, says he's not worried.

"[Is] a sovereign state of Montana going to kowtow to what I consider the empty threats of a semi-professional athletic association? No," he said. "And with 20 other states passing similar legislation, I don't think the NCAA is going to weigh in."

In a statement to NPR, the NCAA said it, quote, "continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student athlete participation."

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