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Balancing inclusion and compliance in collegiate sports

DEI in collegiate athletics

A campus community that exemplifies diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) principles is representative of society and its range of social and ethnic backgrounds as well as different gender identities and sexual orientation. Colleges and universities across the nation recognize the importance of DEI and many have included these principles as part of their strategic plans and priorities. However, for its DEI initiatives to be effective, an institution must embed DEI as part of its culture, which is often a difficult challenge for leadership.

Collegiate athletics, in varying degrees, may influence an institution’s culture and the way it is perceived both internally and externally. Athletics is one of the most, if not the most, visible areas on campus. Like the rest of campus, athletic departments stand to benefit from the unique perspectives and solutions that a wholly representative group brings. Athletic programs, like their college campuses, are often comprised of many different cultures, backgrounds and experiences. It is important that the spaces where students spend the most time are just as inclusive as the broader campus environment.

Participating in athletics at an individual level promotes self-esteem and a sense of community. When an athlete resides within an environment that supports athletics coupled with an inclusive culture, the student, and the broader campus community benefit exponentially. For example, locker room dynamics and the ability of a team and its coaches to come together because of and despite their differences is critical to the success of an athletic program. In other words, a team’s ability to foster inclusion and a profound sense of community within its own program is equally as important as having talented athletes on the roster. In many ways, athletics, when it intentionally creates an environment where athletes, coaches and administrators feel seen and valued, can set an example for an institution and its faculty, students and staff.

More than a decade ago, the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) adopted a formal statement affirming its commitment to diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student athletes, coaches and administrators. This statement has since been amended to expand to other dimensions of diversity, such as gender identity and expression.

Transgender inclusion in the NCAA

Inclusion efforts, in virtually any space, are not without risk and consequences. For example, what happens when the goals of inclusion and fairness in athletic competition appear to conflict? This was the case when a transgender swimmer for a prominent university’s women’s swim team became the face of a heated debate on transgender women participating in women’s sports during the 2021-2022 competition season.

At its convention in January 2022, the NCAA dropped its previous uniform policy on trans-athlete participation and adopted a “sport-by-sport” approach. The new policy aligns with the  International Olympic Committee's (IOC) policy,  which states transgender participation is determined by the national governing body (NGB) of each sport or its international federation.

The NCAA’s new policy posed a challenge for at least one sport in particular, swimming, a sport that was already receiving national attention for transgender participation at the collegiate level. The NCAA’s adoption of the “sport-by-sport” approach for determining participation meant that rules set forth by USA Swimming, the NGB for the sport, would be followed. While it did not have a formal policy at the time of the NCAA’s announcement, on Feb. 1, 2022, USA Swimming released its Athlete Inclusion, Competitive Equity and Eligibility Policy.

To support inclusion within the sport, USA Swimming now permits athletes to compete in a category that aligns with their gender identity and expression. To swim in a category different than the biological gender assigned to an athlete at birth, the athlete must confirm transition to a different category is bona fide and consistent with the athlete’s gender identity through USA Swimming’s “Self-Identity Verification” process.

To compete at an “elite” event, transgender women must also submit an Elite Athlete/Event Fairness Application that is reviewed by a decision-making panel to determine whether the following criteria has been met:

  • Prior physical development of the athlete as a male does not give the athlete a competitive advantage over the athlete’s cisgender female competitors
  • Concentration of testosterone in the athlete’s serum measures less than five nanomoles per liter (half of the NCAA’s previous threshold) continuously for a period of at least thirty-six (36) months (a full year longer than any previous policy by any sport, including swimming)

More than a week after USA Swimming released its new policy and guidelines, the NCAA announced it would honor its previous policy on transgender participation at the 2022 championship meets.

Assuming that USA Swimming’s rules on trans-athlete participation took effect immediately and would apply to NCAA swim meets, what would the new rules mean for conference and national championship meets?

  • Conference championships: conference championship meets do not have qualifying times. A swimmer’s times do not need to meet a particular standard to be eligible to compete. The member institutions create the meet line-up they believe will score the greatest number of points for their team at that specific competition. Under the new policy from USA Swimming, the conference championship would be a non-elite event that would require a trans-athlete to complete the Self-Identity Verification process only
  • National championships: the national championships for all three divisions have qualifying times faster than the time standard outlined in the “Athlete Inclusion, Competitive Equity and Eligibility Policy” and would be considered an “elite” meet. To compete in this meet, the swimmers must have achieved a specific time in their event(s). A transwoman swimmer otherwise eligible to compete in the meet would also have to satisfy the Elite Athlete/Event Fairness Evaluation requirements in addition to the Self-Identity Verification process

Next steps for institutions and athletics

This season’s swimming headlines represent just one example of many in which there is both intense discourse and productive discussion regarding inclusion in athletics.

While managing inclusion efforts that impact a wide array of stakeholders, institutions and their athletic programs need to be aware of and monitor changes to the participation rules established by each sport’s governing body and determine how they will develop processes to support compliance with not only those policies but also rules set forth by athletic associations and local, state and federal governments where they apply.

More broadly, an institution can promote and support inclusion efforts by:

  • Understanding how students from different communities face different challenges due to differing identities and overlapping aspects of identity
  • Soliciting feedback and involving students in DEI discussions and asking for input from communities most affected by a policy or process
  • Establishing DEI as a priority and operating from a multidimensional, intersectional and systemic framework rather than a one-size-fits-all approach
  • Partnering with its LGBTQ+ Center if the institution has one
  • Ensuring the Athletics Diversity and Inclusion Designee (ADID) and coaches have access to an individual with subject matter expertise (e.g., on the nuanced dynamics of LGBTQ+ students and community)

Baker Tilly can help

We will help your institution take proactive approaches to evaluate the current state of your policies, processes and internal controls related to athletics and the student athlete experience to identify opportunities that align with legislative changes and leading practices and contribute to student success.

How Baker Tilly helps collegiate athletics with inclusion and compliance

For more information, or to learn more about how Baker Tilly can help your institution, contact our team.

“Elite” events are determined by time standards set forth in USA Swimming’s Athlete Inclusion, Competitive Equity and Eligibility Policy.

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