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A just and wise decision

The NAIA’s transgender vote is a big win for female athletes


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A just and wise decision
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When most people think of intercollegiate athletics, they think of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which includes approximately 1,100 schools across three divisions. However, there are hundreds of other schools that do not compete in the NCAA. This includes the 250 colleges and universities that are part of the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

The NAIA tends to fly under the radar. Nearly all the member institutions have small enrollments and minimal name recognition outside their respective regions. Over 75 percent of the schools are private. Around 60 percent are faith-based, including many evangelical institutions. But this small athletic association has made national headlines for bringing some moral sanity to one of the most hotly disputed issues in college sports: transgender athletes.

On April 8, the NAIA Council of Presidents voted unanimously at their annual conference to ban transgender athletes from women’s sports. In order to participate in women’s intercollegiate competition, student athletes must be both biologically female from birth and have not begun hormone therapy. This marks a change from current NAIA practice, which allows for transgender students to compete. The new policy will go into effect for the 2024-2025 academic year.

The message from the NAIA is clear: If you are going to take the field in women’s sports, you have to be a woman. Unfortunately, the NCAA lacks this sort of clarity when it comes to transgender student athletes. The larger association insists that prohibiting men from competing in women’s athletics violates Title IX, the 1972 law banning discrimination on the basis of sex. Notably, the NCAA responded to the NAIA decision with a statement defending its progressive policy: “College sports are the premier stage for women's sports in America and the NCAA will continue to promote Title IX, make unprecedented investments in women’s sports and ensure fair competition for all student-athletes in all NCAA championships.”

Both Biblical revelation and basic biology remind us that men and women are different by design and one’s sex cannot be changed.

It’s unclear at present why the NAIA has now staked out a countercultural decision about transgender student athletes. Journalists have noted that 17 of the 20 members of the NAIA Council of Presidents serve at faith-based institutions. Some further suggest the NAIA decision is driven by Christian bigotry toward LGBTQ individuals. While worldview considerations on the part of some presidents might have played a role in the NAIA’s policy change, it’s noteworthy that the NAIA will still allow both men and women to participate in men’s sports, appealing to Title IX for the rationale. This doesn’t seem like a decision driven primarily by religious motivations.

A better explanation for the new NAIA policy is concerns about potential litigation. The NCAA’s interpretation of Title IX to allow for transgender student athletes has been controversial from the moment of its adoption in 2022. The most notorious incident to date involves swimmer Lia Thomas, a biological male who began identifying as a female. Thomas was allowed to compete on the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s swim team and subsequently won the NCAA Division I title in the women’s 500-yard freestyle in 2022. In recent weeks, 16 female student athletes have filed a lawsuit against the NCAA claiming the association “serially violated Title IX in 2022 by purposefully adopting and amending policies.”

It’s almost certainly no accident that the new NAIA position essentially sides with the plaintiffs. Notably, the NAIA decision also comes on the heels of laws passed in 24 states so far that prohibit transgender individuals from competing in certain women’s or girl’s athletic competitions. Everyday Americans, including many who do not embrace traditional Christian beliefs about gender and sexuality, are awakening to the reality that there is something unjust—and often something dangerous—about men competing in women’s sports. Both Biblical revelation and basic biology remind us that men and women are different by design and one’s sex cannot be changed.

The NCAA is the biggest game in town and its defenders remain legion. Just this past weekend Dawn Staley, the highly respected head coach of the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team, defended transgender athletes competing in her sport the day before the Gamecocks capped off their undefeated season by winning the National Championship. But when it comes to transgender student-athletes, the smaller athletic association has the moral high ground. The NAIA’s decision to prevent biological males from competing in women’s sports is reasonable, wise, and just. The NCAA should follow the lead of the NAIA in adopting the commonsense policy that women’s sports should be limited to female student athletes.


Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn is professor of faith and culture and directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He is a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is senior editor for Integration: A Journal of Faith and Learning. He also serves as teaching pastor at the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C.


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