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Noem looks for squishy compromise on women’s sports

The South Dakota governor flip-flops on a law to limit transgender competition

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem discusses an initiative to protect women’s sports in Sioux Falls. Associated Press/Argus Leader (file)

Noem looks for squishy compromise on women’s sports

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is attempting to repair damage to her conservative reputation after she changed her mind about signing a bill to protect girls and women’s sports.

Early in March, Noem tweeted her excitement to approve House Bill 1217, which protects girls and women in kindergarten through college from having to compete against boys and men in school sports. But 12 days later, Noem balked and sent the bill back to the state House for major changes, virtually gutting it. After conservatives across the country expressed outrage, she offered a different solution that has garnered only limited support.

Supporters of the bill want to protect women from having to settle as runners-up in their own competitions and from the safety risks of playing with male athletes, whose physical advantages typically persist even after they have undergone cross-sex therapies. The governor’s proposed changes left in place some protection for K-12 female athletes, but she nixed the provision allowing them or college athletes to seek any legal recourse for violations of the bill.

Noem defended her position on Twitter and in a letter to the legislature, saying, “Competing on the national stage means compliance with the national governing bodies that oversee collegiate athletics.” In other words, she fears the bill would run afoul of NCAA regulations and get South Dakota colleges kicked out of national competitions.

The NCAA allows transgender athletes on women’s teams, but it does not require their inclusion, Margot Cleveland with The Federalist pointed out. Given the number of religious schools affiliated with the NCAA, she said, the governing body would have difficulty enforcing such a requirement. The NCAA has not banned any school from competing in events for disallowing transgender players on teams of the opposite sex.

“Noem claimed to be taking action to protect girls’ sports, but in reality, her announced initiative was a meaningless gesture calculated to deflect criticism of her surrender to NCAA threats,” wrote Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project.

After the state legislature rejected Noem’s revisions to the bill on Monday, she issued two executive orders to get policy changes on the books in the state. The first one says girls who want to play sports in K-12 public schools or state-sponsored associations must provide a birth certificate or affidavit showing they were born female. The second one recommends that universities set policies mandating athletes participate in sports according to their biological sex.

Republican South Dakota lawmakers and conservative and religious groups, including Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Principles Project, and the Family Research Council, said the executive orders sent a weak message.

“They’re essentially toothless,” said Jon Schweppe, the director of government affairs for the American Principles Project. “There’s no enforcement mechanism to ensure that the law is followed.” He also raised concerns about using birth certificates to prove an athlete’s sex because people can amend those records in the state of South Dakota.

Noem has also announced plans to launch a nationwide coalition to push to preserve the protection for female athletes in the federal law known as Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in education. She said such an effort would yield stronger results than individual state laws. Supporters of her Defend Title IX Now campaign include former NFL players Herschel Walker and Jack Brewer and former LPGA champion Nancy Lopez. Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma and Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi have also signed on, Noem said. She insisted she was committed to keeping only biological women playing on female teams, mentioning her two daughters played college sports.

Schilling and others have accused Noem of caving to corporate pressure, as well. Amazon, a vocal proponent of the transgender movement, plans to build its first corporate fulfillment center in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 2022 and has invested more than $1 million in the state already. South Dakota’s Chamber of Commerce and other businesses pressured Noem not to sign the bill, fearing economic backlash.

The religious liberty organization Alliance Defending Freedom, which is defending female athletes in several lawsuits related to transgender sports participation, said Title IX laws already protect college female athletes, not only K-12 students, as Noem alleged. ADF called Noem’s proposal a hollow substitute for an already-existing coalition. Governors in Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, and Tennessee have signed “fairness for female athletes” bills. Thirty states are pursuing similar measures. Attorney generals from 14 states, and a consortium of legislators, governors, athletes, and others, including the feminist Women’s Liberation Front, are speaking up for girls and women’s sports in courts and legislatures.

Save Women’s Sports founder Beth Stelzer has lobbied across the country, including in South Dakota, for laws protecting female athletes. She expressed disappointment in the governor’s about-face and her new initiative. “Just look at the website” of Noem’s initiative, Stelzer said. “It’s only to collect names, no substance. That there were no consults with the groups already doing the grassroots work … shows her true intentions. In this hand-across-the-aisle moment, why is she creating more divisions?”

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and holds two master’s degrees. She has served as university teacher, businesswoman, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, and Division 1 athlete. Sharon resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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