Opinion writer and professor Cheryl Cooky said over the weekend that the country ought to celebrate University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas instead of criticizing the transgender swimmer — even going as far as to compare the athlete to baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
Last week, Thomas became the first openly transgender athlete to win a Division I championship in any sport despite ongoing controversy surrounding eligibility to compete as a transgender woman in typically biological women’s sports.
What are the details?
In an editorial published on NBC News, Cooky — a professor of American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Purdue University — wrote, “For anyone who cares about the advancement of sports, and women’s sports in particular, her win should be celebrated.”
Further, Cooky added, Thomas should be “embraced in the history of progress that sports represent and recognized as the trailblazer that she is.”
“Women’s sports are situated at a paradoxical intersection wherein sex segregation is upheld through claims of biological difference, yet equality is prefaced on being treated the same and given the same opportunities as men,” she reasoned. “If we are to change this, we need to ask some important questions.”
Those questions, according to the professor, include “How does one advocate for equitable treatment while also adhering to the notion of biological difference?” and “If separate is not equal in the case of schools, bathrooms, restaurants or other social institutions, can separate ever truly be equal in the case of sports?”
Cooky added she believes the playing field between transgender women and biological women is level enough, as regulations require biological men to undergo hormone-suppressing treatment for what she says is a reasonable amount of time leading up to being able to participate in their women’s sport of choice.
“Athletic performance is influenced by a number of factors, including hormones, but also other things like coaching and training, psychological makeup of an athlete, access to resources and equipment, among others,” she reasoned. “Attempts to ban or limit the participation of trans athletes are not based on science. Instead, they are rooted in societal and cultural definitions of what constitutes gender or what defines a woman.”
Such attitudes, she added, only lead to discrimination against transgender women.
Cooky then concluded the editorial by going on to compare Thomas’ inclusion to Robinson’s.
“Major professional sports leagues like MLB and the NFL resisted racially integrating their player rosters,” she wrote. “It was not until 1962 that the last NFL team, the Washington Commanders, would racially integrate. Moreover, athletes of color played in the NFL in the early years of the league, only to be excluded as the league developed. Today, athletes like Jackie Robinson are celebrated as ‘breaking the color barrier’ in sports, although that narrative often requires sanitizing, simplifying or rewriting a more complex, nuanced and contradictory history.”
She added, “There remains though a cultural investment in celebrating sports’ ‘firsts,’ whether that be Robinson as the first Black MLB player, the first openly gay active player in the NBA, the first nonbinary U.S. athlete to participate in the Winter Olympics or the first woman to score in a Power Five college football game. Many of the athletes who become the ‘first’ encounter resistance, backlash and opposition, especially from those who have historically benefited from the status quo in sports.”
The professor concluded by pointing out that Thomas, as such, should be elevated to Robinson’s status and celebrated for “the trailblazer that she is.”
“Thomas, as the first transgender athlete to win a Division I NCAA championship, deserves to be placed among the other firsts,” Cook insisted. “She should be embraced in the history of progress that sports represent and recognized as the trailblazer that she is.”