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Title IX complaint filed against NCAA over Lia Thomas' participation, win in women's swimming

"Predictably, Thomas has set records and crushed women's aspirations as a male-bodied athlete competing in women's sports."

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Hannah Nightingale Washington DC
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On Thursday, Concerned Women for America filed a formal complaint with the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights against the University of Pennsylvania for allowing a biological male who identifies as a woman and goes by the name Lia Thomas to compete on the women’s swim team.

In a letter to Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon, the group stated that the complaint was filed against the school "for its egregious violations of the protections for women on the basis of sex secured a half-century ago in the landmark passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972."

"Thomas is anatomically/biologically a male who should not be eligible to compete in women's sports, depriving anatomically/biologically female athletes of the opportunities afforded to them by law," the group wrote, noting that Thomas has displaced teammates in events and shattered records.

"Predictably, Thomas has set records and crushed women's aspirations as a male-bodied athlete competing in women's sports. Thomas' time in the 500-yard freestyle event at the [Ivy League Championship] was 7.5 seconds faster than the second-place finisher, Thomas' teammate Catherine Buroker. It is undeniable that Buroker was deprived of the first place finish she earned in the women's category," the letter states.

The group said that the school and the Ivy League "doubled down" on supporting a biological male winning these women’s events by awarding Thomas First Team All-Ivy honors in three events, and was selected as the athlete to represent UPenn on the 2021-22 Ivy League Women's Swimming and Diving Academic All-Ivy team.

"All significant career-enhancing opportunities that female student-athletes were deprived of because of sex— because of their unique biological design as females," they noted.

The group said that as recently as 2020, Thomas had competed on the men’s team. It was there that Thomas was ranked 462.

"By allowing a male to take a spot and compete on the women's swim team, depriving aspiring young women athletes of a fair and level playing field in competition, UPenn commits a grave injustice and violates the most fundamental principles of equity in Title IX's historic efforts to promote equal opportunity in sports in educational institutions," the letter states.

The group continued on to state that given these biological differences, "It cannot be overlooked that UPenn's policy has a disparate impact on women."

"To allow such a discriminatory policy to continue is to say that an educational institution could have an all-biological male swimming or even wrestling or boxing team, both in the men's and women's categories of competition, while remaining in full compliance with federal law, potentially eliminating all opportunities for female athletes in a program. Any interpretation of federal law facilitating such a result is anathema to Title IX," the letter states.

The group said that educational institutions have a responsibility under federal law to protect students’ rights to learn in an environment free from "unlawful discrimination," and to prevent "unjust deprivations of that right."

"This includes students who experience gender dysphoria, but it also includes female students, who make up over 50% of post-secondary students," they noted.

Thomas has a place to compete, they said, and that place is on the men’s team given Thomas’ biological advantages given growing up as a male.

"There would be no injustice if Thomas retained a roster spot on the men's team. But to allow a male-bodied athlete to displace female student-athletes in the women's category based on inevitable biological advantages is a gross violation of Title IX," the letter states.

The letter continued on to note that competitors and Thomas' own teammates have spoken out, and that "the situation has devolved into a hostile environment for female athletes at UPenn at the hands of the UPenn swim coach and University administration."

"Female athletes are being forced to forfeit their rightful privacy and dignity in sex-specific locker rooms in direct violation of Title IX. Worse yet, they do not feel free to speak up in disagreement with the policy without creating adverse effects on their dreams of an athletic college career," the letter states, noting that this has led to most speaking anonymously.

"What has happened at the University of Pennsylvania, Ivy League, and the NCAA is a complete failure of compliance obligation under Title IX," the letter states.

The group notes that schools receiving federal funds are required by law to comply with laws on sex discrimination, "not flout it."

They said that UPenn’s policies have created "the very definition of a hostile work environment" for the female swimmers there.

Concerned Women for America urged the OCR to "act urgently" against the university, and generally, "as an ongoing matter of enforcement before this abject denial of biological impact and flagrant sex discrimination against female student-athletes affects more and more female students across the country."

In a press release issued on Thursday, Penny Nance, CEO and President of Concerned Women for America said, "The future of women’s sports is at risk and the equal rights of female athletes are being infringed. We filed a formal civil rights complaint against UPenn in response to this injustice."

"Any school that defies federal civil rights law by denying women equal opportunities in athletic programs, forcing women to compete against athletes who are biologically male must be held accountable."

The complaint comes as Thomas is scheduled to compete at the NCAA championships. On Thursday evening, Thomas placed first in the 500-meter freestyle, but when it came time to stand on the podium, the crowd notably cheered louder for the second-place finisher, Emma Weyant.

On Friday, Thomas returned to the pool for the 200-yard freestyle prelims, where she placed second behind two-time Olympic bronze medalist Taylor Ruck with a time of 1:42.09. Thomas also is scheduled to compete in the 100 on Saturday.

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