Transitioning NCAA’s Transgender Rules Long-Distance Runner Joey Grafton Sets the Pace

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NCAA changes the 12-year-old Transgender Student-Athlete Participation Policy for the worse

   Two years ago, transgender woman swimmer Lia Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania took home a national championship in the women’s 500-meter freestyle—and, in the process, ignited an ongoing debate over transgender athletes’ place in NCAA sports. With widespread reluctance to challenge the established gender norms in athletics—that is, the idea that there are only two gender lanes, and that women and men should stay in their one—transgender athletes face significant obstacles on a daily basis, all with not being accepted in either lane. And that certainly was what Thomas faced—and transgender athletes continue to face, as just this year, over a dozen female student-athletes are suing the NCAA, alleging that the NCAA intentionally contravened Title IX in 2022 by deliberately adopting and modifying policies, which, in their opinion, gave athletes like Thompson an athletic advantage.

   Much of the tension plays out between the old and new rules, as the previous NCAA 2010 Transgender Student-Athlete Participation Policy was more inclusive and overarching rather than the new policy, which particularly targets transwomen—and which were made as a reaction to Thomas’s success in 2022. The original 12-year-old policy permitted women to compete in women’s sports under NCAA control as long as they underwent a year of androgen suppression. Thomas began her transition in 2019 and exceeded the year of hormone treatment required by the NCAA. Since she won an event there was backlash against the NCAA, urging them to change the policies that Thomas had complied with.

   In 2022, the NCAA pawned the responsibility onto the individual sports governing bodies to make the eligibility criteria for transgender women to compete in their respective sports. Leadership at the NCAA explained that the new rules were made to better align with Olympic policies. 

   Joey Grafton, a long-distance runner on the Men’s Pacific’s cross country and track team for the past five years, shared a personal story of navigating sports as a male trans-athlete. Grafton started to realize he was gay and trans in middle school; he shared his identity with his friends and played a bunch of sports growing up, like soccer, track, and swimming. Swimming started to come to an end for Grafton because the nearly unavoidable gendered uniforms became uncomfortable for him. Then, in his freshman year of high school, he tried out for the volleyball team and did not make it. With the thought of what to do now and eager to play on a sports team, he ran into a friend who convinced him to go out for the cross-country team, and he ran on the women’s team for all four years of high school.

   In highschool, Grafton was a part of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) and advocated for gender-neutral bathrooms, prom courts instead of queen and king, inclusive practices, educational terms, legal gay and transgender policies, and documents for high school students who wanted to transition to change their names on their portal. He wrote this to protect students and their legal rights. As an undergrad he worked at Pacific for the Center of Gender Equity (CGE) with priorities involving advocacy, legislative change, and community building. 

   “Halfway through my freshman year of high school was when I started to come out to teachers, and being like, ‘I need to make this choice for myself,’” explained Grafton. “I said I was going to be on the girl’s team, but I would like to be called he/him and Joey. But all my friends are on the girl’s team, and I had really no interest in switching teams, so that was a choice I made throughout high school and looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. I made the right choice.”

   Grafton experienced nervousness about not finding the right fit when it came time to start looking at colleges and joining the recruiting pool. He envisioned himself undergoing a medical transition throughout college and eventually competing on the men’s team. Walking up to practice on his tour at Pacific, he witnessed the men and women teams warming up and running the workout together. Gender was not a criterion for team division; rather, time was.

   “So when I came to Pacific,” he said, “I realized our team was fully integrated, I was thinking if I ever want to make the choice to medically transition, then I have that opportunity and won’t be given a new coach or new teammates.” 

   Gender segregation in athletic events has long been the norm. Assumptions about potential advantages for trans women compared to cis women have sparked debates about the “fairness” of sports for trans athletes. On the other hand, it’s no secret that different people have always had different biological advantages and disadvantages when it comes to athletics.   

   “I think there is a future where it doesn’t make sense to split between men and women, the way that we currently do,” said Grafton. “I think by integrating sports, honestly, we could create a culture where women become a lot faster. I think right now that a lot of coaches are not willing to push women in a way they’re willing to push men because of social perceptions of women.”

   Grafton began his medical transition and testosterone treatment once COVID-19 occurred. He sought guidance from Lauren Brownrigg, Senior Associate Athletic Director, to continue participating on the sports team that now reflected his identity. His decision to transition and keep competing made him the first athlete from the Pacific to do so.

   “I needed to make a choice for my everyday life. In college, you’re meeting all these new people and I was having to explain I am trans to everybody,” explained Grafton. “It was really annoying and frustrating and a lot of anxiety. I thought about being transgender 25 plus times a day.”

   Unfortunately for many trans athletes, when they transition, it is the end of their sports career for many years. Grafton competed on the women’s team his freshman year and a couple of indoor track meets his sophomore year until students were sent home due to COVID-19.

   “I was like, well, there’s actually no better time for me to transition medically,” explained Grafton. “There was going to be no cross country season, so I had all this time for my body to adjust without having competition.”

   Grafton and his head coach Bailee Krings decided to take it day-by-day with the understanding they had no real knowledge of where he would be athletically. For Grafton, on top of the stress of his training he also worried about the stacks of paperwork and doctor signatures he would be required to get to return to competition.

   The new NCAA policy is scheduled for full implementation in the 2023–24 academic year. Transgender women athletes must provide testosterone-level documentation throughout the year, including at the start of the competition, six months later, and within four weeks of NCAA championship selection. At full implementation, athletes must comply with various elements of their sport’s transgender participation policy, including the “length of time” requirement for testosterone threshold compliance before the competition and any additional policy requirements imposed by the relevant sports organization. Changes to birth certificates or other legally required medical transitions could be reinstated as a result of this. All of these new testing requirements are for transgender women, not transgender men. 

     “One of the reasons I wanted to go to a smaller school than a big school is because I wanted a school that was going to care about me and listen to me because I do have certain needs that maybe not every student has,” explained Grafton. “At a big school I might not get or have to jump through more hoops to get listened to.”

   By his sophomore year, he had joined the men’s team and is now in his last year of running at Pacific. During Grafton’s transformation, Coach Krings was there to encourage him and help him reach his fitness goals. His workout group now is a mixed-gender group and is running alongside two of the team’s fastest female runners as well as one of his male teammates. There was a shift in the conventional measures for athletic success; now, it wasn’t about having the fastest girl or boy on the team, but rather about having fun while improving everyone’s speed. 

   “I was one of the slowest girls on the team, and now I am one of the slowest boys on the team, which is just proportional,” said Grafton. “Which also told me I am getting better on the team which is my training not just testosterone.” 


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