‘No one has a better answer:’ PIAA relying on principals to identify transgender athletes

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Saturday, July 29, 2023 | 2:11 PM


High school principals in Pennsylvania are asked to identify transgender athletes as male or female under PIAA rules, while other states empower a health care provider or use a student’s birth certificate to make that decision.

There is no national consensus when it comes to determining a high school athlete’s gender, said PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi, whose staff recently surveyed the policies used by other state athletic associations. The current PIAA policy is facing scrutiny after its state track and field championships included a transgender girl on the medals stand for the first time.

The PIAA Girls Athletics Steering Committee took up the issue at its recent summer meeting but didn’t recommend any changes.

“There was discussion (by the committee) about what is the best practice,” Lombardi said. “And by looking at the survey, no one has a better answer.”

The PIAA found that a dozen state athletic associations rely on the judgment of school administrators to assign gender, while 20 other associations make the determination themselves through various methods that rely on medical records and input from doctors.

Twelve states use the gender listed on a student’s birth certificate. Two states simply accept a student’s self-expressed gender, while five associations had not formulated a transgender policy, Lombardi said.

The PIAA surveyed athletic associations for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The gender policy for the PIAA consists of one sentence in the bylaws: “Where a student’s gender is questioned or uncertain, the decision of the principal as to the student’s gender will be accepted by PIAA.”

That policy was discussed when the PIAA Committee on Gender & Minority Equity met online June 21. A day later, the PIAA Girls Athletics Steering Committee took up the issue, also without making any recommendation to change the policy.

Lombardi viewed the inaction as a measure of support for the current PIAA approach.

“I think they felt that if the principal sits down with parents and the student to review medical, mental and all of those types of records and makes a decision, that decision is based on the most up-to-date information,” Lombardi said. “And that that decision should carry the day.”

Still, not everyone agrees.

Lombardi said some members of the girls sports committee were worried that athletic opportunities for girls will be impacted by transgender athletes. In track and field, for example, only a limited number of athletes can qualify for the championship meets.

“There is concern that there may be a restriction of girl participants,” Lombardi said. “But on the flip side, the argument comes that we want to be inclusive as well. They’re sort of in a conundrum because they want to be open to all participants, but yet not be restrictive to any one participant.

“You see the circle?”

‘Definite unfairness to this’

Count Shenango throwers coach Matt Callahan among those disappointed the PIAA hasn’t taken action.

He noted that two of his Shenango girls were negatively impacted by the current policy while competing this spring in an event that included a transgender athlete. One girl missed qualifying for the state championships by one spot, and another finished ninth at states, one place short of earning a medal.

Callahan said the current PIAA policy isn’t fair to them.

“If you had asked me about the PIAA’s perspective on sports, I would have said it’s a program designed for fairness,” he said. “They’ve always been about trying to level the playing field. … To me, there is a definite unfairness to this because the genetics of a male are different than the genetics of a female. For them to not recognize that and not do something about it gives me some concern.”

Callahan, who’s a physical therapist, said the PIAA should join the states who’ve taken a physiological approach with the use of independent doctors and medical standards, if transgender athletes are permitted to compete.

“I’d like to see something different, and I think it starts with getting a qualified person to define whether you’re male or female,” he said. “Listen, I love principals … but they are not the people who should decide ‘Is this a boy or girl’ based on whether someone says they are or they aren’t.”

State-by-state response

The inclusion of transgender athletes, particularly in girls sports, has become a controversial debate for both high school and college athletics. It has also become a political issue, with some state legislatures passing outright bans, while the Biden Administration has proposed Title IX changes that could counteract those restrictions.

The governing body for high school sports, the National Federation of State High School Associations, hasn’t endorsed or mandated any transgender policies for its membership.

That’s led to a state-by-state response.

Among Pennsylvania’s neighbors, the Ohio High School Athletic Association has taken a science-driven approach and adopted a five-page policy that delves into the physiological aspects of transgender athletes.

To play girls sports in Ohio, the OHSAA requires transgender females to “have completed a minimum of one year of hormone treatment related to gender transition” or “demonstrate to the executive director’s office by way of sound medical evidence that she does not possess physical (bone structure, muscle mass, testosterone, hormonal, etc.) or physiological advantages over genetic females of the same age group.”

Likewise, a transgender male who has begun medically prescribed testosterone treatments must demonstrate “that the muscle mass developed as a result of this testosterone treatment does not exceed the muscle mass that is typical of an adolescent genetic boy,” and hormone levels must be monitored by a physician every six months.

Lombardi said asking the PIAA to take on the responsibility of determining gender would be “tremendously” difficult. He questioned whether a state athletic association could have the expertise needed to analyze medical standards and current treatment practices.

“It’s really pretty intricate,” he said.

Guidelines published by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association say transgender students must be able to compete in accordance with their gender identity, but put the responsibility on local schools to establish a review process.

“On a case-by-case basis, the local school system should establish an Appeal Review Committee should questions arise about whether a student’s request to participate in a sports activity consistent with his/her gender identity is bona fide,” according to the MPSSAA policy.

One individual on the committee must be a “physician, psychologist or licensed mental health professional familiar with gender disorders and standard of care.”

The state associations that use birth certificates to determine gender largely are following state legislation, Lombardi said. West Virginia passed a state law that banned transgender athletes from girls sports, but that legislation is tied up in court and hasn’t been enforced.

Competitive fairness vs. student well-being

WPIAL executive director Scott Seltzer said he sees at least two sides to the issue. There is the competitive fairness that the PIAA and WPIAL were created to uphold, but also the well-being of transgender students.

“It’s a complicated issue because you have to include (the student’s) mental health,” Seltzer said. “We have children who get up every day, and they don’t like what they’re looking at in the mirror. … The old adage is that they couldn’t compete as a boy, so now they’re going to compete as a girl and be successful. I don’t think any transgender student is thinking that way.

“I feel for students who aren’t happy with who they are, and they need a support system that supports who they are so they don’t hurt themselves.”

How that translates into a PIAA policy, Seltzer said he doesn’t know. But as a former high school principal and assistant superintendent, he said school administrators don’t take lightly the request of students to be recognized as transgendered.

“There is documentation that is needed,” he said. “A kid can’t just come in your office and say, ‘Hey, by the way, I’m changing my gender.’ There is a process.”

Any change to the PIAA policy can start at the committee level but ultimately would need approval from the board of directors. The board is monitoring the issue, Lombardi said, but wasn’t sure there was need for urgency.

“We’ve really had just the one (transgender state qualifier) here,” he said. “We don’t keep statistics on transgender kids. We don’t ask. We don’t know how many there are out there.”

The two relevant PIAA committees took no action last month to rewrite the policy, but the groups’ discussion about transgender athletes likely isn’t over. Lombardi said they might not have reached their “final answer.”

“It’s a difficult thing because people on the committee feel very strongly about girls athletics and the promotion of them,” he said. “All of us feel that way, especially in support of Title IX. But by the same token, a lot of people feel that athletics should be open to everyone. That’s where the rubber hits the road.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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