Why Right-Wing Groups Are Celebrating a Recent NCAA Announcement

Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America speaks against the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate at a rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington during oral arguments for Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby. March 25, 2014 (American Life League/Flickr)

The NCAA announced ​on Sunday that it would hold a softball championship in Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee—three states that had recently passed anti-trans legislation—prompting religious-right groups to declare a victory in the contrived fight to “protect women’s sports” from trans individuals. Understanding why these religious-right groups suddenly care about college softball requires a look into their recent work in manufacturing a problem that doesn’t ​otherwise exist.

More than 30 statehouses across the country have taken up legislation that would bar trans students from competing on sports teams corresponding to their gender identity—much of it drafted by the religious-right legal giant Alliance Defending Freedom and sponsored by right-wing groups like Concerned Women for America and Family Research Council. The legislation argues that women’s sports are under attack from “biological males” ​(their term for trans women) who join women’s teams and take opportunities away from girls and women. It also hints at the same thing the ​anti-trans bathroom bills did—that scary men will enter women’s spaces and harm girls and women.

In April, as a record number of states began considering such legislation, the NCAA Board of Governors had declared its support of trans student athletes and suggested it would prohibit championship games from being held in states that barred trans athletes’ participation. The NCAA has had policies on trans athletes in place for more than a decade, encouraging their participation but requiring trans women to undergo a year of hormone therapy to lower testosterone levels before participating on women’s teams—​which the NCAA argues is in keeping with current medical evidence.

The threat of the NCAA pulling its business out of ​South Dakota because of an anti-trans legislative proposal was enough for Republican Gov. Kristi Noem to reconsider the anti-trans bill that had landed on her desk. But that threat seems to have been neutralized by the governing collegiate athletic body’s announcement Sunday—to the delight of right-wing organizations peddling anti-trans disinformation. 

“It looks like the NCAA is nothing but a paper tiger after all,” Tony Perkins of the Family Research Center declared in an op-ed Tuesday. He insisted that such anti-trans legislation would “protect women’s sports,” advancing the same disingenuous claim often made by Christian right groups ​whose members don’t ​regard trans women as real women​, purposefully ignoring current scientific research.

Concerned Women for America, an anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ group portraying itself as a women’s rights group, painted the NCAA’s decision as “a win for Americans finally standing up to woke corporations and a win for female athletes”—​and one for which they were eager to take credit. “Amid mounting pressure from conservative groups, including CWA, the NCAA has caved and will allow tournaments to be held in states with laws protecting women in sports,” the group said in a statement

“Perhaps the NCAA is finally getting the message that discrimination against female athletes is NOT fairness. Maybe the NCAA has finally read the scientific research that proves male athletes cannot become female athletes. It could be the NCAA is finally recognizing that their policy allowing transgender males to compete in women’s sports is an affront to women’s equality and rights,” said ​CWA President Penny Nance.

Both Perkins and Nance painted the decision by the NCAA as an example of the consequences of allowing “wokeness” to run amok and suggested their groups’ commitment against trans rights was part of the larger battle against so-called “cancel culture.” 

“It’s about time that the NCAA back off its woke agenda and stand up for female athletes,” Nance said.

Perkins argued that “sports leagues and corporations ought to realize they’re playing with fire every time they wade into a culture war,” claiming, “They’re almost certain to get burned.” He also insisted that “state legislators and governors should learn the best way to survive an onslaught of woke corporate hysteria is to stand their ground.”

Both CWA and FRC have a long history of supporting blatant anti-LGBTQ policies and rhetoric. In addition to campaigning against gender-affirming health care for trans youth and the Equality Act, ​(designed to afford equal rights to LGBTQ people), both groups have objected to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on the grounds that it includes protections for trans women as well as cis women. 

Both organizations are members of Promise to America’s Children, a coalition of religious-right and right-wing groups formed in opposition to the Equality Act this past February. Alliance Defending Freedom—which helped draft the anti-trans legislation in state houses across the country as well as the Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks—is a leading member.

Civil rights and LGBTQ organizations see the right’s anti-trans attacks on trans women athletes being used as a wedge issue—and as a way to stir up the GOP base. FRC and CWA’s recent celebration suggests it’s a strategy the right will continue to pursue.