Here's How Our Laws Can Protect Fairness in Women's Sports
In 2020, four courageous high school track athletes in Connecticut—Selina Soule, Chelsea Mitchell, Alanna Smith, and Ashley Nicoletti—filed suit in federal court to challenge a Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference policy allowing males to compete in girls’ athletic events.
As a result of this policy, all four girls had been deprived of honors and opportunities to compete at elite levels after two males were permitted to compete against them. Their public stand for fairness in women’s sports sparked a nationwide legislative movement to ensure female athletes can compete on a level playing field.
Since these girls’ legal challenge stirred national attention, 21 states have enacted a women’s sports law to protect female athletes—that’s over one-third of the country with protections for female athletes on the books. And more states are looking to pass laws this year.
Such a swift, nationwide movement for legislative change is almost unprecedented, and it demonstrates the resounding support for laws establishing fairness in women’s sports. It is encouraging that so many elected officials are taking a stand for women and girls.
But as more states consider such important legislation, we’ve seen some lawmakers eliminate or weaken certain provisions of the bills, compromising the protections being enacted for women and girls.
Not all women’s sports bills are created equal
Generally speaking, every women’s sports bill includes a clear standard for who can compete on female teams based exclusively on sex. Such standards acknowledge that biology is what matters in athletic potential, not gender identity.
A claim of female gender identity—however sincere—does not erase a male’s physical advantage over women. When we use a biologically based standard for athletic teams, we ensure that fairness and equal athletic opportunities are preserved for women and girls. This standard serves as the foundation upon which women’s sports laws are built.
But additional protections beyond this foundation are needed to make practical, meaningful difference for women and girls in that state. Merely declaring that such a standard exists is not enough.
Enacting meaningful women’s sports laws
Legislators must extend those protections to women competing in college, and they must ensure that women and girls have a legal remedy when the law is violated. Without these two elements, women’s sports laws are merely a political soundbite that fails to truly protect fair competition for women and girls.
1. Covering all female athletes—from grade school to college
Every female athlete deserves to compete on a fair and level playing field—from kindergarten to college. In response to pressure from powerful lobbyists employed by progressive state colleges, some state elected officials have not included protections for collegiate athletes in women’s sports bills.
Such proposals are illogical and fail to guarantee fair female athletic competition. Why should the 18-year-old in high school be protected but then lose that protection when she steps on the collegiate playing field?
Especially considering the NCAA’s failure to enact policies protecting female collegiate athletes, it is more important than ever that states ensure women competing at the elite collegiate level are given the opportunity to be champions in their own sports. Failing to protect women in college undermines the entire purpose of women’s sports laws.
Further, many opponents of women’s sports laws claim that these laws are not needed in grade school or middle school athletics, before boys and girls go through puberty. Such claims are false. Research shows that while boys’ physiological and performance advantages accelerate rapidly from the onset of puberty, significant male athletic performance advantages exist even before the developmental changes caused by male puberty have occurred.
The truth is that biology matters at all ages. In order to preserve fairness, women’s sports laws should apply to all female students, no matter their age.
Unfortunately, in five of the 21 states that have passed a women’s sports law, collegiate women have been excluded from these protections. It is imperative that these states update their existing laws to ensure the protections enjoyed by a high school female athlete will follow her when she competes in college.
2. Legal remedies for girls and women
Effective protections for women’s sports must include legal recourse for girls and women who have been harmed by violations of the law.
When women and girls are deprived of athletic opportunities because their school or college allowed males to compete on female teams, those female athletes must be given a legal remedy, such as a court order requiring the school to follow the law. A private cause of action empowers a girl who has been harmed to take a stand for the right of every woman to compete on a level playing field.
Case study: West Virginia’s women’s sports law
As part of the nationwide movement to ensure equal opportunities for women in athletics, West Virginia enacted a women’s sports law in 2021. Importantly, this bill included protections for collegiate athletes and a legal remedy for women harmed by violations of the law.
Almost immediately after the bill was signed by the governor, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged it in a lawsuit on behalf of a male athlete who identifies as female. ADF intervened in the case on behalf of Lainey Armistead, a collegiate soccer player at West Virginia State University.
As a longtime athlete who could be directly affected by the ACLU’s challenge to the law, Lainey stood up to defend not only her own interests, but also the basic standards of fairness and safety for female athletes across West Virginia.
Thankfully, a federal district court upheld West Virginia’s law. And because the act applied to colleges too, that decision ensured these protections stay in place for Lainey and female collegiate athletes across the state.
But after that victory, the ACLU appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which granted a temporary injunction to allow a male athlete in West Virginia to compete against girls while the case is on appeal.
ADF is now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the 4th Circuit’s injunction and make it clear that West Virginia is free to allow only female athletes to compete in women’s sports.
It’s notable that West Virginia’s law included comprehensive protections for female athletes. Lawmakers can best protect women and girls when they enact laws like West Virginia’s—by including meaningful protections for female athletes from grade school to college and ensuring that law is legally sound in the face of potential challenges in the courtroom.
Taking a stand for fairness in women’s sports
Since Selina, Chelsea, Alanna, and Ashley’s lawsuit was filed in 2020, women and girls across the country have also stood up to protect their right to the equal athletic opportunities that Title IX provides.
We’re thankful that so many state elected officials are listening and taking action rather than bowing down to intimidation from woke corporations and athletic associations who use dangerous gender identity ideology to distort the meaning of equality and fairness.
At the signing ceremony for Florida’s women’s sports law, Gov. Ron DeSantis exemplified what it looks like for elected officials to defend female athletes in the face of intimidation: “At the end of the day, if the price of providing opportunities for all the girls throughout the state of Florida, for ensuring fair competition for them, if the price of that is that we lose an event or two, I would choose to protect our young girls every day of the week and twice on Sunday.”
This courage to stand for our women and girls and enact truly comprehensive women’s sports laws is needed from elected officials in every state. When we ignore biological reality, female athletes lose medals, podium spots, public recognition, and opportunities to compete. This is why it is critical that lawmakers join these women in taking a courageous stand for truth by passing legislation that applies to collegiate athletes and gives harmed women and girls legal recourse.
Comprehensive women’s sports laws are essential to establishing a fair and level playing field for women and girls.
Where does your state stand on women’s sports? Check out our chart below.