WU runners pen letter to NCAA in support of transgender athletes

More than 700 student-athletes across Divisions I, II and III have now signed the letter

| Senior Sports Editor
A group of protestors gather underneath a tree near a statue. People hold signs that say "Fight back for trans students" and "protect trans kids."

A 2017 rally for transgender students in Washington, D.C. More than 700 students have signed the letter Washington University runners Aliya Schenck and Alana Bojar wrote to the NCAA in support of transgender student-athletes. (Courtesy of Creative Commons | Ted Eytan)

When various states proposed legislation last summer that would ban transgender women from competing in women’s athletics, it struck a chord with junior Aliya Schenck. Every time Schenck goes to practice for the Washington University track and field team, she is reminded of how important sports are to her emotional and mental well-being, and she did not want anyone to lose out on that opportunity. “I was like—to be frank—‘this is f—ed up,’ especially because they snuck it in when everyone was trying to figure out the pandemic,” Schenck said.

Since then, Schenck and fellow track athlete senior Alana Bojar have written a letter to the NCAA that gained national attention. More than 700 student-athletes across Divisions I, II and III have now signed the letter, which calls for the NCAA to move championships from states promoting anti-transgender legislation. While the NCAA has issued statements in support of transgender athletes and threatened to move championships, Bojar says the organization can do more to take concrete action.

“They can say all that they want to say about [how] they prioritize inclusion,” she said, “but without the actual actions, there isn’t pressure on the states.”

Before state legislators introduced the most recent legislation targeting transgender athletes this spring, Bojar and Schenck had worked with national advocacy organization Athlete Ally last year to address trans rights. In June, Athlete Ally representatives reached out to the two Wash. U. runners and drew their attention to House Bill 500 in Idaho, which banned transgender women and girls from competing in sports consistent with their gender identity. The bill was not on their radar before Athlete Ally reached out, but the two student-athletes soon wrote an initial letter to the NCAA about the Idaho bill. And then nothing happened. “It was like shouting into the void and getting nothing from it,” Bojar said.

While the initial letter got good feedback from student-athletes, conversations surrounding police brutality and racial injustice took precedence at the time in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Bojar and Schenck never heard back from the NCAA, and the track duo realized that they needed to draft another letter. “We were like, ‘We need to make some noise about this. We’re frustrated. We’re disappointed. You haven’t said anything, and your voice holds a lot of weight,’” Bojar said. They drafted another letter, this time with less guidance from Athlete Ally. The actual letter is short, at 484 words, yet it is direct in its goals and critique of the organization.

All athletes deserve to compete,” the letter reads. “All athletes are worthy of protection. No athlete should feel unsafe being who they are. Please show us that your practices align with your priorities.”

Initially, Bojar and Schenck worried that the letter would not gain traction. In the summer, they texted fellow Wash. U. student-athletes and friends at other schools, mostly navigating their own personal networks. They also used the Athlete Ally Instagram page to reach out to chapters at other schools, and then they started gaining traction. What started out as an effort centered at Wash. U. expanded nationally across states and NCAA divisions.

What was rewarding for Bojar was other student-athletes actually engaging with the issue. “People weren’t just blindly signing it,” she said. “I had a lot of people reach out and say, ‘I’m actually on the fence about this.’” But after talking with them, Bojar found that people wanted to engage with the issue even more after hearing what was at stake.

The most recent NCAA statement on the matter said the organization was “committed to ensuring that the NCAA championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them” and that “inclusion and fairness can coexist for all student-athletes, including transgender athletes, at all levels of sport.” 

Schenck said that the statement “is recognition that [the NCAA is] listening and they are paying attention.” Still, she said people needed to continue pressuring the NCAA to make tough decisions.

The NCAA’s delay in responding to the initial letter was especially frustrating for Schenck and Bojar because the organization has pulled championships from states due to similar issues in the past. When North Carolina’s state legislature passed House Bill 2, which limited protections for LGBTQIA* people, the NCAA pulled the March Madness championships from the state. The championships bring revenues to the cities that host them, and Schenck said the NCAA needed to better wield its financial power.

The Wash. U. athletic department supported the athletes’ advocacy, providing guidance on people to contact within the University Athletic Association, the Bears’ main conference. Still, the athletes “absolutely get all the credit for the letter and organizing support,” Senior Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator Summer Hutcheson said in an email. 

Despite supporting the student-athletes in other ways, the department has not made an official statement about the issue. “While statements can be impactful, what we are hearing from student-athletes is the commitment to action is crucial,” Associate Director of Athletics for External Operations Chelsea Petersen said in an email. “Our administration continues to meet with our student affinity groups to ensure that we are assisting the facilitation of their missions to the extent that we are able.”

Bojar acknowledged potential difficulties for the department. “It shouldn’t be politicized to say that we stand behind trans athletes,” she said. “But it is dangerous waters for a whole department to tread.” 

Hutcheson said she was not surprised by the pair’s advocacy. “Student-athletes are passionate about protecting each other and advocating for each other,” she said. “Because they love their sports and their teammates, they want to make sure others have access, too.” 

More features from the Student Life sports desk:

Jeff Stiles and the construction of a cross country dynasty

How WU baseball prepped one Bear to work for Cori Bush

Le quarterback: Former Bear J.J. Tomlin reflects on a summer of football in Geneva


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