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Bill on transgender athletes could threaten NCAA postseason events in Montana, including football

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Posted at 7:31 PM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-19 21:31:23-05

MISSOULA – Montana lawmakers heard a pair of bills on Monday that would restrict transgender athletes from competing outside of their designated biological sex.

HB 112, which is named the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” would not allow male-to-female transgender athletes to compete in women’s sports. HB 113, named the "Youth Health Protection Act,” would “prohibit certain medications and medical procedures for the treatment of gender dysphoria in minors, while also establishing a civil penalty for healthcare providers providing prohibited treatment.”

Both bills are sponsored by Rep. John Fuller, a Republican from Whitefish.

While only one known case of male-to-female athletic changes has happened at either the University of Montana or Montana State University, none are known in the high school ranks or lower, which HB 112 would directly affect. Montana High School Association executive director Mark Beckman told MTN last week that the MHSA is one of few states that currently does not have a policy in place regarding transgender athletes.

Along with its restrictions to transgender athletes in Montana, according to UM associate athletic director Jean Gee, if the bill was put into effect, it would have a wide-ranging impact that could halt Montana or Montana State from hosting playoff football games and more.

"The biggest issue for us, and MSU, would be hosting football playoffs because we have such a long tradition of hosting those, as well as now MSU," Gee told MTN. "If we did have this bill in effect, I can only guess that the NCAA would still hold to what they have done in the past and really have to look at whether they can host those events in the state of Montana."

Those past events stem from North Carolina's "bathroom bill" in 2016, that prohibited transgender people from using restrooms that aligned with their gender identity. Among the backlash to the controversial bill, the NCAA pulled seven championships that were due to be hosted by the state, including NCAA Tournament men's basketball games.

Events hosted by the NCAA, meaning championships, conference tournaments or postseason events at UM or MSU's level, could be the events affected if the bill was implemented. The NCAA policies on transgender athletes is also deemed a policy and not a written rule, per Gee. So if HB 112 were to be passed and implemented in Montana, by looking at past practices, Gee said it is likely the NCAA could take similar measures in Montana, which includes FCS playoff football games, Big Sky soccer tournament games which UM could host, along with track and field and more. The conference also could take a look at the laws and opt to pull them from the state.

"In this case, we have a couple of policies in play," Gee explained. "We have the overarching philosophy of the NCAA of being inclusive, promoting diversity, and then the championship-hosting policy that looks specifically at those same issues and then providing a safe environment for all to participate."

Gee noted Idaho's bill that is often compared to Montana's and how the NCAA Board of Governors was watching as that bill was being heard and saying it went against NCAA values and philosophies. Many called for Idaho's hosting of 2021 NCAA Tournament games to be pulled, similar to North Carolina. The NCAA tabled the discussion in August, and the 2021 NCAA Tournament for the men was recently announced to be held entirely in Indiana due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That bill is being appealed after an injunction from a federal judge over the summer. How that appeal goes could affect the Big Sky Conference men's and women's basketball tournaments that have been hosted in Boise the past two years, according to Gee.

"The (Big Sky) presidents were definitely looking at that for Boise and very likely would have pulled it out if that law stayed in effect," Gee said. "For example, if we won the (regular-season) conference title and we were able to host (women's) soccer because we won, I would imagine if that (HB 112) law were in effect that the conference would have some issues with holding that here in the state of Montana."

According to Gee, both Montana and Montana State's NCAA memberships would most likely not be affected. If the bill was passed and put into effect in July, Gee said football could potentially be impacted right away.

"The MUS (Montana University System) is not weighing as an opponent or proponent at this time. There are issues with the bill around NCAA legislation," Montana State athletic director Leon Costello said in a statement to MTN.

At the college level, the NCAA does have rules and regulations in place, as does the NAIA. That was the case in 2019 when June Eastwood of Belgrade became the first male-to-female transgender athlete to compete in an NCAA Division I cross country race when she competed for the Montana Grizzlies.

Eastwood was required to take one year of testosterone suppression supplements before competing, per NCAA policy.

Eastwood’s coach at the time, former head track and field coach and director of the cross country programs Brian Schweyen, said they did just that in compliance with the competition, therefore Eastwood’s competing was fair.

"Every case and every level is completely different and has to be looked at its own merit I believe,” Schweyen told MTN. “I can speak on June and the NCAA and the NCAA certainly has rules in place and regulations and stipulations and protocols that need to be followed and in June's case, every one of those was adhered to, was followed. Everything that was mandated by NCAA, June did.”

He continued, “I think at the end of the day, when you look at June versus Jonathan (Eastwood), the times in which June ran compared to her gender probably lined up very similar to what Jonathan ran in comparison to his gender. So, was it unfair? No. The assumption is that for that case it was unfair and usually assumptions come from people without that base knowledge and it's usually just opinions or opinions heard. So in the case and situation I'm familiar with, the NCAA has regulations, they were followed, and it worked out to where it does create an even playing field and that's because June did do everything that she was supposed to do."

After cross country season, Eastwood went on to win the mile at the 2020 Big Sky Conference women’s indoor track and field championships. But Schweyen said through it all, Eastwood’s transition wasn’t to try to find an edge in competition, as some suggest.

"I think June's first choice was to become a female. June's second choice was to compete,” Schweyen said. “It wasn't reverse. It wasn't, I want to compete first, so I'm going to become a female to compete."

"The reaction was, as you can imagine, it was mixed. There was some people very supportive, some people very angry,” UM athletic director Kent Haslam told MTN. “And we really stuck to the line of, look, ... there are policies and there's procedures in place that the NCAA governs, and we followed those and wanted to be supportive of June and wanted to be supportive of all of our student-athletes. And so the reaction was mixed, there's no doubt. There was positive and there was negative."

For Haslam, support of the school’s student-athletes took priority in all of it.

"In college athletics, our goal is to be supportive of all of our student-athletes, and there are clear guidelines and policies in place by the NCAA in dealing with transgender student-athletes,” he said. “And so we will follow those guidelines and those policies that are in place, but we really want to be in a position where we can support all of our student-athletes, and understand that this is a topic that's come up in other places around the country. But we want to follow the policies and the procedures and the guidelines that the NCAA has in place in transgender student-athletes competing in intercollegiate athletics."