South Dakota governor Kristi Noem recently sparked a self-immolating political firestorm by vetoing a bill intended to protect women’s sports. Despite declaring that she was “excited to sign” a bill that organized athletic competition by biological sex rather than gender identity, Noem reversed her stance after facing pressure from a local Chamber of Commerce and the prospect of punitive action from the NCAA.
The conservative backlash was severe. The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher accused Noem of “car[ing] more about corporate interests than the common good.” The Washington Post’s Henry Olsen declared that this decision showed “a massive failure to read the political room” and predicted that it would tank Noem’s presidential aspirations.
Still, it’s a long way to 2024. Noem has promised here in National Review Online to lead a national coalition on this issue. Americans love a come-from-behind victory, and if Noem succeeds, she may yet regain momentum.
But rather than trade in horse-race and outrage hot takes, conservatives should take a step back and reflect on the deeper failure at hand: More than two months after President Biden signed an executive order threatening the integrity of women’s sports, only three states have passed laws to protect it.
Passing such laws should be a political no-brainer. A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 74 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of independents approve of bills “banning transgender athletes from competing on women’s sports teams.” Those numbers would certainly improve if conservatives made a strong, collective, public argument, rather than ceded the rhetorical space entirely to woke activists and pundits and allowed them to target individual governors.
The activists insist that conservatives are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. They claim that “there is no epidemic of transgender girls dominating female sports,” and that therefore these bills “don’t address a real problem.”
But it’s entirely reasonable to project that if transgender athletic participation becomes socially normalized and legally protected, the nature of women’s sports would forever change.
As the NCAA knows, college sports is an arms race. And it’s a scientific fact that men tend to have bigger arms. Study after study after study show that biological men have an athletic advantage over biological women. Biological men have, on average, larger hearts and lungs, greater muscle mass, and larger and stronger bones. At the elite level, there is a 10–12 percent performance gap between male and female athletes.
And at the very highest level, the differences become even more stark. Serena Williams may well be the greatest female tennis player of all time. But she and her sister Venus were once beaten back-to-back by a 50-year-old man who smoked cigarettes and drank beer during the changeovers. Tori Bowie is an Olympic gold-medalist female sprinter. Her lifetime best performance in the 100-meter dash is 10.78 seconds. Men beat that 15,000 times in 2017 alone.
If collegiate athletic programs opt to exploit this biological advantage, women would still have the opportunity to compete. But it could herald the beginning of the end for the possibility of world-class female athletics.
Noem expressed concern that the NCAA could take punitive action against South Dakota. But it’s hard to imagine the NCAA bullying 20 states simultaneously. If it tried to, the NCAA would not only lose in the court of public opinion, but it also might literally lose half the country. The Constitution does not grant it monopoly power over college athletics. Another association, one actually dedicated to athletic excellence, could and perhaps should be formed in such a contingency.
The social pressure against any action will, of course, be immense. The Washington Post editorial board has declared that this issue is “a convenient way to whip up fears and bigotry about transgender people,” and the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen has insisted that all objections are rooted in “ignorance and hate.”
But conservative politicians must recognize that their voters don’t care what liberal pundits like Gessen and the editors of the Washington Post have to say. These so-called elites just arbitrarily adopt new extreme ideologies every few years and then pathologically declare that everyone who doesn’t toe the party line is a bigot. Conservatives don’t take these people seriously; they don’t want their politicians to, either. Rather, they expect their politicians to look at issues honestly and to stand for what they know is right.
As for this issue: Protecting women’s sports should be as easy as T-ball. Noem’s promise to lead is welcome, but frankly the effort shouldn’t even require a team captain. Conservative leaders from across America should be scrambling to step up to the plate. If they refuse to take to the field to defend women’s sports, then America may soon suffer a profound cultural loss.
Max Eden is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Tracey Schirra is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.