In December 2021, the witness of faithful Catholic educators helped persuade the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to include broad protection for the mission of religious colleges in the Association’s new constitution.
Although the NCAA also took new steps to embrace gender ideology, the accommodation to religious colleges was a surprising concession showing the great importance of Catholics standing firm against gender ideology and in defense of women’s sports.
Awareness is growing in American society about the errors of gender ideology, originally embraced out of compassion for a very few people who are born with ambiguous sexuality. Now the false ideology threatens to erase gains made in recent decades for women’s athletics and protection from sexual assault. Men declaring themselves female and choosing to compete in women’s sports or use women’s private facilities is corrupting sports at all academic and professional levels, from high school swimming to Olympic events
Faithful Catholic education respects not only the biological sex of students but also Catholic teaching which affirms God’s creation of humans as male and female. Catholic schools and colleges, then, must firmly resist demands that they admit biological men to women’s sports and should set an important example as faithful witnesses to the truth.
Catholics challenge the NCAA
In December, I went public at the National Catholic Register with concerns raised by leaders of several faithful Catholic colleges that we recommend in our Newman Guide, and which participate in Division II or III of the NCAA. The presidents of Belmont Abbey College, Catholic University of America, University of Dallas, University of Mary, University of St. Thomas (Tex.) and Walsh University had been fighting proposed changes to the NCAA constitution that seemed intended to push out religious colleges with traditional views of sexuality and gender.
By adding deliberately pointed language to its constitution—that colleges must “comply with federal and state laws and local ordinances, including respect to gender equity, diversity and inclusion”— the NCAA appeared to be stacking the deck against religious colleges. The language seemed designed to ban Catholic colleges from membership in the NCAA, if at any point they go to court to assert exemption from state and federal laws and to defend their mission.
This amendment to the NCAA constitution was the result of lobbying by activists including the anti-Catholic Human Rights Campaign. It would have set up a legal showdown between the NCAA and faithful Catholic colleges that refuse to accept biological males on women’s teams.
“The Catholic attempt to use sport toward the integral formation of the human person and to give praise and honor to the Creator is subverted by competing ideologies in the common culture, especially gender ideology,” warns The Cardinal Newman Society in our new standards for sports at Catholic schools and colleges. “The issue is bigger than just sexual politics; Catholic educators must resist gender theories that aim to annihilate the concept of nature and our understanding of who we are and how we exist in the world.”
GENDER IDEOLOGY THREATENS TO ERASE GAINS MADE FOR WOMEN’S ATHLETICS AND PROTECTION FROM SEXUAL ASSAULT.
Thankfully, the faithful Newman Guide colleges joined many other religious colleges in urging the NCAA to add another provision to its constitution, ensuring their rights to uphold their religious missions. The Cardinal Newman Society made the issue public and endorsed the new language, “Consistent with the principle of institutional control, no provision in this Constitution should be construed to restrict or limit colleges and universities, public or private, from adopting or maintaining missions and policies consistent with their legal rights or obligations as institutions of high learning.”
My column in the National Catholic Register was widely distributed on social media, and it was cited by Catholic and other Christian media. A few days later, the NCAA added new language to its constitution recognizing the mission priorities of religious colleges. Apparently, the NCAA governors decided losing Catholic and Christian colleges as members would harm the association and would be patently unfair to student-athletes.
Faithful Catholic education is worth fighting for, and it was the smaller but most faithful colleges that helped achieve this valuable protection, even while large institutions like Georgetown University instead advocated the “woke” agenda of gender ideology.
Tough road ahead
The added language to the NCAA constitution does not mean religious colleges will not face difficulties in the future. The association has signaled acceptance of gender ideology, allowing each sport’s national governing body to determine its own approach to competition by students who claim an opposite gender, subject to review by an NCAA committee. It remains to be seen whether the NCAA will honor its statement of respect for religious education.
In college sports generally, the challenge of gender ideology faces women in multiple sports. University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, a biological male who is undergoing hormone therapy, has made headlines by setting pool records in the Ivy league swimming championship.
The problems are also reaching into high school athletics. The fastest female runner in Connecticut high schools was forced to file a lawsuit in 2020, together with other student-athletes, because of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s decision to allow biological males to race against girls. The lawsuit was deemed moot by a federal court last year, since the girls had graduated, and it was dismissed—but the girls have appealed the ruling.
Often Catholic schools and colleges belong to such athletic associations, and these are likely to continue presenting challenges for Catholic educators. Whether on gender identity, prayer before games or other concerns of Catholic institutions, secular society is increasingly unwilling to respect the needs of Catholic education. But compromising on fundamental truths of human nature and a school or college’s mission is not an option.
On the other hand, witnessing to the truth is itself a valuable education for students—not only when we win, but also when we lose. Ultimately, we can trust in the Holy Spirit to protect the Church and open new doors to Catholic formation if we only stay faithful.