Lia Thomas: NBC News op-ed compares trans swimmer to Jackie Robinson, should be 'celebrated' as 'trailblazer'

Purdue University professor Cheryl Cooky says claims Thomas has an advantage 'are not well founded'

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An opinion published by NBC News is linking Penn trans swimmer Lia Thomas to the historic nature of Jackie Robinson playing in Major League Baseball

Thomas made headlines over the past months after repeatedly shattering swimming records just two years after competing as a biological male, trouncing her female competitors in various competitions, most recently at the NCAA Division I championship.

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In a piece from NBC News, Purdue University Professor Cheryl Cooky argued, "For anyone who cares about the advancement of sports, and women's sports in particular, her win should be celebrated."

Lia Thomas looks on from the podium after finishing fifth in the 200 Yard Freestyle during the 2022 NCAA Division I Women's Swimming & Diving Championship at the McAuley Aquatic Center on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology on March 18, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Lia Thomas looks on from the podium after finishing fifth in the 200 Yard Freestyle during the 2022 NCAA Division I Women's Swimming & Diving Championship at the McAuley Aquatic Center on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology on March 18, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Mike Comer/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

"Women's sports are situated at a paradoxical intersection wherein sex segregation is upheld through claims of biological difference, yet equality is prefaced on being treated the same and given the same opportunities as men," Cooky wrote Monday. "If we are to change this, we need to ask some important questions. How does one advocate for equitable treatment while also adhering to the notion of biological difference? If separate is not equal in the case of schools, bathrooms, restaurants or other social institutions, can separate ever truly be equal in the case of sports? Would gender-based discrimination in sports be eradicated if sports were gender-integrated?"

Cooky, who teaches gender and sexuality studies, downplayed critics who say trans women have an unfair advantage, saying their assumptions "are not well-founded" and lack "scientific evidence" that firmly concludes "a direct link between testosterone athletic performance," citing "coaching and training, psychological makeup of an athlete, access to resources and equipment" as other factors. 

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She insisted those who oppose trans athletes in women's sports rely on "societal and cultural definitions of what constitutes gender or what defines a woman," which leads to "discrimination of athletes like Thomas."

"Change in sports doesn't happen overnight, nor is it linear. Major professional sports leagues like MLB and the NFL resisted racially integrating their player rosters... Today, athletes like Jackie Robinson are celebrated as ‘breaking the color barrier’ in sports, although that narrative often requires sanitizing, simplifying or rewriting a more complex, nuanced and contradictory history," Cooky wrote.

UNDATED: American baseball player Jackie Robinson #42 of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses for a portrait, circa 1947 - 1956. (Photo by Photo File/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

UNDATED: American baseball player Jackie Robinson #42 of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses for a portrait, circa 1947 - 1956. (Photo by Photo File/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

"Many of the athletes who become the 'first' encounter resistance, backlash and opposition, especially from those who have historically benefited from the status quo in sports," Cookie continued. 

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Cooky added, "Part of what makes the ‘first’ stories, so compelling is the resilience, determination and love for the sport exhibited by these athletes and their motivation to break down barriers, despite the naysayers. Thomas, as the first transgender athlete to win a Division I NCAA championship, deserves to be placed among the other firsts. She should be embraced in the history of progress that sports represent and recognized as the trailblazer that she is."