DeSantis slams NCAA and Lia Thomas, declares Florida swimmer ‘rightful winner’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an official proclamation Tuesday declaring a Florida resident the “rightful winner” of an NCAA women’s swimming championship race over transgender swimmer Lia Thomas.

Thomas — the University of Pennsylvania swimmer whose record-breaking season has sparked national debate over whether trans women should compete on female sports teams — became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA championship last week, placing first in the 500-yard freestyle race at the Division I finals in Atlanta on Thursday.

DeSantis said he would “reject these lies and recognize” University of Virginia swimmer and Florida resident Emma Weyant, who came in second place, as the winner.

“The NCAA’s actions serve to erode opportunities for women athletes and perpetuate a fraud against women athletes as well as the public at large,” the proclamation read. “Florida rejects the NCAA’s efforts to destroy women’s athletics, disapproves of the NCAA elevating ideology over biology and takes offense at the NCAA trying to make others complicit in a lie.”

Representatives for the NCAA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

NCAA policy allows trans female athletes to compete on a collegiate women’s sports team after undergoing testosterone suppression treatment for a year. Thomas, a senior, told SwimSwam podcast last year that she had been on hormone therapy for more than 2 1/2 years by the time she began competing on the women’s team in November. She had competed on the Penn men’s swim team for three years.

At last week’s NCAA championship, Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle in 4 minutes, 33.24 seconds, less than two seconds faster than Weyant’s time of 4:34.99. Thomas’ win trails Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky’s 2017 record by about nine seconds.

The debate over whether trans girls and women should be allowed to compete on female sports teams has become one of many culture war issues ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

Measures that would block trans students from competing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity have also been among the most successful of the hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills filed in recent years, a recent NBC News analysis found.

Since the start of 2021, 11 states, including Florida, have written trans sports bans into law, according to tallies from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

DeSantis cited Florida’s version of the law, which he signed last year, in his proclamation over Thomas’ history-making win.

Thomas became the subject of national intrigue and debate after setting multiple records throughout the 2021-22 college swim season. Her wins have also subjected her to criticism from other elite swimmers — including Olympic champion Michael Phelps and some of her teammates — as well as verbal attacks from anti-trans groups and conservative media outlets.

University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas accepts the winning trophy for the 500 Freestyle finals as second place finisher Emma Weyant and third place finisher Erica Sullivan watch during the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on March 17, 2022, in Atlanta.
Penn swimmer Lia Thomas accepts the winning trophy for the 500 freestyle as second-place finisher Emma Weyant and third-place finisher Erica Sullivan watch during the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on Thursday in Atlanta.Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Thomas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, Thomas defended trans women’s place in athletics and brushed off the widespread criticism.

“I don’t look into the negativity and the hate,” Thomas said. “I am here to swim.”

DeSantis’ proclamation marks the latest instance of Florida lawmakers attracting national attention over LGBTQ issues.

A bill that recently passed the Florida House and Senate seeks to prohibit the “discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity” with students in kindergarten through third grade (and potentially higher grades, according to some critics and legal experts). The measure, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents, has sparked a steady drumbeat of national outrage — including corporate walkouts and student protests — since it was introduced in January.

The bill is in the hands of DeSantis, who is widely expected to sign it.

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