Will Florida’s transgender sports bill hurt business?

The NCAA pulled events from North Carolina after it passed its “bathroom bill” in 2016. Could the group do the same in Florida?
Much about the potential economic backlash from Florida bills targeting transgender student athletes remains unclear. Times file photo.
Much about the potential economic backlash from Florida bills targeting transgender student athletes remains unclear. Times file photo. [ TAILYR IRVINE | Times ]
Published March 31, 2021|Updated April 1, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — One of the most controversial bills making its way through the Florida Legislature hit a major snag this week — in South Dakota, of all places.

Legislation in that state to ban transgender athletes from women’s sports melted down Monday amid pressure from state business groups. State and regional chambers of commerce argued that the bill, which critics say discriminates against transgender kids, might make athletic organizations like the National Collegiate Athletic Association take their business elsewhere. Gov. Kristi Noem said she feared a lawsuit from the NCAA.

Yet so far, the Florida version of the bill hasn’t had much pushback from influential business groups. When asked whether they had heard from business interests about the legislation, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and a spokesman for Gov. Ron DeSantis said they had not. Both Sprowls and DeSantis support the legislation. (A spokeswoman for Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Much about the potential economic backlash from the bills, House Bill 1475 and Senate Bill 2012, remains unclear. A spokeswoman for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which normally holds major sway over lawmakers, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the bill.

A spokeswoman for the NCAA, Gail Dent, did not say whether the organization would pull events from Florida if the state enacts a ban on transgender participation in school-sponsored women and girls’ sports. However, in a statement, Dent said the organization “continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student-athlete participation.”

During a Senate Health Policy Committee meeting Wednesday — the international Transgender Day of Visibility — Democrats said Florida could face consequences from national organizations if the state passes discriminatory legislation. The lawmakers cited the NCAA’s actions to pull events from North Carolina after that state passed a divisive “bathroom bill” in 2016.

“If we go down this route, I’ll put it out there: I hope the NCAA pulls out of Florida,” said Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens.

Republicans supporters of the bill, for their part, said they would not be cowed by the NCAA.

“I’m not going to be influenced by a financial threat,” said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, the Senate sponsor of the Florida bill who also oversees her chamber’s budget.

A national effort

Republicans in Tallahassee — and dozens of other states — are pushing bills to exclude transgender athletes from school-sponsored women and girls’ sports. Parts of the measures being debated in Florida are identical to a bill which became law last year in Idaho. The governors of Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas have since signed similar bills into law, and other states seem poised to follow suit. After her state’s legislation fell apart, South Dakota’s Noem issued a pair of executive orders aimed at addressing the issue, and said she would call on lawmakers to reconvene in a special session later this year.

Proponents of the Florida legislation argue the bills are an important way to keep the athletic playing field level. People who were assigned the male gender at birth have inherent physical advantages over people who were assigned the female gender, they say. Transgender individuals, who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, could skew women and girls’ competitions, proponents of the bill argue.

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Both the Florida House and Senate bills apply to school sports played by students of all ages. The House bill would enact a blanket ban on transgender participation in women’s and girls’ sports. The Senate version would allow transgender athletes to participate, but only if they can show documentation proving that their testosterone levels are below a certain level.

The Republican sponsors can point to no officially documented instance of a transgender athlete unfairly skewing competition in a women’s or girls’ sport in Florida. And major sports governing bodies such as the NCAA and the Florida High School Athletic Association already have policies on transgender participation in sports.

These facts have led some transgender Floridians and equal rights advocates to conclude that the bill is politically motivated and discriminatory. At the Senate Committee meeting Wednesday, several public speakers urged lawmakers to vote against the bill.

“Was this bill based on research? Statistics that were done beforehand? Or was it presented (based) on prejudice?,” asked Elliott Bertrand, a transgender student from Flagler County.

It’s also unclear if the bills are legal under federal nondiscrimination law. Idaho’s bill was struck down by a federal judge last year, and President Joe Biden’s administration appears poised to oppose the efforts in court.

Still, supporters of the legislation in Florida say it’s needed. They point to Connecticut, where two transgender girls won several state track and field championships starting in 2017. Three girls in that state sued in federal court in 2019 to reverse the state’s rules regarding the inclusion of transgender athletes.

That suit was filed by the conservative Christian group the Alliance Defending Freedom — the same group which helped write the Idaho law on which parts of the Florida legislation is modeled.

Fast tracking?

SB 2012 and HB 1475 are moving quickly through the Legislature. Despite the impassioned appeals from detractors of the bill, the Senate version cleared the Health Policy Committee Wednesday in a party-line vote. If the bill passes one more committee, it can be heard on the Senate Floor.

The House version cleared its first committee earlier this month. After that vote, House leaders stripped the legislation of one of its committee stops, making it so the bill only has to clear two committees before it can be heard on the House Floor.

At a news conference in Clearwater Tuesday, advocates with the LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida accused the House of speeding the bill through the chamber in order to duck public scrutiny. Rep. Kaylee Tuck, the House bill’s sponsor, said that her measure’s committee assignments changed because the bill was amended at its first stop. (The amendment changed one word of Tuck’s bill.)

In part to assuage the concerns of advocates, Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who supports the bill, met with representatives from Equality Florida for 45 minutes in Tallahassee Tuesday.

Neither side left the meeting with their mind changed.

“We’re not trying to target the transgender community and trans kids. It’s only tailored towards transgender females who play sports. That’s a pretty small group of people,” said Latvala, who chairs the House Education and Employment committee — the body which will next hear the House’s version of the bill. After that, HB 1475 could head to the House floor.

“It was deeply frustrating after that discussion to hear Chair Latvala revert back to the same weak arguments that we have heard from those supporting the legislation,” said Equality Florida’s public policy director, Jon Harris Maurer, who attended the meeting Tuesday.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, noted Wednesday that just 11 students have sought approval from the FHSAA to compete in sports in a way that differs from their assigned birth genders. That fact is used by both critics and supporters of the bill: critics say the figure illustrates that there is no problem with Florida’s competitive landscape. Supporters say the figure is evidence that the bill would affect relatively few students.

For Florida’s already vulnerable transgender community, advocates say the exclusionary effect of the legislation goes well beyond the playing field.

“I’ve been bullied, harassed, silenced and targeted for trying to be authentic to myself. It’s happened to me countless times. It will happen again. And it never gets easier,” said Andrew Coleman, who testified Wednesday. “This legislation only reinforces the fact that trans people are discriminated against in ways that negatively impact their well-being and their health.”