DeSantis: NCAA runner-up who lost to trans athlete ‘best female swimmer’

The governor’s comments came unprompted at a Tuesday news conference.
University of Pennsylvania transgender athlete Lia Thomas competes in the 200 freestyle finals at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on Friday at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. In the 500-yard women’s freestyle event, Thomas defeated Emma Weyant, a native of Sarasota.
University of Pennsylvania transgender athlete Lia Thomas competes in the 200 freestyle finals at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on Friday at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. In the 500-yard women’s freestyle event, Thomas defeated Emma Weyant, a native of Sarasota. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP ]
Published March 22, 2022|Updated March 22, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a proclamation Tuesday declaring the runner-up in the NCAA 500-yard women’s freestyle event the winner after saying she was the “best female swimmer” in the event.

Lia Thomas, a transgender woman who swam for the University of Pennsylvania, won the event on Thursday by nearly two seconds.

The governor spoke about the issue during an unrelated news conference Tuesday in Wesley Chapel. Unprompted, DeSantis poured fuel on the raging national controversy over who should be allowed to participate in women’s sports.

“We need to stop allowing organizations like the NCAA to perpetuate frauds on the public, and that’s exactly what they’re doing,” DeSantis said.

The runner-up, Emma Weyant, is a native of Sarasota who swam for the University of Virginia. Her team took home the overall Division I women’s swimming and diving national championship.

Shortly after his news conference, DeSantis published the official proclamation.

“A male identifying as a woman was allowed to compete in and was declared the winner of the race,” it read in part. “It is my determination that men should not be competing against women such as Emma Weyant.”

Since Thomas won the race Thursday, she’s been the subject of criticism from conservatives and some of her swimming colleagues. Angela Morabito, a former press secretary in the Department of Education during former President Donald Trump’s administration, went viral on Twitter over the weekend for similarly declaring Weyant the winner by saying “second is the new first.”

DeSantis, widely viewed as a strong contender for the 2024 Republican nomination for president, signed a bill into law last year prohibiting transgender female athletes like Thomas from participating in girls’ and women’s scholastic sports in the state. At least 10 states have similar laws or policies — though Indiana’s Republican governor recently vetoed such a bill and Utah’s governor did so on Tuesday.

The push to restrict the rights of transgender people has become a rallying cry for conservative leaders across the country in recent months. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has directed parents who seek gender-affirming care for their transgender children to be subjected to child abuse investigations. In Arkansas, lawmakers prohibited medical professionals from providing gender-affirming care to kids.

DeSantis’ proclamation came the same day Disney workers planned a walkout over Florida’s recently passed House Bill 1557, which would prohibit the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade. Many LGBTQ Floridians oppose that measure, which has been dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill by its critics. DeSantis has said he will sign that bill.

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Conservative groups pushing for restrictions on how transgender athletes can compete have argued such policies are needed to protect the integrity of women’s sports. Opponents of the measures point to the national climate and say the policies are thinly veiled attempts to discriminate against already marginalized athletes.

Related: DeSantis signs controversial transgender athlete bill

University of Texas swimmer Erica Sullivan, who finished third to Thomas in the NCAA contest, wrote an opinion piece last week for Newsweek saying that among all the ongoing global issues, “in the U.S., we are wasting resources and finding ourselves divided over a question that should have a simple answer.”

“Many of those who oppose transgender athletes like Lia being able to participate in sports claim to be ‘protecting women’s sports,’ ” Sullivan wrote. “As a woman in sports, I can tell you that I know what the real threats to women’s sports are: sexual abuse and harassment, unequal pay and resources and a lack of women in leadership. Transgender girls and women are nowhere on this list.”

For more than a decade, the NCAA had a policy in place allowing transgender athletes to compete in sports in a way that comported with their gender identity, with some restrictions. Transgender female athletes had to have taken at least 12 months of testosterone suppression treatments.

But on Jan. 19, the NCAA changed its policy, allowing governing bodies for individual sports to determine how transgender athletes can participate. Under that policy, Thomas had to submit a test that met the standards for testosterone levels in women’s swimming within four weeks of competing in last week’s NCAA championships.

Thomas made the final heat in three freestyle swimming events. She finished tied for fifth in the 200-yard freestyle and eighth in the 100-yard freestyle.

Spokespersons for the University of Virginia and University of Pennsylvania’s athletics departments did not respond to emailed requests for comment Tuesday.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, wrote in a tweet that the governor has more pressing business than worrying about the result of a college swim meet.

“People literally can’t afford their rent in Florida but this is what our Governor uses his publicly paid position to do — attack trans people & continue to find ways to divide us,” Eskamani tweeted.

Times/Herald staff writer Lawrence Mower and the News Service of Florida contributed to this story.