Some Montana colleges and communities could miss out on revenue from hosting sporting events if a bill that would require K-16 athletes to participate on sports teams that align with the gender they were assigned at birth passes in the legislature.
But University of Montana Senior Associate Athletic Director Jean Gee said she worries most about repercussions from the National College Athletic Association if the bill passes. Gee said the NCAA could bar Montana colleges from hosting events.
“One of the core values of the NCAA is diversity and inclusion, and another policy is that the NCAA board of governors requires host sites to provide a safe environment that is free of discrimination,” Gee said.
UM Athletic Director Kent Haslam said in an email that related policies already are in place: “Our goal is to support all of our student-athletes. The NCAA has clear policies on the inclusion of transgender student-athletes and their participation in intercollegiate athletics.”
Negative economic impacts for communities and discrimination aren’t the only concerns raised. Medical professionals have said not allowing transgender youth to participate in sports could do harm to their mental health and well-being. House Bill 112, proposed by Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, will be heard Monday by the House Judiciary Committee.
The Montana University System as a whole has not taken a position on the bill, but Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of higher education, said the system is tracking it.
“The issue is not unique to Montana,” McRae said. “The NCAA, not the Montana University System, controls collegiate sports ramifications or reactions to legislation like this. We can’t speak for the NCAA, but we are certainly watching this bill carefully.”
When North Carolina’s legislature passed House Bill 2, commonly known as the “Bathroom Bill,” that required transgender people use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate, in 2016 the NCAA relocated seven championship events from the state, including first and second round March Madness events.
More recently in June, the NCAA board of governors voiced its opposition to House Bill 500 in Idaho, which banned transgender athletes from participating in college sports.
“Idaho’s House Bill 500 and resulting law is harmful to transgender student-athletes and conflicts with the NCAA’s core values of inclusivity, respect and the equitable treatment of all individuals,” the board of governors said in a statement.
The board said it would consider relocating Boise March Madness tournament games, but a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction on the bill before any decision was made.
The Big Sky conference held both its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Boise this year. “Our presidents were ready to pull those tournaments, but the judge blocked it before they had to,” Gee said.
A website that tracks bills similar to HB112 shows that such bills have been proposed in more than 20 other states, but only Iowa’s has made it to the a governor’s office.
The most significant blowback for UM if HB112 passed, Gee said, would be the economic impacts for communities and schools if the NCAA didn’t allow it to host football playoff games.
“Both UM and MSU have a long history of hosting those and there is a great economic benefit to the community to hosting those,” she said.
According to a 2016 report from UM, each home football game brings about $2.5 million of spending into Missoula from out-of-area attendees, whose dollars would not be spent there if it were not for Grizzly Athletics.
Fuller, author of the bill, said its goal is to “correct the injustice to all female athletes that are being forced to compete against transgender females.”
The NCAA’s Office of Inclusion said that idea the participation of transgender athletes would be detrimental to competitive equity was “unfounded,” according to a 2011 report.
Most high schools The Daily Montanan attempted to contact did not take a stance or respond to a request for comment on the legislation, but that doesn’t mean education officials are not thinking about it.
“It’s definitely something we are going to have to deal with, and we need time to work with our superintendents and school boards to determine what direction we’re going to go,” said Mark Wahl, director of athletics and activities for Billings Public Schools.
A 2019 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 2% of high school students identify as transgender and that 27% feel unsafe at school, 35% are bullied and 35% attempt suicide.
Mark Beckman, executive director of the Montana High Schools Association, said in an emailed statement that the association is aware of HB 112 and will continue to monitor it.
Until then, he said, Montana schools will follow Title IX and the settlement agreement that came from Ridgeway et. al. v. Montana High School Association, which established minimum requirements for obtaining sex equity in athletics in Montana.
The MHSA does not have a transgender policy, Beckman said. Instead, it advises schools to check with their school district legal counsel, the Montana School Board Association if they are a member, and current Office of Civil Rights for guidance in regard to transgender questions.
“Our goal is to assist schools in ensuring gender equity and to provide continuing education and awareness to member schools and to their communities,” the MHSA website states.
Missoula Public Schools did not comment on the legislation but pointed to its gender equity policy, which was updated in 2015 to include the following:
“No student shall, on the basis of that student’s gender identity or gender nonconformity, be denied equal access to programs, activities, services, or benefits or be limited in the exercise of any right, privilege, or advantage, or denied equal access to educational or extracurricular programs and activities.”