87th LegislatureEducationTexas Lawmakers Weigh in on Lia Thomas’ NCAA Win After Deaths of Bills to Require Biological Sex Distinction in College Sports

While bills regarding UIL sports soaked up attention, bills that would have applied to NCAA sports died quietly. The reason remains unclear.
March 25, 2022
In March of 2021, a little more than a year before Westlake native Lia Thomas won the NCAA Division I women’s swimming championship for the University of Pennsylvania, state Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) filed a bill in the Texas Senate that would have required public school athletes to compete according to their biological sex.

The bill, Senate Bill (SB) 29, took center stage as curtains closed on the regular session in 2021. But after a dramatic final night followed by a spate of special sessions lengthened by the ongoing quorum break, the legislature passed an effectively identical bill that applies to public school sports.

While SB 29 soaked up the attention of both politicians and the media, similar bills that would have also applied to public universities went quietly unnoticed.

The reason why remains unclear.

Reactions to Thomas

Several Texas Republicans have spoken out against Thomas’s inclusion in the women’s category.

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“Sounds like a good time to use an asterisk,” state Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Houston) quipped about the announcement of Thomas’s victory.

Oliverson, a medical doctor, played a notable role in multiple conversations on transgender issues in the 87th session. Known for his probing questions during committee hearings on bills — ultimately doomed — that would have banned child gender transition in Texas, Oliverson also rejected an attempt to exclude puberty blockers from a drug savings program created by one of his own bills.

Some, such as Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), have taken the opportunity to tout the passage of the “Save Women’s Sports Act,” a state law authored by Rep. Valoree Swanson (R-Spring).

“Allowing this to happen is failing our young girls and women athletes! It also begs the question, where is the feminist outrage over this?” Burrows wrote in a social media post, also noting his support for Swanson’s bill.

“The NCAA’s actions effectively deny opportunities for women athletes and serve only to promote a false, leftist, made-up ideology,” he additionally told The Texan.

The new law, passed in 2021 as House Bill (HB) 25, prohibits biological males from playing in girls’ sports in the University Interscholastic League (UIL), the state’s league for public school competitions. Democrats criticized the bill as discriminatory; Republicans said it was necessary to safeguard scholarship opportunities for Texas public school girls.

However, the Republican-dominated legislature considered and ignored several bills that would have applied the same rule to public universities as well as the UIL. In the regular session and the three special sessions that followed, Swanson filed multiple bills that would have covered colleges.

Swanson criticized the NCAA women’s swimming results as “cheating the girls” and promised to continue her efforts in the next regular session.

“This is totally unfair, obviously. Will Thomas, who goes by Lia, is a male and has no business competing in women’s sports and cheating biological females out of the wins that they deserve… There are a lot more things than just who got first place. So, the second person should have been first, and the third person should have been second. And what about that fourth place person who got no medal and should have gotten a bronze medal? And the girl that should have been 8th and been in the final heat? It’s just unfair to everyone,” Swanson said.

“As the author of the bill in the 87th session that stopped the biological males from ruining our girl’s sports, 7th grade through 12th grade, I am going to come back in the next session and put out a tremendous energy and really fight to protect our college female athletes.”

Swanson declined to offer theories about why her other bills gained no traction.

State Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) called HB 25 inadequate in light of Thomas’s victory and theorized that Democrats still wield power over the legislature.

But when asked why bills that would have covered college sports failed to move — including one bill of his own, filed in the third special session — Slaton shrugged, suggesting only that Democrats still wield some power behind the scenes.

“Well, I can only speculate,” he said.

“I don’t know the exact reason, but, you know, it appears the Democrats have some control over the House and I’m pretty sure they had some influence on what was going to be passed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Republicans were saying, ‘Hey, we have to do something,’ and they were like, ‘Well, we’re not doing all of it.’ I mean, that’s just a guess, because the Democrats still have control. They still help influence decisions and actions.”

A Change in the Wind

If backroom dealings really did kill SB 29, then something quickly caused a change in heart for Texas House leadership. Governor Greg Abbott made it a priority item for the three special sessions that followed, and once enough Democrats trickled back into the House from D.C., Swanson’s HB 25 passed without any of the same drama that plagued SB 29.

While several politicians left fingerprints at the scene of SB 29’s death, responsibility for the deaths of other bills that would have applied to colleges is harder to place.

Burrows, who heads the Calendars Committee that sets the House’s agenda, is rumored to have purposefully set Perry’s SB 29 too low to receive a vote by the House’s midnight deadline at the end of the regular session, spelling doom for the bill. However, while the Calendars Committee scheduled the bill for the final day, the vote was delayed to half an hour before midnight by Rep. J.M. Lozano (R-Portland). The House Journal shows Burrows voting against this motion. Burrows also appeared personally at a press conference Swanson held in the capitol during the third special session to announce that his committee had scheduled her bill for a vote the next day.

Additionally, Burrows couldn’t have directly slow-rolled any of Swanson’s other bills that would have applied to universities because they never made it to the Calendars Committee. The three that she filed in the special session were never even referred.

Notably, the special session agenda only allowed the legislature to pass a bill “identical” to the version of SB 29 that passed out of the Texas Senate in the regular session. In other words, without the governor’s express permission, passing one of Swanson’s broader bills was impossible.

However, recent history shows that the special session agenda is not always set in stone. For example, a last-minute bill to fund debt for several Texas public universities ran the whole committee gamut in the Senate before Abbott was convinced to add it to the agenda for the third special session just days before it ended.

Some Texas conservatives have long opposed awarding committee chairmanships to Democrats since chairmen have the power to suffocate bills before they reach the House floor.

Since the transgender sports bill of the second session died in the House Public Education Committee, chaired by Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston), this may have prompted Swanson to craft HB 25 for the third session in such a way that it went to the Select Committee on Constitutional Rights & Remedies, chaired by a Republican and created by Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont).

On the other hand, Dutton did not pose a great obstacle to the first bill when it came to his committee in the regular session. After initially declining to vote on it, Dutton emphatically voted for SB 29 “as a consequence” to a fellow Democrat on the same committee who had killed one of Dutton’s education bills, which he said would have affected more students than SB 29, the night before. Dutton maintains that he opposes the idea behind SB 29 and later played a major role in delaying a vote on the bill on the House floor.

In any event, Dutton never had the chance to block the bills that would have applied to colleges since the only one that was ever referred to a committee went to the State Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Will Metcalf (R-Conroe). It never had a hearing.

High Stakes

Regardless of whatever forces kept these broader bills inert, Democrats and Republicans both appealed to the risk of grave consequences in arguments over transgender sports participation.

Democrats said SB 29 and other bills singled out transgender students, potentially putting them at higher risk of anxiety and depression. Republicans said male participation in girls’ sports could rob girls of life-changing university scholarships.

On top of real impacts to students, both parties debated the impact that the legislation could have on the state.

Thomas’s NCAA win has amplified these concerns.

During the regular session, the NCAA threatened to stop hosting championship events in states that passed legislation requiring students to compete according to biological sex.

However, the NCAA later removed this statement and continues to schedule championships in Texas.

Slaton noted that the legislature also decided to let athletes at Texas public universities earn money, meaning the failure to pass bills that would have prohibited males from competing on women’s teams in college could result in a real fiscal impact for female college athletes.

“This session, we passed the bill that collegiate athletes could make money. They could be paid as student athletes. So, now, with the passage of that law and it going into effect, a male could compete against females and they could also now receive compensation,” Slaton said.

“So, there are just multiple problems. We had the Olympics this year; you’ve got people that are competing during college, and that competition and what they’re doing in college is helping them prepare for another level in possibly representing our country in the Olympics. And so, you know, it shouldn’t have a period. We should end it. But instead we chose to only do high school sports and not deal with college, and it’s just a shame.”

Update: This article was updated to show the time of night when the House delayed the vote on SB 29.


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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.