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Penn State AD Sandy Barbour Discusses Controversy Surrounding Penn Swimmer Lia Thomas

Sandy Barbour
Photo by Penn State Athletics: AD Sandy Barbour

In her first press conference since announcing her impending retirement  last week, Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour was asked plenty of questions about her time in State College.

Toward the end of Barbour’s session that spanned more than 30 minutes, she was asked about something that didn’t directly relate to Penn State, but is a relevant and controversial topic that surrounds college sports.

Lia Thomas, a transgender University of Pennsylvania athlete, just became a national champion in women’s swimming, and many feel that Thomas, formerly William Thomas, shouldn’t be able to compete in women’s sports.

“We’re watching the death of women’s sports right before our eyes,” Gina Ciarcia, a Virginia congressional candidate, said.

“It doesn’t promote our sport in a good way and I think it is disrespectful against the biologically female swimmers who are competing in the NCAA,” Virginia Tech women’s swimmer Reka Gyorgy said.

Comments on social media platforms such as Twitter have been far less polite.

As expected, Barbour didn’t speak out for or against Thomas’ inclusion in women’s sports. As a member of the NCAA council, however, Barbour acknowledged that the group has had “lots of discussions” about the issue.

“I certainly have been an advocate for the NCAA taking a look at its rules,” Barbour said. “I think at the point that we change them in January, they (will have) been on the books for over 10 years, so they certainly were antiquated from a science — evolution, scientific standpoint.”

Barbour said that the Thomas debate is a “complicated issue that obviously has brought about a whole lot of voices on a number of sides of it.”

“I wish the NCAA had looked at its policies earlier,” she said.

Barbour also expressed sympathy for Thomas’s teammates at Penn, and feels that these athletes are wrapped up in a debate that they did not create.

“I feel for the young women in that program who are thrust into a controversy not of their making,” she said. “They just want to support a teammate. But they certainly have been.”

Barbour closed out her answer by supporting Thomas from a human perspective but also noting the complexity of transgender athletes and their place in college athletics.

“Lia certainly deserves the opportunity to be exactly who she is,” Barbour said. “The competitive swimming piece gets complicated.”

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