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We’re just days away from one of the most magical times of the year: NCAA cross country season. You’ll get a whiff of a certain scent in the air around mid-August. Maybe it’s the damp grass combined with the slightly cooler morning temperatures or just the hint of fall weather coming. To me, it’s always smelled like cross-country season, the harbinger of back-to-school time and a chance to start anew.
But the return to campus this year is different than it has been for nearly 50 years, especially for women attending schools in the Southeastern Conference and some in the Big Ten, where abortion is now banned or restricted—decisions that will inevitably demolish educational opportunities and athletic careers for some. The day after the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of Title IX in June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, rescinding the Constitutional right to abortion—and decimating the whole “prohibiting sex-based discrimination” notion that Title IX has promised.
As the women’s teams arrive for pre-season camps in 20 states where abortion bans are in place now, how will coaches address this new reality? These young athletes have been stripped of the ability to make decisions about their bodies, their health, and their futures. And coaches, who are typically involved in their athletes’ healthcare decisions, in some states have also been stripped of the ability to help those who need it, for fear that aiding and abetting abortion is now a crime.
In sports like cross country and track and field, in which more than 80 percent of NCAA coaches are men, it’s troubling that so few, if any, have spoken publicly in support of their athletes’ reproductive rights. The Washington Post reported this week that “the end of Roe has been met with silence from most of the college sports world, including the NCAA,” and that some female Division I coaches were afraid to speak out, “worried they could be targeted by their bosses, politicians or the public.”
But as soccer star Megan Rapinoe reminded the nation in June, “No woman should be the loudest voice in the room. This is what allyship looks like. This is what, frankly, doing the right thing looks like. If not for men, we would have none of these laws, we would have none of the inequality in terms of gender rights, and this onslaught on abortion rights, none of this would be happening. We did not do this to ourselves.”
Maybe coaches will find their voices when the repercussions of the Supreme Court decision become personal? When they lose the most talented recruits to programs in states where women can retain their bodily autonomy. Or when a star runner can’t compete while carrying a child to term against her will. Or when a team member is sexually assaulted on campus—something that sadly happens to one in five college students across the country. Or when an athlete has to quit because her body has been traumatized by birth or because she almost died from an untreated unviable pregnancy. Or maybe some coaches will feel more compelled to speak up when they begin losing out on those championship bonuses. Money always seems to talk if nothing else does.
Of course, the onus isn’t entirely on coaches and athletic directors, either. In our sport, not many have taken a public stand—not even at the very top. In the past, the NCAA has leveraged the locations of championships to punctuate its stance on issues that directly affect the athletes—so far that hasn’t been the case in the post-Roe era. It has chosen Stillwater, Oklahoma, to host the 2022 Division I Cross Country Championships in November, where abortion is now banned at the point of fertilization. And the University of Texas in Austin will host the next NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships—a state where not only have politicians banned abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, but have also passed bills banning transgender youth from playing on sports teams aligned with their gender identity. In addition, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has directed family protective services to investigate parents who provide trans children with gender-affirming healthcare.
The time of year that should be filled with that cross-country season magic feels more fraught with uncertainty and a gnawing sense of impending tragedy. We know what will happen, we just don’t seem to know what to do about it or where to begin to protect female athletes. Doing nothing, though? So far, it seems like the worst of all possible options.
“Stand up, [say] something,” Rapinoe said in June. “This is your wife, this is your sister, this is your friend, this is your girlfriend, this is the mother of your children. This is all of us.”
And these are your athletes. They deserve—and need—your voice. Now more than ever.