CIF denounces 'harassing behaviors' that led to transgender athletes withdrawing from track finals

MOORPARK, CA - MAY 13: Girls 100 Meter Dash D4 at Moorpark high school on Saturday, May 13, 2023.
Runners compete in the girls' 100 meters at Moorpark High on May 13. On Friday, the CIF denounced the "discriminatory or harassing behaviors" that pressured two transgender athletes to withdraw from the state track and field championships this weekend. (Ric Tapia / Los Angeles Times)

After a week of online vitriol and transphobia aimed at two runners scheduled to compete at the state track and field preliminaries Friday, neither showed up to the starting line of their scheduled 1,600-meter heats at Buchanan High in Clovis.

“The CIF is disappointed for two of our student-athletes and their families because due to the actions of others, they found it necessary to withdraw from the State Track and Field Championships out of concern for the student’s well being,” the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high school sports in California, wrote in a statement provided to The Los Angeles Times.

“The CIF strongly denounces discriminatory or harassing behaviors that impact our student-athletes' opportunities to participate in interscholastic competitions.”

Last weekend, Lorelei Barrett of Sherman Oaks Buckley finished third and Athena Ryan of Santa Rosa Sonoma Academy second in the girls’ 1,600-meter races at their respective sectional meets. However, amid fierce dialogue over the fairness and validity of transgender girls competing in girls’ sports, both were the subject of thousands of comments critiquing their gender identity and suggesting they’d taken spots in the preliminaries away from cisgender girls.

Last Saturday, at the Southern Section Masters event, one parent appeared to repeatedly shout "Trip her!" at Barrett in the midst of the 1,600-meter race, as can be heard in a highlight video posted to a channel titled “THATRACKLIFE.” As Barrett ran neck and neck with Dana Hills' Allura Markow in a foursome at the head of the pack with Ventura's Sadie Engelhardt and Corona Santiago's Rylee Blade, another parent can be heard saying, "Three girls and a guy."

“It’s pathetic,” Max Engelhardt, Sadie's father, said of the tripping calls Friday. A parent, he said, had tried after the race to enlist him and his wife, Shannon, to protest the final result: a third-place finish for Barrett.

“What I saw last week,” Engelhardt said, “was pretty ugly.”

On Sunday, a November video of Barrett speaking to running website MileSplit was posted on Twitter by the Independent Council on Women’s Sports, an organization that identifies itself as “advocating for female protected categories in sport” and frequently posts content targeting transgender athletes.

At the same time, fury erupted in Northern California when Ryan finished second in the girls’ 1,600-meter race at the CIF North Coast Section Meet of Champions. At the meet, protesters displaying a banner that read “Protect Female Sports” were removed by security.

"These policies allowing male athletes to compete with girls are ripping women's sports apart," ICONS co-founder Kim Jones wrote in a statement to The Times.

When asked for comment on ICONS playing a large part in the harassment and attacks against Barrett and Ryan, Jones responded, "Girls are suffering right now, and this concern for the boys is being placed at a higher value than safety and respect for girls."

Barrett’s family declined an interview request earlier in the week in response to requests directed to coach Larry Medina Jr. Similarly, a representative from Sonoma Academy declined to comment on behalf of Ryan and her family Tuesday.

The World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field, announced new rules in March prohibiting “male-to-female transgender athletes who have been through male puberty” from female world rankings competitions. In April, the Biden administration proposed a rule to prohibit schools from banning transgender athletes from competition.

The Times spoke to five local coaches of runners who were either slated to compete in Friday's girls' 1,600-meter heats, competed in last Saturday's Masters against Barrett, or both. When asked for their views, three said they simply coached athletes to compete against anyone in the field regardless of identity, while two expressed belief that transgender girls should be placed in their own separate heat for competition.

“Adults have created this problem," said Oaks Christian coach Wesley Smith. "Adults need to fix this problem.”

The CIF protects transgender participation in sports in its bylaws, as its Guidelines for Gender Identity Participation read: “All students should have the opportunity to participate in CIF activities in a manner that is consistent with their gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on a student’s records.”

Students or parents must contact individual schools to indicate students have a “consistent gender identity different than the gender listed on the student’s school registration records” in order to change participation in a sport by gender, according to the bylaws.

“All of our athletes, all the eligible athletes, are afforded the opportunity to compete with the gender they feel most comfortable with,” said Brian Seymour, the CIF’s associate executive director.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.