FARGO — Tourism and youth sports advocates are joining other voices to fight a bill that would restrict participation of transgender youth in sports in North Dakota.
Charley Johnson, president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, said if passed, the bill would have a devastating effect on the ability to host youth tournaments, including those involving swimming, wrestling, hockey, soccer, baseball and other sports.
National youth sports organizations won’t want to stage events in a state that has such restrictions, he said, nor will they bend their rules for North Dakota.
“They're just going to go away. They have lots of other places they can go,” Johnson said.
He said an attorney for the CVB has the same interpretation of the bill’s potential impacts.
In its current form, House Bill 1298 would prevent athletes under age 18 from participating in sports under any sex other than the one listed on their birth certificate, and would ban publicly owned facilities from hosting events in which transgender athletes might participate.
It would also prevent entities like the CVB from sponsoring or promoting such events.
Introduced by Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo, the bill passed the House on Feb. 11 on a 65-26 vote.
Koppelman said he’s working on amendments that should take care of Johnson's concerns.
Johnson referenced the USA Wrestling meet at the Fargodome every summer and USA Swimming meets hosted by Hulbert Aquatic Center in West Fargo as just a few of the events that could be in jeopardy.
Jenny Bellas has a 17-year-old daughter, Greta, who swims for Sheyenne High School and the West Fargo Flyers swim club.
Bellas said the Hulbert Center in West Fargo will host the USA Central Zones Speedo Sectionals later this month with 400 swimmers from four states and the USA Futures Championship in July, drawing as many as 800 swimmers representing 18 states.
She’s concerned events like those wouldn’t be held if the bill passes. And, if local meets aren’t sanctioned, race times earned by local swimmers wouldn’t be recognized for qualification to national meets.
“I just don't feel like this is the best for our student athletes and our young people,” Bellas said.
In pre-COVID 2019, direct visitor spending from sporting events in the Fargo-Moorhead area was estimated at more than $10 million, Johnson said.
Fargo youth hockey alone brought in 12,000 hotel room nights and between $2.5 and $3 million in direct visitor spending.
Johnson said there’s a risk of losing half or all of that local revenue if the bill passes, as is.
Sen. David Clemens, R-West Fargo and a bill co-sponsor, said money shouldn’t always be the determining factor. He said transgender participation doesn’t set a good example for West Fargo youth.
“If we end up losing some tournaments, so be it,” Clemens said, adding, “Our youth are worth a lot more than a swimming tournament.”
Clemens said he also considers it a morality issue.
Youth today are “more confused than ever,” and allowing transgender participation isn’t doing anything to give them a sense of security, he said.
Transgender youth advocates have said any such change to state law would be harmful to a population already vulnerable to depression, anxiety and suicidality.
All major sports sanctioning bodies, including the North Dakota High School Activities Association, already have policies in place regarding participation of transgender athletes.
“That's not our area of expertise. I don't want to make that decision, but I would also respectfully submit to lawmakers that that is not their area of expertise either,” Johnson said.
The bill gets its next hearing at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 16, before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Other states have pending legislation related to transgender athletes. The South Dakota Senate passed a bill March 8 that would ban transgender athletes from participating in girls sports.