Kristi Noem: Here's why I'm not signing the bill barring transgender women from women's sports

An odd, even shocking turn here from an up-and-comer who’s clearly angling to run for president in 2024 if Trump doesn’t. Remember that Trump himself recently flagged the unfairness of trans women competing against biological women in his speech at CPAC. Republican state legislatures have taken up the issue too, passing a raft of bills aimed at drawing biological lines for school sports in hopes that that might win back a few suburban parents who defected to the Democrats last November. And with good reason: Polling shows that a majority of Americans agree that trans athletes should be barred from competing in women’s sports given their biological advantage.


South Dakota’s legislature recently passed a bill to that effect even though there are currently no trans women or girls competing in the state and only one on record as having ever competed at the high-school level. It seemed like a no-brainer for a governor who’s an aspiring GOP nominee to sign the bill, satisfying social cons and aligning her with most of the American public. Instead, Noem stunned righties by sending the bill back to the legislature via what’s known locally as a “style-and-form veto,” which as I understand it is basically a request for revisions. Specifically, she’s hung up on what rules the state can and can’t pass governing college athletics. Elementary and high-school sports are one thing, the NCAA is something else.

Citing concerns about whether it would comply with inclusion rules of powerful collegiate sports leagues, Noem says its passage would make South Dakota vulnerable to a court challenge…

But Noem said she’s comfortable in legislating athlete policy for the K-12 school system because it falls under her authority as governor. Yet, she has little if any control over college and university systems that compete with schools from outside of South Dakota, she said…

Lawmakers will convene for the annual Veto Day at the Capitol on March 29. Should a majority not affirm the changes Noem is asking for, it would take a two-thirds majority to place HB 1217 into South Dakota law.

Her position has left her with no allies. Conservatives are mad that she won’t sign the legislation, liberals are mad that she’s willing to bar younger trans girls from organized sports in the state. As for her view of what the NCAA will and won’t allow, watch three minutes from today’s press conference below in which she admits that her lawyers have told her that South Dakota would lose a court battle with the NCAA. What she wants to do instead of passing the bill, she says, is form a “coalition” called Defend Title IX Now where people can sign up and show the NCAA how many Americans support barring trans athletes from women’s sports. In other words, her alternative to the bill is … a petition.


The most striking thing about this is how frankly she admits that she’s backing down from a culture-war battle — one that’s highly visible among Republicans — because she fears she’d lose, which is virtually the antithesis of Trumpism. MAGA loves Trump because he fights!, right? Well, here’s Noem saying she won’t fight:

A lawyer from the Alliance Defending Freedom told the Daily Caller that she found it bizarre that Noem would on the one hand try to rally righties to Defend Title IX, a federal statute, and on the other claim that South Dakota doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on:

“I’m just stunned by her comments this morning and the hollowness of what she’s suggesting,” Waggoner said. “She’s not suggesting that we take any action. She’s suggesting that federal law actually protects women and girls and that we should defend that federal law, but that somehow legal scholars say that we cannot. It’s inconsistent.”…

Waggoner pointed out to the DCNF that Noem cited an NCAA policy as a reason why HB 1217 could not be applied to collegiate athletics, noting that the governor had said legal scholars predicted South Dakota would not prevail in a lawsuit against the NCAA.

“That makes absolutely no sense because one, there is no NCAA policy that precludes it,” Waggoner said. “That’s just not true. And two, even if there was an NCAA policy, what’s she saying is internally inconsistent. How can we say that federal law protects women, but yet we would lose a lawsuit over a policy that violates federal law?”


The obvious political play was to sign the bill and then let the state take its chances in court, confident in the fact that other red states are moving to pass similar bills. For all of Noem’s talk about building a coalition, that coalition already exists informally in states Trump won last fall. If the NCAA were inclined to punish South Dakota by yanking support for collegiate athletics there, it’d face the prospect of other conservative state legislatures passing similar bills in solidarity with SD (to the extent they haven’t already). Does the NCAA want to face a situation in which, say, Alabama or Kentucky dares it to withdraw its sponsorship of football games featuring the Crimson Tide or basketball games featuring the Wildcats?

Noem could have called the organization’s bluff by enacting the law and then focusing on galvanizing public opinion in support of her position. As I say, most Americans are on her side. The NCAA might have backed down. So why’d she cave? One activist told the Caller that she was pressured behind the scenes by “the NCAA, the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce, and an Amazon plant in Sioux Falls, which … is ‘quietly threatening’ to leave over the bill.” If that’s true, that she let herself be muscled by woke corporate America to protect her state’s bottom line, it’s *remarkably* out of touch with where national Republican primary voters are — especially the Amazon angle, since bowing to Big Tech on cultural issues is a mortal sin for a Republican populist. I don’t see how her current policy stance helps much either. If she’s worried about Amazon bolting in protest of her stance on trans women and girls, why is she looking to ban the latter from high-school sports? Won’t Big Tech take exception to that too?


Won’t they dislike the idea of her trying to build some national coalition which, if successful in growing its numbers, will force the NCAA to bar trans athletes from women’s athletics?

All I can think to make sense of this is that she’s focused on her reelection bid in 2022 and is worried enough about it that she has to prioritize economics over culture-war clashes. She governs a very red state but she won a surprisingly tight race three years ago, finishing with 51 percent of the vote and a margin of three and a half points. Her record on COVID is also highly, uh, complicated: She’s followed the Ron DeSantis approach of keeping businesses open but South Dakota’s pandemic last fall and winter was ferocious. If signing the trans bill ended up leading to an exodus of big business from SD, the economic downturn plus her pandemic record might seed enough of a backlash in 2022 to see her ousted, which would finish off her national ambitions. If she wants to be president, she has to be reelected governor first. And evidently she thinks today’s decision pissing off social cons makes that more likely rather than less.

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David Strom 5:00 PM | May 23, 2024