Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, an enthusiastic backer of former President Donald J. Trump who is seen as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, finds herself in the crossfire of a culture-war issue promoted by Mr. Trump: transgender students’ participation in sports.
On Friday, Ms. Noem announced that she would not sign a bill passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature banning transgender girls and women from participating in girls’ or women’s sports at all levels — proposing instead that the restrictions apply to middle school and high school athletic competitions, but not college sports.
Ms. Noem’s goal, she said on Monday, was to avoid punishment by the N.C.A.A. that could be financially damaging to schools and surrounding communities in South Dakota, even though the association has not yet issued an official rebuke to the 20 other states that are enacting or considering similar bills.
“South Dakota’s chances of winning a lawsuit against the N.C.A.A. are very low,” Ms. Noem said at a news conference in Pierre, the state capital, on Monday.
“The N.C.A.A. is a private association — that means they can do what they want to do,” said Ms. Noem, who consulted widely for legal advice on the measure. “If South Dakota passes a law that’s against their policy, they will likely take punitive action against us. That means they can pull their tournaments from the state of South Dakota, they could pull their home games, they could even prevent our athletes from playing in their league.”
Ms. Noem’s decision, which she announced after weeks of silence, reflects the volatile politics surrounding the issue, even in a deep-red state Mr. Trump won by 25 points in November.
On one hand, by not issuing an outright veto, Ms. Noem is acknowledging that laws like this are popular with the social conservatives who make up a significant voting bloc in the Republican Party — and in particular in states like Iowa that are important to any politician who is considering a presidential run.
But beyond the base, there has not been much appetite for laws, pushed by the right, to restrict what access transgender people can have to school sports and medical care.
In fact, the laws are generally opposed by influential players in business and academics. After Ms. Noem indicated that she was in favor of the bill, the Greater Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce wrote an open letter expressing its opposition.
Ms. Noem’s equivocation did not win her much breathing room with conservatives.
Margot Cleveland, a conservative legal commentator, accused the governor of “bowing to corporate demands for a watered-down bill,” and said Ms. Noem’s other proposed changes would hamstring enforcement of the middle and high school bans.
There are currently no openly transgender girls competing in girls’ high school sports in the state, officials with the South Dakota High School Activities Association told The Associated Press.
The association reported that only one transgender girl had ever competed in girls’ sports in the state.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump has long embraced the issue as a way of riling up his base.
During his first post-presidential speech this month, he falsely claimed that many “young girls and young women” had to regularly compete against “biological males,” despite the relatively low proportion of athletes who are transgender.