The tactic predates the Declaration of Independence, tracing most famously to 1773 and the Boston Tea Party. Boycotts have been a part of American life ever since. Recently entire states – Florida, Arizona, South Carolina – were targeted for boycotts, to varying effect, due to legislative acts taken or avoided. Now, thanks to HB2, the so-called “bathroom law,” North Carolina is in the crosshairs of a spirited boycott of similar dimension and so, apparently, are many of our sporting events.
The situation caused mayor Nancy Vaughan of Greensboro, slated to host an NCAA men’s basketball regional next year, to send a letter to the NCAA quietly declaring her city’s divergence from the thinking of the governor and General Assembly on sexual orientation. Which, in a way, is how Charlotte got the controversy rolling in the first place.
Whatever your take on HB2, there’s no denying it’s at odds with a national trend toward inclusiveness – expressed in policy, marketing and law. According to the U.S. Justice Department, it’s also at odds with federal statutes. What’s also undeniable is that, as the sports industry grows in financial impact and social presence, its contests become rich targets amid calls for change.
“I would say that sports has become central to our popular cultural universe since, say, the 1960s,” offers Lawrence Glickman, a history professor in American Studies at Cornell. “Also, look at our entertainment dollars and time with ESPN, and the nationalization of so many sports which were local, like hockey, a generation ago.”
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Glickman, the author of a book examining boycotts, “Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America,” taught at the University of South Carolina from 1992 through 2014. His tenure overlapped an NAACP boycott of the state for refusing to remove a Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the capitol building in downtown Columbia. (The flag was retired to a museum last July, shortly after the murders of nine black worshipers in a Charleston church.)
Many organizations respected the NAACP’s boycott. Among them was the NCAA, which scheduled no predetermined championship events in South Carolina. Contrastingly, during that period the ACC attempted to tiptoe past the boycott. In 2009 the league announced a 3-year agreement to hold its baseball tournament in Myrtle Beach from 2011 through 2013. Objections were voiced by the state NAACP, which readied demonstrations. Citing miscommunication, the ACC canceled the deal.
“Sports played a major role” in the effectiveness of the boycott, says Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina NAACP. “Remember now, this is a multibillion dollar industry. This is the lottery of America. The sports entity is the lottery of America.”
Wave of protests
Revulsion at the murder of innocents clearly moved South Carolina politicians and precipitated the Confederate flag’s removal. But the boycott made a difference too. “It kept that issue in the air,” says Glickman. “We never got to host regional NCAA tournaments. A lot of people in the state really care about those sorts of things.”
Now a less centralized wave of protests aimed at HB2 has engulfed North Carolina, with potentially devastating effect for the state’s ability to host major athletic events. “I do think sports has become much more of a battleground for these issues,” Glickman says.
Precedent is not on North Carolina’s side. Twenty years ago, when Arizona refused to enact a Martin Luther King holiday, the state was boycotted, with the NFL relocating the 1993 Super Bowl and the NBA moving its league meetings. Elsewhere sports entities have joined other corporate interests to oppose or overturn state or local restrictions that figured to compromise their bottom line.
Commissioner Adam Silver already has warned the NBA is reviewing whether it will go ahead with the 2017 all-star game in Charlotte. And the NCAA appears poised to land a blow that will have broader and more enduring consequences.
A season rarely passes without several early rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament played within the state. This year it was Raleigh. Next year Greensboro hosts a regional, then Charlotte in 2018. Less visible sports flock here as well. Since 2000, Wake County sites have hosted more than 40 NCAA events in 12 sports, including the Division II baseball championship starting this Saturday at the USA National Baseball Training Complex in Cary.
“Everyone loves hosting these championships,” says Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, “and the NCAA loves doing championships in North Carolina because it’s such a good state for college sports.” Unfortunately, Dupree concedes, HB2 has become “the X-factor” in sustaining that favored status.
The big question that we’re all waiting to see ... is where the NCAA sets the bar in terms of how much they’re asking a host community to guarantee that there will be no discrimination.
Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance
That became evident last month when the NCAA Board of Governors responded to the law’s enactment by declaring a commitment to hosting championships in “an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination, plus safeguards the dignity of everyone involved in the event.” Lest there be doubt about the expanse of that embrace, Kirk Schulz, president of Kansas State University and chair of the Board of Governors, pointedly noted the NCAA serves “a diverse mix of people from different racial, ethnic, religious and sexual orientation backgrounds.”
Such statements suddenly don’t bode well for North Carolina. Recognizing that new reality, last month Mayor Vaughan sent the NCAA written assurance Greensboro “is a progressive, open-minded community with a long-standing tradition of support for members of the LGBT community.” She also noted the state’s third-largest city voted its opposition to HB2 and has gender-neutral bathrooms at its arena.
Bids to host NCAA championships must be submitted this August, with site selections for the 2019 through 2022 seasons to be made late this fall. But first potential hosts for events already scheduled, as well as bidders for future championships, must complete and submit a form, as yet undistributed, that demonstrates an environment free of discrimination.
“The big question that we’re all waiting to see, when this form comes out in mid-June, is where the NCAA sets the bar in terms of how much they’re asking a host community to guarantee that there will be no discrimination,” says Raleigh’s Dupree. “It leaves you feeling a little helpless.”
Unless the NCAA is willing to consider cities as discrete islands within a larger political body, an unfortunately dubious proposition, the timing couldn’t be worse for North Carolina venues. Especially considering that, just down the road, South Carolina cities such as Columbia and Greenville are expected to apply to host NCAA events now that the flag boycott has ended.
The ACC, with numerous league championship events scheduled for North Carolina, likewise faces uncertainty. Following its spring meetings the conference issued a statement affirming a commitment “to provide safe and inclusive environments” at its events in the wake of HB2’s enactment. But it neither expressed opposition to the law nor explained how it would respond if NCAA decisions result in shunning its headquarters state.
Several miles from the ACC office Matt Brown, managing director of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, is lobbying for “European-style” locker rooms, with individual stalls rather than the customary “gang showers” at a planned fourth pool at the site’s aquatic center, which hosts ACC and national championships. “I think that’s the future,” says Brown, noting the complex has previously accommodated transgender athletes. “Eventually we’ll have to come to appreciate we need to be respectful of everybody.”