Right about the time the Final Four teams were getting their first look at the court set up at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday, the governor of Indiana was doing some fancy dribbling of his own a few blocks away at the state capitol.
One week after he signed Indiana’s widely derided Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, which critics argued gave businesses the right to discriminate, against gays and lesbians in particular, Gov. Mike Pence and state lawmakers announced a hasty “fix” to the law in the face of massive public outcry.
No one applied more pressure than the NCAA, which moved its headquarters to Indianapolis in 1999 and is hosting its signature event here this weekend and in 2021, along with the Women’s Final Four next year. NCAA president Mark Emmert was one of the first to decry the law and went on a national media tour in the days after its passage to urge for its clarification or repeal, threatening to move events like the Final Four if not the NCAA itself.
“We made very clear that we wanted this resolved as quickly as possible,” Emmert said. “This bill is more important than a basketball tournament.”
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It was a strange juxtaposition of circumstances: At a time when the NCAA is under fire in both Federal court and the court of public opinion over what its critics say is a broken system that exploits college athletes, a gross injustice, the NCAA was at the forefront of the pursuit of justice in Indiana.
The NCAA has taken a comparable stand in South Carolina and Mississippi, which have been prohibited from bidding for NCAA events since 2001 in response to the Confederate battle flags on state capitol grounds.
But the NCAA’s connections to those states are tenuous compared to Indiana, where it has put down firm roots and plays an important role in the local economy. It has the power to wield a heavy hammer. And from the moment the bill was signed, the NCAA did just that.
“The NCAA has appropriately in the past been critiqued for being slow to respond to things,” said Kansas State president Kirk Schulz, the chairman of the NCAA’s board of directors. “This is one of those cases where if we had spent three or four days talking to everybody, deciding on a response, everybody would have said ‘Gee, the NCAA has this major event, one of our marquee events of the year occurring, and couldn’t even take a public stand on this.’
“This is one of those times where I believe the rapid, quick, decisive communication from the NCAA office, by Mark and our staff, was exactly where we needed to be.”
Before Thursday’s addition of language that specifically protects sexual orientation and gender identity, the broadly written Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, allowed private businesses to refuse service to customers who they believe infringe upon their religious beliefs – which its detractors said essentially sanctioned LGBT discrimination.
And its detractors were, to say the least, many. Entire cities adopted “everyone is welcome” policies, including traditionally conservative suburbs like Fishers, which has an all-Republican city council. Businesses throughout downtown Indianapolis hung signs in their windows.
Several states have RFRA-type laws, but few were as ambiguous as Indiana’s. A similar bill has been proposed in the North Carolina legislature, and has some support from elements of the Republican majority, but House speaker Tim Moore said this week he doesn’t see it as a priority and Gov. Pat McCrory said it “makes no sense.” Arkansas’ Republican governor said Wednesday he would urge his legislature to recall and revise a similar bill there.
The backlash against the Indiana law, scheduled to go into effect July 1, was so strong and immediate both inside and outside Indiana that Pence was quickly forced to retreat. With the NCAA leading the way, the sports world quickly fell in behind.
University of Southern California athletic director Pat Haden, a member of the College Football Playoff committee, said he would not attend a CFP meeting in Indianapolis.
“I am the proud father of a gay son,” Haden posted on Twitter. “In his honor, I will not be attending the CFP committee meeting in Indy this week. #EmbraceDiversity”
The University of Connecticut’s president forbade basketball coach Kevin Ollie and his staff from attending the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention this weekend, held annually at the Final Four, and even after Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Tuesday he would not address “social issues,” he signed a joint NABC statement Wednesday from the four Final Four coaches affirming the NCAA’s position. Earlier this week, the presidents of three of the participating schools and a Duke spokesman did the same.
In addition to the Indianapolis corporate community, which includes pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, NASCAR echoed the NCAA’s position. One of NASCAR’s biggest Sprint Cup races, the Brickyard 400, is held annually at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
One issue for the NCAA going forward will be, having taken such a strong stand in this case, how will it proceed as other states debate and potentially pass religious-freedom acts like Indiana’s that may create license for discrimination?
“I think these are things that, as we go forward, as we make big decisions about places we should take our tournaments, we’re going to have to look deeper and harder at,” Emmert said.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947