If there was ever a reason to put partisan politics aside in North Carolina, it’s basketball. Or maybe barbecue. But certainly basketball.
Thursday, NCAA president Mark Emmert made it clear that House Bill 2 puts the state at risk of hosting future NCAA events, most notably the basketball tournament, which North Carolina has hosted 17 times in the past two decades and will again in 2017 and 2018.
HB2, which prevents local governments from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances, has been decried by critics as open license to discriminate, especially against the LGBT community. Emmert said that as the NCAA selects sites for the 2019-22 tournaments, a process that begins in June and runs through November, HB2 would hurt North Carolina’s chances of hosting again.
“For the universities and colleges that are members of the NCAA, diversity and inclusion is one of the benchmark values that every one of those institutions adheres to,” Emmert said. “So this is an issue of great importance for us. … The experience that our student-athletes, teams, universities, the fan base has, in any one community, is a consideration in where we determine to play these games.
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“In that context, as I’ve made clear in many cases, here in Texas and I’ve chatted with (Gov. Pat McCrory) about this, it will most certainly be one of the variables considered when the committee makes these decisions where to play these games. It simply has to be. It’s far too important to all of our member schools.”
So once again, the NCAA, an organization widely derided for its exploitation of athletes, takes a stand for another kind of social justice.
A year ago, on the eve of the Final Four, the Indiana legislature passed, and the governor signed into law, what was known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics also said left the door open to discrimination. The NCAA was one of many organizations that fiercely opposed RFRA.
The so-called “fix” to RFRA was rushed through hours before Emmert met with the media on the eve of the Final Four in Indianapolis, which imposed a pressing deadline. The NCAA was willing to exert more influence in that situation, and had more influence to exert, because it has been headquartered in Indianapolis since 1999.
The NCAA’s links to North Carolina are more tenuous, but it has shown a willingness in the past to throw its weight around. A ban on championship events in South Carolina lasted more than a decade, until the confederate flag came down from the capital grounds, and remains in effect for Mississippi.
Any number of sporting events in North Carolina are under threat because of HB2, from the NBA All-Star Game and PGA Championship in Charlotte in 2017 to NCAA basketball subregionals in Greensboro in 2017 and Charlotte in 2018, as well as several NCAA championships in the Triangle.
But the timing is particularly dangerous for NCAA basketball in North Carolina, given the upcoming bid cycle. It’s one thing to remove events that have already been scheduled; it would be far easier to exclude North Carolina during the bidding process, knocking the state out of the loop until 2023.
That could be particularly damaging to UNC, which famously has a 33-1 record in NCAA tournament games played within the state, the lone loss coming at Reynolds Coliseum on Black Sunday in 1979. To his credit, Roy Williams was more concerned with the big picture.
“My mentor (Dean Smith) was big about diversity and including everyone,” Williams said. “That’s something that I very much appreciated since I was a kid. Who I played with was extremely important to me. I didn’t isolate anyone. I think the University of North Carolina and Roy Williams and our basketball program is about diversity, and always will be.”
Williams makes a good point: There are many bigger reasons HB2 is a bad idea. Basketball is a minor one, but it might provide the leverage to get it fixed, because you don’t mess with basketball in North Carolina.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock