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By Dan Woog
The words ÒNCAAÓ and Òmoral high groundÓ seldom share the same sentence. Yet that lofty peak is exactly where college sportÕs most influential body found itself recently, on the flat terrain of Indiana.
The reason was political. The Hoosier State — ÒThe Crossroads of America,Ó according to its official motto — had just passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Gov. Mike Pence wasted little time signing the bill, which would allow businesses and individuals to claim religion as a defense in discrimination lawsuits. Because sexual orientation is not protected under Indiana law, LGBT people could be refused services, or suffer other forms of mistreatment.
Indiana also happens to be the crossroads of many athletic events and organizations. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is headquartered there; so is the National Federation of State High School Associations. ItÕs the site of the annual Big Ten football championship game, through at least 2021. ItÕs home to NFL and NBA teams, as well as AmericaÕs most famous 500-mile automobile race.
Although sports and politics seldom mix, the sports world reacted quickly, and vehemently, to the governorÕs signature.
In sports, timing is everything. Part of the reason for the nearly instant reaction is that just a few days after the legislation was passed, Indianapolis would host college basketballÕs menÕs Final Four tournament. The eyes of the nation would be fixed on a city in which, apparently, gay hoops fans — or players, coaches, staff members, sportswriters, and anyone else associated with the event — could now be denied service.
WhatÕs more, the womenÕs Final Four is scheduled for the same city next year.
Mark Emmert — president of the NCAA, which has a $1-a-year lease in Indianapolis that runs through 2060 (!) — issued a statement almost immediately. He said his organization would examine how the law Òmight affect future events, as well as our workforce.Ó
Emmert added, ÒThe NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events. We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees. We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next weekÕs menÕs Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill.Ó
Jim Buzinski had a front-row view of the Hoosier hullabaloo. The co-founder of OutSports, a website founded in 1999 that has become the go-to site for LGBT sports news and commentary, he was both surprised and impressed by the quick reaction of athletes and organizations.
ÒIt wasnÕt just the NCAA,Ó Buzinski said. ÒCharles Barkley spoke out too, on the eve of the biggest college (basketball) event.Ó The former NBA star — now an opinionated and controversial television analyst —forcefully declared that Indiana should no longer host any major sporting events.
The timing of the Final Four was an important ÒtriggerÓ in the quick sports world reaction, Buzinski noted. That trigger was pulled a year earlier, when Arizona passed its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act. As it became clear that the National Football League might remove the state from consideration as a Super Bowl host (no idle threat; the NFL moved the game from Tempe to the Rose Bowl in 1993, because the state never established an official Martin Luther King holiday) Gov. Jan Brewer refused to sign the bill.
ÒIt seemed pretty spontaneous,Ó Buzinski said of the opposition to IndianaÕs legislation. ÒThere were no LGBT sports groups saying, ÔWe have to make this an issue.Õ People pay attention when sports figures speak up. The media asked questions, and it took off from there.Ó
Individuals acted too. University of Southern California athletic director Pat Haden chose not to attend a college football playoff meeting in Indianapolis. ÒI am the proud father of a gay son,Ó he tweeted. Ò#EmbraceDiversity.Ó
After a disastrous appearance by Gov. Pence on a Sunday talk show, the Indiana legislature went from defense to offense. It passed a revised version of the law, which prohibits businesses from using it in court as a refusal to offer services based on sexual orientation. (However, sexual orientation is still not a protected category in Indiana law.)
ÒThe Final Four was a line in the sand they didnÕt want to cross,Ó Buzinski said. ÒThey didnÕt want people talking about it when the games began. The situation was getting untenable. Once the revised bill was signed, they were off the hook.Ó
The issue is quiet — for now. But it wonÕt go away. Without specific mention of sexual orientation in IndianaÕs anti-discrimination statutes, LGBT people in the state still lack legal protection.
That means NCAA employees — plus anyone associated with the Indianapolis Colts, Indiana Pacers and Indy 500 — must remain wary of the ÒCrossroads of America.Ó