By Dan Woog
It’s one thing for Apple or Doritos to hawk their wares during the Super Bowl. It’s another thing entirely for Focus on the Family to do so.
The right-wing Christian political organization – known for its strident opposition to both abortions and LGBT civil rights – provoked a national uproar when CBS agreed to air an anti-abortion commercial featuring University of Florida quarterback Ted Tebow during what turned out to be the most-watched program in American television history. (The controversy was stoked in part because in 2004 CBS refused to air an ad in which the United Church of Christ showed that it welcomed everyone – including gays and lesbians.) The network said its policy on “advocacy ads” changed in the intervening years.
The anti-abortion spot aired, and the republic survived. But within days, a new controversy arose. Within a few weeks, CBS was televising the men’s college basketball tournament – and more Focus on the Family ads were planned.
This time, though, it was not the network that drew activists’ fire. It was the organizers themselves: the NCAA.
Pat Griffin has worked closely with the NCAA, as both a former University of Massachusetts coach and director of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s “It Takes a Team” anti-homophobia project. Now a blogger on LGBT sports issues, she set her sights on the powerful oversees of most American collegiate athletic programs.
The NCAA’s own constitutional principles explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, she wrote. Yet Focus on the Family wants to “impose their values on the NCAA tournament … . (The NCAA and CBS) are rolling out the red carpet, and I am deeply offended by the NCAA’s complicity in this.”
The NCAA, Griffin said, “cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim to care about the quality of the athletic experience for LGBT student-athletes and provide educational programs to assist schools in making sure that LGBT student-athletes can compete with respect and dignity, and (at the same time) allow Focus on the Family to use the NCAA Web site and men’s basketball tournament to promote their discriminatory right-wing Christian agenda.”
Griffin asked her readers to pass her blog post on to friends – and the NCAA. She urged anyone who attends – or once attended – an NCAA school to call their university presidents.
Other LGBT blogs, including the influential Towleroad, picked up the cause. Within a day, the NCAA relented – a bit.
NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said the decision “came in response to vocal protests from a small number of advocates for gay and lesbian athletes, who complained that the group’s views that homosexuality and abortion are immoral is inconsistent with the NCAA’s stated non-discrimination policy. Focus on the Family did have a banner ad on NCAA.com. Today, it was decided to remove the ad from the Web site as a result of concerns expressed by our membership.”
Williams’ words went from combative (“vocal protests,” “small number of advocates for gay and lesbian athletes,” “complained”) to acceptance (“concerns expressed by our membership”) in the span of three sentences.
No decision was announced, however, about the television ad – which was, after all, more of a case of the ball being in CBS’s court.
And then something really interesting happened. The NCAA statement was changed. Suddenly, the language was less provocative, more objective: “The decision by the NCAA came in response to vocal protests from advocates for gay and lesbian athletes – which quickly grew into a broader audience of critics who sent e-mails and set up what has now become the standard, a Facebook page – who complained that the group’s views that homosexuality and abortion are immoral are inconsistent with the NCAA’s stated non-discrimination policy.”
Griffin wasn’t through. She used the NCAA’s own Advertising and Promotional Standards to argue that Focus on the Family’s ads violated the organization’s stated mission. NCAA advertising, the standards say, should support ideals that include diversity, gender equity, non-discrimination, ethical conduct and student-athlete welfare.”
The connection between the NCAA and CBS turns out to be quite close. According to Inside Higher Education.com, the ads were part of a larger package deal between CBS – which manages NCAA.com – and Focus on the Family.
Griffin kept up her attack. Focus on the Family’s definition of “family,” she said, is restricted to those in which heterosexuals marry. The group is “entitled to their perspectives on controversial issues,” she said. And of course “they have a right to buy advertising time if their ads meet the standards of CBS or any other for-profit media group.”
However, Griffin argued, a line must be drawn when non-profit educational organizations like the NCAA have missions and values that “do not square” with those of groups like Focus on the Family.
Griffin said she would like to follow March Madness with the same excitement she always has. She does not want to feel “sold out” by the NCAA – “or need to go to war about it.”
But, she warned, “I will if I have to.”