On the eve of next week’s Final Four in Indianapolis, the NCAA expressed concern about a new Indiana law that will allow businesses to turn away gay and lesbian customers based on “religious freedom” and suggested future NCAA championships in the state could be impacted.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on Thursday signed into law a measure that has created uproar in the state where the NCAA is located. Some conventions are threatening to pull out of Indianapolis. Greg Ballard, the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, broke with the Republican governor on the bill and said it would put the city’s economy at risk.
“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement Thursday after the bill was signed. “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 week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”
Jason Collins, the first openly gay active NBA player, asked Pence in a tweet whether it is “going to be legal for someone to discriminate against me & others when we come to the #FinalFour?” Collins will be in Indianapolis next week covering the NCAA’s Final Four.
Former NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen, who once ran the men’s basketball tournament, wrote on Twitter this week, “Spent my life working to bring events/corps [corporations] to my home state. Any law allowing discrimination is embarrassing, unacceptable.”
Athlete Ally, an organization that attempts to get athletes to support LGBT inclusion, created the hashtag #Final4Fairness and an online petition to oppose the law. “It’s time for athletes and sports fans to come together to tell Indiana it can’t turn its back on inclusion on the court or under the law,” Athlete Ally’s website says.
Freedom Indiana, a grassroots website opposing the law, created a petition calling on the NCAA to take a stand before the Final Four begins next week.
Last year, the NCAA publicly opposed an amendment to the Indiana state constitution that would ban same-sex marriages and prohibit civil unions. At the time, the NCAA urged Indiana lawmakers to legislate in a way that would provide equal protection under the law for everyone. The attempt to ban same-sex marriage in Indiana was defeated.
Given logistical issues, next week’s Final Four will go on as planned. That was evidenced by the NCAA’s announcement Thursday of a three-day musical festival at the Final Four that includes Imagine Dragons and Weezer.
But future sporting events could be in jeopardy. Outsports.com, a website that publishes gay sports news, called on the NFL, NCAA, Big Ten, USA Diving, USA Gymnastics and other sports entities to immediately withdraw planned events for the state.
In a statement released Friday, the Big Ten said it believes in "an inclusive enivornment in which athletic competition can operate free from discrimination. The conference is aware of the bill that was recently signed into law in the state of Indiana and will further review its impact at the next scheduled meetings of its administrators, presidents and chancellors."
The NCAA fairly regularly holds the men’s basketball Final Four in Indianapolis, with the next one scheduled for 2021. The NCAA women’s basketball Final Four is in Indianapolis in 2016. The Big Ten will play its football championship game in Indianapolis this December.
The Indiana bill could allow business owners to refuse services to same-sex couples. Opponents say it would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. Supporters say the law is needed to protect people with strong religious beliefs from overreach by the government.
Pence is considering running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it,” Pence told reporters on Thursday. “In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than 20 years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation's anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.”
Eighteen other states have passed similar laws. Driving the push for these “religious freedom” laws are the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case that allowed businesses to not provide insurance coverage for contraception, and the Supreme Court’s expected ruling in June on whether same-sex marriage is constitutional.
A similar bill that was considered last year in Arizona faced harsh criticism from the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA and WNBA. The NFL’s Super Bowl committee flatly said adopting the legislation would run contrary to the NFL’s goals of tolerance, diversity, inclusiveness and prohibiting discrimination. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill under pressure.
The NCAA has taken stands on social issues in the past involving the location of its championships. In 2005, the NCAA banned schools with Native American mascot names deemed inappropriate from hosting NCAA championships or using their mascots at those events.
Since 2001, the NCAA has banned the state of South Carolina from hosting NCAA championships because the Confederate flag is flown on the statehouse grounds. (The NCAA allowed the South Carolina women’s basketball team to host NCAA Tournament games this season because of a new format that assigns home dates to the top 16 sites as opposed to awarding sites based on bids.)