For the Ncaa There is No Sideline

While individual athletes and teams are engaging in more social justice activism beyond the playing field, leagues have been more conservative when wading into “political” issues. But sometimes a political issue hits so close to home, and/or impacts a league’s constituency so much, that sitting on the sideline is no longer an option.

This is that moment for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Here’s the situation. The NCAA is headquartered in Indiana. It holds the men’s Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament every five years or so in Indiana, including this April. Tens of thousands of players, coaches, fans and families travel to Indiana for this high profile event. Indiana, however, is about to become a very unwelcoming state for vulnerable minorities, especially LGBT people, if a controversial bill is signed into law.

The legislation in question is SB 101. It is packaged as a “religious freedom” bill. Like similar “religious freedom” legislative efforts, SB 101 would create legal protections for individuals and corporations that violate civil rights anti-discrimination laws based on personal biases. As such, the bill would codify discrimination and undermine existing Indiana civil rights laws by allowing businesses to turn away, for example, LGBT patrons. In essence, SB 101 legalizes discrimination. Even conservative legal scholars have called these “religious freedom” bills unnecessary, unconstitutional, and mean-spirited.

Yet SB 101 is on the verge of becoming Indiana law.

If enacted, SB 101 could cause major problems for NCAA staff, players, coaches and fans who come to celebrate the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. For example, a player or staff member who identifies as gay could be refused service at a team function by a local business simply because of who they are. A single mother taking her daughters to enjoy a game could be turned away from a family restaurant because the owner does not approve of her “nontraditional” family structure. And a fan living with HIV, traveling to Indiana to support his or her team, could be denied access to a hotel simply because an employee does not believe in serving members of this vulnerable community.

The threat of SB 101 becoming law has thrust the NCAA into a unique position. The NCAA has an opportunity to have an impact beyond sport by speaking out against this discriminatory law. Plus, the tournament would give the NCAA a national stage to showcase its leadership on issues of inclusion and nondiscrimination.

There is precedent for the NCAA wading into the political arena in this way. Last year, Arizona attempted to pass a similar bill. The sports community — including the NBA, MLB, and WNBA — rallied against it. The NFL’s Super Bowl Committee even spoke out against the bill a year before the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. hosted Super Bowl XLIX. The civil rights implications and the significant negative economic consequences of signing this bill into law ultimately led then-Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to veto the bill.

The NCAA could have this same impact in Indiana. All of the key components are there. The NCAA is a significant force in Indiana. It allows Indiana to host this extremely lucrative Final Four event every five years or so. The Final Four host city, Indianapolis, is where the NCAA’s headquarters are. Indianapolis already believes in legally protecting LGBT people and other vulnerable minorities from wanton discrimination (these protections would be gutted if Governor Mike Pence signs SB 101). Further, the NCAA has a strong history of inclusion advocacy for its member base. In fact, it lists inclusion as one of its core values.

So the foundation is there. It is now just a question of will and timing.

Of course there are risks for the NCAA taking a public pro-inclusion political stance. Just like there are already allies in the sports community supporting fairness at the Final Four, there are certainly SB 101 supporters among the NCAA member base. And some fans might be put-off by the NCAA delving into the political arena in this way. But the reality is there is no sideline here; the direct impact SB 101 would have on the NCAA, its member base and its fan base is just too significant to go unchecked.