The NCAA final four basketball games are scheduled to be played in the shadow of an increasingly contentious civil rights fight.
Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Law,” passed last week and signed into law by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, has been widely criticized as an anti-gay measure, drawing protests from corporate America, celebrities, college presidents and everyday citizens. The legislation allows local businesses to refuse service to people whose personal lives offend the “sincerely held” religious beliefs of the proprietor.
The NCAA, whose headquarters is in Indianapolis, came out quickly in opposition to the law. “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. ”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.”
Still, there are no immediate plans to relocate the two critical games being played in the state in the coming days.
Ex-NBA star and current TV basketball analyst Charles Barkley has lead an increasingly vocal chorus of critics who have called on the NCAA to reconsider their position. “Discrimination in any form is unacceptable to me,” said Barkley in a statement to USA Today on Friday. “As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states’ cities.” Barkley has long been one of the most outspoken former professional athletes in defense of LGBT rights.
Barkley’s sentiments were echoed by his former rival and ex-Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller in a tweet this past weekend. “I’ve never been big into politics but I’m very disappointed in my adopted home state of Indiana and the passing of Senate Bill 101.. I’ve always been about inclusion for all, no matter your skin color, gender or sexual preference.. We are all the same people, beautiful creatures,” he wrote.
Jason Collins, the first openly gay active NBA player in history, also weighed in. ”Is it going to be legal for someone to discriminate against me & others when we come to the #FinalFour?,” Collins tweeted at Pence, who has steadfastly refused to reconsider or amend the legislation.
Meanwhile, there has been action to get future schedule Indiana sporting events to change locations in protest over the law. There is already an online petition at Change.org calling for the Big Ten Football Championship to be moved out of Indianapolis. As of right now, the women’s basketball Final Four and several men’s tournament games are all supposed to be played in the state in the next several years.
A pro-gay rights activist group called Athlete Ally is planning on keeping a media spotlight on the state, with a press conference planned in front of NCAA Hall of Champions in Indianapolis on April 3.
“The governor of Indiana has codified discrimination in a place that’s renowned for its leadership in athletics,” Hudson Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, told the Indianapolis Star. “Now, the same state that’s home to the NCAA, the Final Four and next year’s NFL Combine is a place where you can be turned away for being gay.”
Veteran “Star Trek” actor George Takei called for a boycott of the state by all “companies, conventions and tourists” in a column for msnbc published Monday. “The doors of a school or a restaurant or a business, held open to the public, must be open to all. The days are over where some may be denied a seat at the table simply because of who they are – or in this case, whom they love. We cannot, and must not, march backward from where we have come,” he wrote.
There is a precedent for this kind of activism having a real affect. Last year, when Arizona considered passing a nearly identical piece of legislation, the NFL came out strongly against it and even floated the idea of relocating the Super Bowl in protest. Eventually, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill.