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NCAA goes soft on North Carolina after House Bill 2

The NCAA approved a new bidding process to protect spectators and participants from discrimination at future events. But some are calling the move toothless.
Wilson NCAA basketballs are seen at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 3, 2015 in Indianapolis, Ind. (Photo by Lance King/Getty)
Wilson NCAA basketballs are seen at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 3, 2015 in Indianapolis, Ind.

Several of the nation’s leading LGBT rights groups are hailing the NCAA Board of Governors’ decision on Wednesday to approve a new requirement that any city hosting or bidding for events demonstrate how it will protect participants and spectators from discrimination. But to some, the NCAA’s announcement was far more notable for what it did not say: that the organization would move events out of states whose legislatures have enacted laws considered to be anti-LGBT.

“It’s a toothless policy and it’s not going to have any immediate effect,” Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of, told MSNBC. “We have been asking the NCAA to do two things: move its events out of places trying pass these bills, and bar all institutions that discriminate against LGBT people from being members of the NCAA… This is a bait-and-switch.”

The NCAA Board of Governors adopted the new requirement for championship bids in response to a wave of legislation seeking to unwind the progress of the LGBT equality movement. Many of the measures, such as those that recently became law in Mississippi and Tennessee, protect the rights of religious people to refuse service to someone by claiming a “sincerely held” belief or principle. While others, such as North Carolina’s House Bill 2 -- arguably, the most notorious of the anti-LGBT bills to become law this year --  focus more narrowly on forcing transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender assigned at birth, rather than the one they identify with.

Under its new bidding process, the NCAA said in a statement it will require potential hosts to show how they will create an environment that is “safe, healthy, and free of discrimination” -- a move the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign said “sent a clear message that unfair and unjust discrimination against LGBT people will not be tolerated.” But some saw the NCAA’s action as far too vague and timid to have any impact on discriminatory laws like HB 2.

“It’s a typically well-crafted statement by a big bureaucracy that says absolutely nothing,” said Buzz Bissinger, best-selling author of Friday Night Lights who’s currently working on a memoir with transgender icon Caitlyn Jenner. “It’s mumbo jumbo. Why doesn’t the NCAA simply say they will pull out and not host tournaments unless the legislation is repealed?”

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Outsports’ Zeigler compared the NCAA’s move to the International Olympic Committee’s 2014 decision to add non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation to its charter, only to award the 2022 Games less than a year later to China -- a country that does not recognize same-sex marriage and has little anti-discrimination legislation in place to protect the rights of LGBT people.

“North Carolina is hosting 20 NCAA championship events in the next couple years for different sports, including games in the 2017 and 2018 men’s basketball championship,” Zeigler said. “They need to move those games.”

It’s not the first time the NCAA has found itself embroiled in a national debate over anti-LGBT legislation. The Indianapolis-based organization was quick to criticize a controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) enacted in the Hoosier State last year. But Republican Governor Mike Pence ended up walking back the law before the NCAA had a chance to take meaningful action against the state.

Some supporters of so-called “religious freedom” and “bathroom bills” see condemnation from sports organizations as all talk. Case in point: After Houston voted down an ordinance last November that would have barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the city still was allowed to host the 2016 Men’s Final Four last month. Next year, Houston will host its third Super Bowl.

“Their threats are empty and shallow,” Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastors' Council, told MSNBC earlier this month. “They threatened to pull the Super Bowl out of Houston, they did not; they threatened to pull the Final Four out of Houston, they did not. They threatened economic consequences that would be catastrophic if we defeated this ordinance. None of that has happened.”

The future of NCAA games in North Carolina is still unclear, as is the question of whether the University of North Carolina can remain a member of the NCAA now that the school system is complying with HB 2. Asked for clarification about the new requirement, NCAA communication director Stacey Osburn gave a kind of non-answer.

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“Currently awarded sites must report how they will provide an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination, plus safeguards the dignity of everyone involved in the event,” she said. “The information must be reported to the Board of Governors Ad Hoc Committee to Promote Cultural Diversity and Equity and full implementation is expected during the current bidding process. The Board of Governors has directed the NCAA national office to finalize details around the implementation and more information will follow.”

Were the NCAA to be more muscular, said Bissinger, there’s no way HB 2 would survive.

“If you talk to people with boots on the ground, they’ll tell you the only thing that will affect the state legislature of North Carolina is for the NCAA to pull out,” Bissinger said. “North Carolina is a college basketball state more than anything else… To me, I’m surprised these LGBT groups are hailing the resolution.”