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UPDATE: NCAA to 'examine implications' of 'freedom' bill

March 26, 2015

NCAA President Mark Emmert says the association is keeping an eye on the impact of the "Religious Freedom Restoration" bill that Gov. Mike Pence signed into law Thursday.

The legislation would prohibit any state laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs and has a definition of a person that includes religious institutions, businesses and associations. Opponents say such a law could provide legal cover for discrimination against gay people.

Supporters say discrimination concerns are overblown because the Indiana bill is modeled after a federal religious freedom law Congress passed in 1993, and similar laws are on the books in 19 states. At least 10 other states have introduced similar proposals.

Emmert said the NCAA is watching to see if it could affect student-athletes and employees. The NCAA is located in Indianapolis and the men's basketball tournament's Final Four will be held in the city next week.

"The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events," his statement said. "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."

The conflict arises as thousands of college basketball fans prepare to converge on the city for the conclusion of the NCAA Tournament, an economic behemoth in college sports. The 14-year television contract alone for the event is worth $10.8 billion.

The NCAA has been a mainstay in downtown Indianapolis since 1999, when it relocated from its Kansas location in part because of a rich public-private investment deal from the city to establish the headquarters.

But the new law could put the association in a difficult position. While it has a close relationship with Indiana's capital city, college sports have been at the forefront of several breakthroughs for gay rights in the last two years, and the young adults and college students the NCAA represents have generally been supportive of those changes.

Last year, former University of Missouri football player Michael Sam came out as gay as he prepared for the NFL draft. Sam had told his teammates and coaches months early and said he found nothing but support among them and on campus. When Sam and his teammates were honored at halftime of a Missouri basketball game, hundreds of students lined up outside the arena to block a handful of anti-gay demonstrators.

This past season Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay men's Division I basketball player at the University of Massachusetts. Gordon, who has said he plans to transfer, has had nothing but good things to say about how his teammates and coaches reacted to his coming out last year. And he said not once was he hassled at opposing arenas for his sexuality.

An online push for the NCAA to react to the bill began a couple of days ago with the hashtag #Final4Fairness.

Former professional basketball player Jason Collins, the first openly gay athlete to play in the NBA, tweeted: "@GovPenceIN, is it going to be legal for someone to discriminate against me & others when we come to the #FinalFour?"

The LGBT Sports Coalition also called for the NCAA, the Big Ten, the NFL and USA Diving and USA Gymnastics to pull events from Indianapolis over the next 16 months.

A spokesman for Pence reiterated that the governor does not believe the bill "in any way legalize discrimination in Indiana."

"For more than 20 years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation's anti-discrimination laws, and this law will not do so in Indiana either," he said.

Indianapolis, a hub for major sporting events, is booked for several over the next decade.

The Big Ten has held its football championship game at Lucas Oil Field since 2011 and has contracted to remain there until 2021. The conference also is scheduled to hold its men's basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in 2020 and 2022. The Big Ten women's basketball tournament is set to be held in Indianapolis from 2017-22.

This year's U.S. national gymnastics championships and next year's Olympic diving team trials will be held in Indianapolis.

The Final Four is scheduled to return to Indianapolis in 2021 and the women's Final Four is set to be there next year. The city is also hoping to land the 2019 Super Bowl.

The NCAA has stepped into social debates before, and there is precedent for it taking events elsewhere.

The association in 2001 imposed a ban on holding championship events in South Carolina and Mississippi because Confederate battle flags fly at state capitols. The ban does not prevent schools from earning the right to host a regional event, as with postseason baseball and women's basketball tournaments.

In 2005, the NCAA banned schools that had what it deemed to be hostile or abusive mascots from hosting championship events. That ban mostly targeted schools with Native American mascots.

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