Indy officials confident city measures up to NCAA’s new standards

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Local officials are confident Indianapolis will continue to host NCAA events despite rules adopted by the association on to assure LGBT rights and protections.

At its quarterly meeting in Indianapolis on Wednesday, the NCAA Board of Governors adopted a new rule requiring host and potential host cities to demonstrate they will “provide an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination, plus safeguards the dignity of everyone involved in the event.”

The board’s decision integrates the new requirement into the bidding process for events, adding it to information already required that outlines available access for people with disabilities and details on playing and practice facilities.

“The higher education community is a diverse mix of people from different racial, ethnic, religious and sexual orientation backgrounds,” Kirk Schulz, president of Kansas State University and chair of the Board of Governors said in a prepared statement. “So it is important that we assure that community–including our student-athletes and fans–will always enjoy the experience of competing and watching at NCAA championships without concerns of discrimination.”

The board’s action comes on the heels of recent legislative actions in several states, which have passed laws allowing residents to refuse to provide services to some people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Last year, Indiana state lawmakers passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that some said would allow discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Within a week of the passage of the original law, Gov. Mike Pence signed into law a measure aimed at removing fears that the state's new religious freedom law would allow businesses to discriminate against members of the LBGT community. However, advocates of gay rights said the so-called "fix" did not go far enough.

This year, state lawmakers considered legislation that would have expanded Indiana's civil rights law to cover LGBT and transgender people, but the bill died. However, existing state law lets local officials pass their own civil rights ordinances. Indianapolis has one.

Officials from the mayor’s office, Indiana Sports Corp. and Visit Indy have been in “constant contact” with the NCAA over the last year to make sure association officials are aware of the city’s human rights ordinance, said Visit Indy Vice President Chris Gahl. That ordinance, city officials have stressed, has protections for people regardless of sexual persuasion and gender identity.

“The protections Indianapolis has in place keep the city competitive in bidding for future NCAA championship events,” Gahl said. “What the NCAA has made loud and clear is that they only want to host events in cities where the LGBT community is protected and welcomed, and we are relieved that based on our long-standing human rights ordinance, Indianapolis fits in that category.”

Indiana Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaugn said he wasn’t surprised by the new rule.

“I was encouraged by the action,” Vaughn told IBJ.  

Historically, the NCAA has used event bidding as a means to make clear its values. In addition to hammering home equality issues, the NCAA now prohibits championships events in states where governments display the Confederate battle flag and prohibits NCAA members from hosting championship events if their school nicknames use Native American imagery that is considered abusive and offensive.

Gahl, despite being confident that Indianapolis is compliant with the NCAA’s new rule, stopped short of saying that the NCAA guaranteed Indianapolis officials that the city is completely in the clear.

“The feedback we’ve gotten from the NCAA was that we have a really strong human rights ordinance and have met the spirit of what the NCAA is looking for,” Vaughn said.

The wording of the NCAA’s new rule is somewhat vague and recent issues with public bathroom usage remains an issue, especially in places like North Carolina, where officials there passed the so-called “bathroom bill,” which directs transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate in many public buildings. Some have called for the NCAA to cross North Carolina off its list of possible host cities.

Vaughn and Gahl point out that there is no legislation in Indiana or Indianapolis directing people on what bathroom to use. At the request of a group renting the Indiana Convention Center, there were signs posted at some of the facility’s bathrooms earlier this year stating transgendered people could use the bathroom of the gender they identify with.

One good sign for Indianapolis is that the NCAA earlier this month, hosted its women’s basketball Final Four here as well as Division II and Division III women’s championship basketball games. Last spring, Indianapolis hosted the men’s Final Four.

Next year, the city is set to host first and second rounds of the men’s basketball tournament, men’s and women’s swimming and diving championships, men’s fencing championships and the women’s water polo championships. In 2018, more NCAA events are scheduled for Indianapolis including the association’s annual convention.

“We have a great relationship with the NCAA,” Vaughn said. “And we fully expect that to continue.”

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