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Sports Business

RFRA still concerns NCAA, but it's not clouding women's Final Four

February 24, 2016
KEYWORDS Sports Business

What a difference a year makes.

As Indianapolis prepared to host the 2015 NCAA Men’s Final Four, the debate over the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act clouded the event—in the worst way.

It’s the sort of media attention Visit Indy officials and other city leaders hate. It was so bad, Visit Indy launched an “Indy Welcomes All” public relations campaign to counter it.

This week, the NCAA kicked off its 40-day countdown to the 2016 Women’s Final Four with great fanfare at its national office in White River State Park, and there’s barely a whisper about RFRA or gay rights—at least in connection with the event.

Last week, during a visit to the IBJ offices, NCAA and Indiana Sports Corp. officials said that—at least so far—RFRA and Indiana’ stance on gay rights has not been a major story connected to this year’s Final Four.

Sports Corp. officials have conducted dozens of promotional events related to this year’s women’s Final Four at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and told IBJ that not one person at those events has brought up LGBT rights as an issue.

By April, the ISC will have done more than 100 promotional events related to the women’s Final Four and Sports Corp. officials expect more of the same on the RFRA front.

“It’s been very quiet on that front,” said Rick Nixon, NCAA’s associate director, media coordination and statistics, marketing and broadcast alliances.

There have been whispers ever since Indiana first passed its RFRA law last year that the NCAA would consider moving its events—including lucrative Final Fours—out of Indy unless things change.

Pulling events is not being considered currently, Nixon said. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important issue to its constituents. And that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be considered in the future.

“It’s something that’s top of mind for us,” Nixon said. “It’s definitely on our radar. We continue to monitor the situation closely.”

It’s an especially important issue among the NCAA’s constituents involved in women’s athletics, multiple NCAA officials and members told IBJ. The issue also remains important to NCAA President Mark Emmert, said Nixon, referring IBJ to his public comments on the issue over the last year.

Nixon emphasized this is a big issue in terms of the association’s employment here, not just its events.

“For us personally in the NCAA, this is a big deal,” Emmert told ESPN last March. “We’re proud of our inclusive environment in our office. We’re proud of the environment we’ve created and we don't want to lose that, and we don’t want it put at risk.”

Emmert didn’t rule out moving events last year, but he also said he didn’t want to disrupt an event that had been in the planning stages for many months and diminish the experience for student-athletes.

The General Assembly passed RFRA last year to give guidance to courts in resolving conflicts that arise between religious beliefs and government regulations. But critics said it would give businesses and others the right to discriminate against the LGBT community. An explosion of criticism led lawmakers to pass a so-called fix that said RFRA could not be used a defense in a discrimination case.

But the uproar led to calls for Indiana to amend its civil rights law this year to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination in the same way that Hoosiers are protected on the basis of race and religion. The effort—backed by a coalition of key central Indiana businesses and organizations, including the NCAA—failed, in part over questions about rights for transgender people.

“We wanted to see more progress than we got, but legally we’re in a far better position than we were,” said ISC President Ryan Vaughn.

The Indiana Sports Corp. and tourism organizations have been touting an Indianapolis ordinance—“one of the strongest local ordinances in the country,” Ryan said—that offers LGBT protections for housing, employment and other areas within Marion  County.

“We’re on par or better than any other city in the country,” he said. “That’s our position.”

Hopefully for Indianapolis that position is good enough for the NCAA.

Indianapolis is scheduled to host men’s first and second round NCAA tournament games next year and the 2021 men’s Final Four. Losing those two events alone would cost the city more than $60 million in visitor-induced spending.

For Vaughn, the RFRA/LGBT situation here “presents a messaging challenge.” He said most people don’t know the laws and/or ordinances in their own communities and therefore may not know Indianapolis has stronger protections than other cities.

He pointed out that only 17 states have laws that protect the LGBT community from discrimination.

“It’s an education and perception issue,” Vaughn said, “not a logistical or practical issue.”


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