RFRA controversy creates problem for NCAA beyond Indiana’s borders

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To be clear, this post is not about the merits of Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Its intent is to point out what a sticky wicket the whole subject is for the NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis and is hosting its crown jewel event—the men’s Final Four—here this weekend.

The men’s Final Four is the NCAA’s most high-profile and lucrative event. Beginning in 2011, CBS and Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay the association $10.8 billion to broadcast the tournament for 14 years.

The event is no small prize for the host city either. Indianapolis expects to rake in a $71 million economic impact over the next six days. That’s more than $20 million more than Indianapolis scored when it last held the tournament in 2010. So, not only is it a huge event, but it appears to still be growing at a rapid rate.

So when NCAA President Mark Emmert started talking this week about pulling NCAA events including the men’s and women’s Final Fours out of Indianapolis, people took notice.

“Anything that could potentially allow for discrimination and works in a way that is inconsistent with our values for inclusion is something that we’re very, very concerned about,” Emmert said this week.
Anything? If Emmert is talking about moving NCAA events out of any place where there could be potential discrimination, that could be a real problem for the association.

After all, there are 19 other states that have passed RFRA laws similar to Indiana’s.

It’s been rightly pointed out that some of those states, unlike Indiana, have separate laws that protect gay people from discrimination. And there are important differences between Indiana’s law and those of the other states and the federal version signed by then-president Bill Clinton in 1993. Critics say Indiana’s RFRA law is much broader and could provide businesses with a legal justification for discriminating against gay people.

Lots of attention has been showered on the men’s Final Four to be played at Lucas Oil Stadium this year and 2021 and the women’s Final Four here in 2016.
And I understand that. But if Emmert is truly concerned about not holding his events where discrimination could take place, he has a lot more to worry about than the association’s events here.

Let’s start with the other 19 states that have passed RFRA measures; Texas and Louisiana among them. In the last 15 years, those two states have hosted a combined 10 men’s and women’s Final Fours. And neither has state laws that prevent discrimination against gay people.
The men’s Final Four in November was awarded to Houston in 2016 and San Antonio in 2018 and the Women’s Final Four is set for Dallas in 2017 and New Orleans in 2020.
The women’s 2019 Final Four also was recently awarded to Tampa—which resides in another state that has passed RFRA and whose former governor, Jeb Bush, has backed Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s passage of the RFRA here. Florida too is among the states that does not outlaw discrimination against gays.

It would appear the NCAA would want to take a very close look at laws in those states as well.

That might only be the tip of the iceberg-sized problems taking shape for the NCAA under Emmert’s stand. If the NCAA, as Emmert has indicated this year, intends to steer clear of any state which hasn’t made discrimination of gays illegal, that may limit the association’s choices dramatically.

To date, 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation outright banning discrimination against gay people in relation to employment, housing and entering public places—government and privately run.
That appears to leave 29 states where the NCAA may want to avoid doing business.
I’m not saying that’s the right or wrong thing for the NCAA to do, but I’m pointing out that avoiding all those states—not to mention moving events out of those states—would create a significant logistical problem for the association.

Over the next seven years, the NCAA has selected the sites of seven men’s Final Fours and six women’s Final Fours. Of those 13 Final Fours, only one—Minneapolis in 2019—is being played in a state that has passed legislation making it outright illegal to discriminate against gay people.

With the Final Four games being played here Saturday and Monday, Indianapolis might be the NCAA’s biggest issue to contend with today. But in the long-run the association has a lot more to deal with than the law where its headquarters rests.

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