Just days before the Final Four in Indianapolis, NCAA President Mark Emmert spoke more forcefully about Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows businesses to refuse to serve gay customers in the name of religious beliefs.
In an interview with ESPN’s Andy Katz, Emmert said that the NCAA wants to hold its championship in an “inclusive” environment and “right now we’re not sure that we have that” in Indianapolis, which is also home to the NCAA’s headquarters. “We’re very serious about our core values and we want to make sure we can operate in an environment that is supportive of those values, so this is a very serious issue for us.”
Last week, the NCAA was the first athletics organization to speak out, saying in a statement that it would “closely examine the implications” of the law, which goes into effect in July.
“[Inclusion and diversity] are values that are fundamental to what college athletics are all about and what higher education is all about,” Emmert said Monday. “For us personally in the NCAA, this is a big deal. We’re very proud of the inclusive environment in our office. We’re very proud of the environment that we’ve created here and we don’t want to lose that. We don’t want to have it put at risk.”
In the meantime, GOP legislators and Gov. Mike Pence have promised to work to clarify the law, but Emmert served notice.
“I’m anxiously awaiting whatever clarification that the legislature can bring forward to this bill so we can really know what it means and what it doesn’t mean,” Emmert said. “As it becomes better understood, we’re going to have to sit down and make judgments about whether or not it changes the environment for us doing our work and for us holding events.”
The Final Four will bring the issue onto the national stage this weekend in Indianapolis, which has hosted the men’s Final Four six times and will do so again in 2021. It will host the women’s Final Four in 2016; this year’s women’s semifinals are in Florida, which has a different religious freedom law.
Indianapolis hopes to land the Super Bowl in 2019 and, although the NFL has not spoken yet on the new law, there were reports of pressure on Arizona when it passed a similar law a year before Super Bowl XLIX. The Big Ten Conference has held a number of events in the city, including its football championship game (four times) and its men’s basketball tournament (nine times, with another scheduled for next season). On Thursday, a Change.org petition was created, asking the conference to move its football championship game out of Indianapolis.
“I was deeply concerned about it, as were our members,” Emmert said of the law. “The law itself has a lot of uncertainty and obviously lacks clarity, but 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 offered no alternatives for adjustments to legislators but noted that the city of Indianapolis has an ordinance protecting civil liberties based on gender preferences. “I’m not a legislator or a lawyer, but I do know that from my personal vantage point we have to operate our events and conduct our affairs in an environment that reflects the core values of what higher education is about, what our universities and college members care about. That’s an environment that celebrates diversity and provides for an inclusive and supportive environment. Right now, we’re not sure that we have that.”
Emmert said he has spoken with Pence, as well as with legislators and the mayor and expressed concerns about the short-term event, the Final Four, and the long-term, the NCAA’s workforce in Indy. “The law does clearly need to be addressed, whether it’s a repeal or whether its some language change that makes it self-evident that there’s not discriminatory practices that can be condoned under this model,” Emmert said. “It’s going to be a decision they have to make, but they need to deal with it.”
The NCAA “expressed our displeasure” with the law when it was proposed, Emmert said, “and frankly I was surprised when it passed and that it was signed into law and especially as quickly as it occurred. … We were surprised and disappointed that this moved as rapidly as it did.”
Although he said he hopes for a problem-free Final Four, he said he understands that there may be protests because this is America. “We want everyone to come here and have a great experience. That’s what these teams have worked so hard for, in many cases all of their lives. That’s what fans have been planning for for over a year, to come here and celebrate college basketball and have a great experience.”
Then, he dropped the hammer.
“[After the tournament] we, the NCAA, we’ve got to sit down and say if this environment remains the way it is, what does that mean for us going forward? We hold lots and lots of events. We’re going to have our national convention here, our offices are here. We have to say, ‘What are we going to do if this law goes into effect in July? What’s our relationship with the state of Indiana going to be?'”
The NCAA isn’t the only sports organization considering the law’s possible effects. On Saturday, the NBA, the Indiana Pacers, the WNBA and Indiana Fever issued a joint statement emphasizing inclusion rather than exclusion.
“The game of basketball is grounded in long established principles of inclusion and mutual respect,” the statement said. “We will continue to ensure that all fans, players and employees feel welcome at all NBA and WNBA events in Indiana and elsewhere.”
Herb Simon, owner of the Pacers and Fever, added:
“The Indiana Pacers, Indiana Fever and Bankers Life Fieldhouse have the strongest possible commitment to inclusion and non-discrimination on any basis. Everyone is always welcome at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. That has always been the policy from the very beginning of the Simon family’s involvement and it always will be.”
On Friday, Charles Barkley spoke out against the law, saying in a statement to USA Today: “Discrimination in any form is unacceptable to me. As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states’ cities.”
Reggie Miller, who spent his career playing for the Pacers, tweeted: