One of the most significant moments during the administration of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who Donald Trump announced as his running mate Friday, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, came in the spring of 2015 when the state legislature passed a “religious freedom” bill.
Just days after it was passed, it came under fire, particularly from the state’s pro sports teams and from one very prominent employer, because it would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gay patrons based on religious grounds. The NCAA, which has its headquarters in Indianapolis, was on the forefront of protesters when the law was passed just before the men’s Final Four basketball tournament in Indy, with President Mark Emmert issuing a reminder that the organization wants its neutral-site championships to take place in an atmosphere of inclusion. He made his point in no uncertain terms.
“[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,” he told ESPN at the time. “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, which moved from Kansas City to Indianapolis in 1999, has about 300 full-time employees.
“We’re very serious about our core values,” Emmert told ESPN, “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.”
The NBA, the WNBA, the Indiana Pacers and Indiana Fever spoke up in a joint statement but Emmert had immediate clout because of the high visibility — and the income from visitors — the men’s tournament brought to the city. Indianapolis was to be the site of the 2016 women’s Final Four basketball tournament, adding further pressure. And Indiana, which had hoped to host another Super Bowl in the next few years, knew full well that the NFL in 1990 moved a Super Bowl from Arizona, which had not passed a law making the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday. (In May, NFL owners passed over Indianapolis when they distributed Super Bowls through 2021.) When the Religious Freedom Restoration Act reached the desk of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in 2014, the NFL was prepared to move Super Bowl XLIX; Brewer vetoed that bill.
Emmert said at the time that he had 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. “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.”
Pence signed a modified version of the bill into law on April 2. Emmert was satisfied with the modification and Pence said there had been a “misunderstanding.”
“Over the past week this law has become a subject of great misunderstanding and controversy across our state and nation,” said Pence in a statement. “However we got here, we are where we are, and it is important that our state take action to address the concerns that have been raised and move forward.”