When the men’s basketball Final Four tipped off last April in Indianapolis, NCAA President Mark Emmert and his colleagues were enjoying something they rarely get: widespread praise.
Indiana’s new “religious freedom” law had sparked nationwide controversy. The NCAA was one of the first major sports organizations to criticize the law, which some characterized as a thinly veiled attempt to legalize discrimination against gay and transgender people. When lawmakers heeded the calls for change and amended the law, gay and transgender rights groups applauded Emmert and the NCAA for “bold leadership.”
This year’s men’s Final Four tips off Saturday in Houston, the largest city in the United States with no law protecting gay and transgender people from discrimination. Last November, Houston’s voters rejected an equal-rights ordinance after a conservative campaign claimed the law permitted male sexual predators to infiltrate women’s bathrooms.
Before that vote, civic leaders in Houston had asked the NCAA to do what it had done months before in Indiana, and what it has done again recently amid similar controversies in Georgia and North Carolina: join a chorus of national corporations and organizations speaking out in a legal dispute involving gay and transgender rights. The NCAA declined the request, according to several people involved with the discussion. NCAA vice president Oliver Luck told a Houston official the NCAA wouldn’t take a position before the vote. The NCAA disputes this account, but it declined to make Emmert or Luck available for an interview.
In the days after November’s vote, the NCAA expressed concern about the outcome, and implied the 2016 Final Four could be Houston’s last until the equal-rights law is restored. As the NCAA’s marquee event comes to town this week, some Houston leaders are still mystified at the organization’s reluctance to take that stance before the vote, when it actually could have had an impact.
“We expected the NCAA — because in many ways it’s a national business organization, like the many others that supported this law — we expected them to make some kind of statement before the vote. But they declined to even talk to us about it,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “It’s unfortunate. . . . I wish they would’ve gotten out in front on this one.”
In Indiana, the controversy was sparked when the state legislature approved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last March. Almost immediately, the new law brought condemnation from a wide range of corporations and organizations that conducted business or held events in Indiana.
As controversy engulfed Indianapolis — home to both the NCAA and Indiana’s state government — the week before last year’s Final Four, the NCAA made its position clear: The law needed to change.
“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events,” Emmert said in a statement. “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees.”
Emmert called Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) to voice his concerns. Then, in several media interviews, Emmert said the NCAA was “surprised and disappointed” by the law, and suggested that if the law remained the same, the NCAA would avoid hosting future events in Indianapolis and even would consider relocating.
“We simply have to operate our events and conduct our affairs in an environment that reflects the core values of what higher education is about,” Emmert told ESPN. “I’m anxiously awaiting whatever clarification that the legislature can bring.”
When Pence signed a “fix” to the law two days before the Final Four tipped off, Emmert and the NCAA enjoyed a brief reprieve from the withering criticism they often face over amateurism, academic scandals and byzantine recruiting rules, among other issues.
“Emmert, NCAA flex fiscal muscle,” read one newspaper headline. “When sports becomes a force for social change,” read another.
The day of the games, Jason Collins, the first openly gay player in NBA history, spoke at a news conference in Indianapolis alongside Derrick Gordon, the first openly gay men’s Division I basketball player.
“I’m very proud of the NCAA,” Collins said. “Moving forward they definitely need to make sure the fans, the teams, the players . . . when they go to these states, these cities, that all members of the community are protected by the laws there.”
A few months later, a controversy erupted in Houston over a local law that protected gay, transgender, and many other classes of people from discrimination.
Houston’s equal-rights ordinance — known to supporters as HERO — was similar to anti-discrimination laws in more than 150 cities and counties that seek to bridge gaps in federal civil rights law, which protects neither gay nor transgender people. It was enacted by city government in 2014, then suspended and put on a ballot after a petition drive to repeal the law and several judicial rulings.
Last year, the law became the target of conservative Christian ire and the subject of attack ads and campaign signs featuring an unusual, five-word message: “No men in women’s bathrooms.” The repeal campaign’s ads, one of which featured retired Houston Astros player Lance Berkman, said the equal-rights ordinance allowed “troubled men” who dressed as women to enter women’s bathrooms.
Campaign representatives claimed the repeal movement was motivated by a concern for public safety, but at a rally in August, one major donor gave a speech that gay and transgender advocates in Houston say revealed the true reason the law was under attack.
Steven Hotze, a Houston doctor and president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, has for years bankrolled campaigns and candidates opposing gay rights. In his comments last August, Hotze called for Houston’s gay residents to “flee” to San Francisco and linked the gay-rights movement to Nazi Germany.
At one point, while standing on a stage at a Houston Hilton, Hotze waved a sword in the air. The sword, he explained, represented God’s word, the strongest weapon in the war against the gay-rights movement.
As a long list of national corporations — Apple, General Electric, United Airlines and Hewlett-Packard, among them — endorsed Houston’s equal-rights law, supporters wondered whether the NCAA would get involved.
A month or two before the November vote, J. Kent “Kenny” Friedman, a lawyer, civic leader and board chairman of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, approached his friend Luck, who has had ties to the area since his days playing for the NFL’s Houston Oilers.
Friedman said he asked Luck whether the NCAA would issue a statement before Houston’s vote similar to its statement about Indiana’s religious freedom law.
“To me, it seemed that if the NCAA was going to be aggressive about not allowing its events to occur in communities which appeared to be intolerant . . . I thought voters should know about that before they cast their votes,” Friedman said.
Luck, who did not reply to multiple requests to comment, said “something along the lines of he was sure the NCAA would be very concerned about it, but that they do not take an official position on anything before the fact,” Friedman said.
The NCAA released a statement disputing Friedman’s account, which was supported by other Houston officials including former mayor Annise Parker.
“Houston officials did not approach the NCAA about the equal rights ordinance,” the NCAA said. “Oliver Luck was asked at a meeting last year about whether the NCAA would move the Final Four from Houston and he replied that there were no such discussions. The NCAA has been very firm on its commitment to the fair treatment of individuals, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Burke, the Texas ACLU president, said the NCAA is “splitting hairs.”
“If their point in their statement is that there wasn’t an official request, like by the mayor . . . then that’s true. But we certainly had someone who was respected in the community who knew Oliver Luck who made the ask,” Burke said. “We wanted them to make a statement before the election . . . and we didn’t get it.”
On Election Day last year, Houston voters rejected the equal-rights ordinance in a landslide.
The next day, the NCAA issued a statement saying that, while it would not move the 2016 Final Four, the outcome “could impact the NCAA returning to Houston for a future Final Four.”
Burke thinks that NCAA leadership may have thought a legislative “fix” could be obtained easily in Houston, as it was in Indiana. It’s not that simple, however, as restoring an equal-rights law in Houston would require voter approval. Supporters say it could be years until city government puts an equal-rights law back up to a vote in Houston.
A spokeswoman for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) said Turner has many other more pressing priorities, including filling a projected $126 million budget deficit.
“We do not view last November’s vote as reflective of who Houston is as a city,” said Janice Evans, the mayor’s communications director. “We are a very open, tolerant city.”
Regardless of what happens in Houston, the NCAA will continue to get chances to take a side in similar battles across the country, such as those in Georgia and North Carolina.
The week after the November vote, the organizers of Houston’s “no men in women’s bathrooms” campaign said they hoped to take their fight to other Texas cities with equal rights laws. Next on their list: Dallas, which is scheduled to host the 2017 women’s Final Four.