They loaded the RV with beer and dips, hitting the road early Thursday. This had become an annual tradition: a group of friends gathering in some North Carolina city to cheer on the Tar Heels. One friend was in charge of drinks, another responsible for snacks. Preston Swiney, 64, supplied the RV and did the driving — Laurinburg, N.C., to wherever North Carolina was playing.
This year’s trip was different, though, and on the way here they talked about it: In September, the NCAA stripped Swiney’s home state of all postseason events in response to North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, a.k.a. House Bill 2 — which prohibits transgender people from using public restrooms for the gender with which they identify — and removed the men’s college basketball tournament regional from Greensboro and out of the state entirely.
The Tar Heels, the South Region’s No. 1 seed, and rival Duke, the No. 2 seed in the East Region, would have to travel upward of four hours on the road. “I’m very sad, very disappointed about the whole thing, [in] what apparently is something that’s really, really hard to change,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said Thursday during a news conference in Greenville.
Swiney would hit the road, too, driving his party to South Carolina, of all places, where less than two years ago the NCAA ended a similar postseason ban following the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds after a racially motivated mass shooting in a Charleston church that left nine African Americans dead.
Suddenly South Carolina, a state with so much complexity and charm, had become the more progressive Carolina; now North Carolinians were the ones digging in their heels — and, in some cases, feeling left out.
“It has really made North Carolina look bad,” said Swiney, and he knows the swapping of sports hosting privileges has done little to silence the political debates in either state.
If anything, it has reignited them and compelled those on all sides to dig in. Some North Carolinians are embarrassed and frustrated; others are proud. Many South Carolinians are pleased to show off Greenville’s vibrant downtown and welcome postseason college sports for the first time since 2002. Others believe the state traded its principles for attention and dollars.
“North Carolina made a courageous stand, and we did not,” said Lee Bright, a former South Carolina state senator who said no high-profile sporting event could make the removal of the Confederate flag more palatable. “I’m proud of North Carolina, and I’m ashamed of my home state. If it’s success by any means necessary, then we’re playing the game well.”
Last year, the Raleigh regional — Swiney and his RV were there, he said — brought 19,600 visitors and $4.6 million into the local economy, according to statistics provided by the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance.
There is no such influx this year, and the Greensboro regional was North Carolina’s latest high-profile sports loss. The ACC moved its football championship game from Charlotte to Orlando, one of seven championships scheduled for North Carolina that would be moved, it announced in September. The NBA relocated its All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans, and dozens of companies — Apple, eBay and General Electric among them — filed court documents in protest of HB2, the controversial bathroom law.
The Williams Institute, a think tank in Los Angeles, estimated North Carolina’s refusal to repeal HB2 could cost the state $5 billion per year, including a steep drop in federal funding after the federal government declared the law violated the Civil Rights Act and Title IX. It already has cost some politicians their jobs, including former governor Pat McCrory, a Republican who lost his reelection campaign last fall to Democrat Roy Cooper.
In the meantime, some residents have found themselves taking sides. Art Chansky, a longtime North Carolina author who has written about the intersection of sports and local politics, said that when he’s traveling he tries to avoid sharing where he’s from, the only way to avoid a thorny conversation.
“They look at me like I said I’m from Mississippi or something,” Chansky said. “It has taken the state so long to build up a reputation for industry, for retirement, for everything. They’re losing millions and millions in tourist revenue in the state, but it’s more sort of a low-level disgust. It’s all rolled into one right now.”
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski seemed to agree Thursday when asked about it. “I don’t want to get political right now,” said Krzyzewski, who, after leading his Blue Devils to five national championships and a dozen Final Fours, is one of North Carolina’s most powerful voices. “Look, it’s a stupid thing. If I was president or governor, I’d get rid of it. And I’d back up my promises, as unusual as that might be. Anyway, I don’t want to get too political.”
Native South Carolinians know that feeling, especially when it comes to the still polarizing issue of the Confederate flag. Supporters maintain it’s a reminder of the state’s history and secessionist individualism before the Civil War; detractors see the “Stars and Bars” as a painful symbol of racism and segregation, one that, for decades, flew either on the State House dome or on the Capitol’s front lawn.
The NCAA issued a boycott of South Carolina in 2001, prohibiting predetermined postseason events from being scheduled in the state, and the last time NCAA tournament games were played here was 2002.
In June 2015, Dylann Roof — a 21-year-old whose Facebook page was adorned with various photographs of the Confederate flag — traveled from Columbia, the state capital, to Charleston and entered a landmark black church during a Wednesday night Bible study, where the Gospel of Mark was being discussed. Roof sat quietly before opening fire, killing nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He later confessed to the massacre and, before being convicted and sentenced to death in January, told a Charleston court in his closing argument that he “felt like he had to do it.”
Three weeks after the killings, the South Carolina legislature voted — albeit with some opposition — to remove the flag; the next day, the NCAA lifted its postseason ban, and in September, when Greensboro lost its NCAA regional, Greenville was granted it.
“I wish I could celebrate it, but to know how we gained it . . .” Bright, the former state senator, said before trailing off. “I mean, what’s next? What does the corporate world, the secular world, what do they demand next?”
Others, though, saw the flag’s removal and the reopening of economic opportunity as a time for bittersweet progress — if not an out-and-out celebration.
“I would feel a lot better about it if nine people hadn’t had to die to make it happen,” said Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina attorney and former chairman of the state’s Democratic Party.
If North Carolina’s loss was South Carolina’s gain, economically and perhaps historically, Harpootlian said it didn’t much feel like it. “Does North Carolina’s situation help us? It makes North Carolina look bad,” he said, “and it doesn’t make us look particularly good.”
Swiney, though, said the change in his tradition’s location was intriguing, not frustrating. He and his friends could make plans early, part of the fun of this, and assign responsibilities: Who would bring the queso, and who would pick up breakfast foods? They gas up and drive into a new state, toward an unfamiliar city, park the RV at a nearby campground and toast the Tar Heels’ chances at a national championship.
“We’re just enjoying it,” said Swiney, who nevertheless hopes North Carolina does what’s necessary to return postseason basketball to within its borders. “You’ve got to enjoy the small things in life.”
Their plans, he said, were to eat and drink and passionately debate topics as meaningful as state politics — HB2, Swiney said, leads to “an exclusion of a class of citizens” — and as ultimately meaningless as a basketball team’s chances in the year’s tournament.
Then they would wander around Greenville’s downtown and toward the arena, both freshened up for their big weekend — but never terribly far from the past. Bon Secours Wellness Arena is less than five blocks from the Museum and Library of Confederate History, where Roof once stood and posed for a photograph amid the half-dozen Confederate flags on display.
Swiney would skip that, instead spending most of his Friday in the stands and, when it came to both his home state and his favorite basketball team, sit and hope for the future of North Carolina.