First came Netflix. Then Disney’s Bob Iger chimed in. Eventually, NBCUniversal, Viacom and WarnerMedia made the choir.
One by one, entertainment companies joined in protest of Georgia’s new state law banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That law was quickly followed by similar bills in other Republican-held states — Alabama, Arkansas, Ohio, Missouri — to curtail a woman’s right to something that has been settled law since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, and it stands contrary to public surveys showing a majority of citizens don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned or so-called fetal heartbeat laws enacted.
“We have many women working on productions in Georgia, whose rights, along with millions of others, will be severely restricted by this law,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told Variety last month. “It’s why we will work with the ACLU and others to fight it in court.”
It all made me wonder when the NCAA would jump into the corporate picket line.
More than half of all NCAA teams are women’s teams. Almost half of all its athletes are women. NCAA boss Mark Emmert easily could echo the Netflix executive. He, too, works with “many women . . . whose rights . . . will be severely restricted by such laws.” And there’s precedent for the NCAA taking a stand on social issues: After North Carolina passed a law restricting which public bathrooms transgender people can use, the NCAA suspended championships in the state. In 2001, the NCAA refused to stage any more postseason events in South Carolina and Mississippi as long as those states continued to insult the majority of Division I football and men’s basketball players, young black men, by flying the Confederate flag.
But when asked last week about giving business to states passing restraints on women’s rights, such as staging its women’s swimming and diving championships in Georgia in March, Emmert’s office issued the following statement: “The NCAA is committed to conducting championships and events in a manner that promotes the well-being of student-athletes and safeguards the experience of students, fans and campus communities. The Board of Governors, the NCAA’s highest governing body representing all three divisions, develops policy to address emerging social issues that directly impact the championship experience. While the current political debate on a woman’s right to choose is being tested in various state legislatures and part of a larger national debate, at this time the Board of Governors has not taken the issue under review.”
So for now, the NCAA won’t pull its 2021 women’s indoor track and field championships from Arkansas, where Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in March signed a bill banning most abortions beyond 18 weeks gestation. It won’t move its 2021 women’s volleyball finals from Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine in April signed into law a bill making abortion illegal as early as five weeks into pregnancy. It will continue to plan on staging its 2022 women’s indoor track and field championships in Birmingham, Ala.
The NCAA should have reason to take a stand beyond just its female athletes. For one, since college sports started awarding athletic scholarships to women in 1973 after the passage of the gender equality entitlement law known as Title IX, some overseers of those awards have weaponized them against young women by threatening their education with rescinding their scholarships should they become pregnant.
As Billie Jean King, who had an abortion during her playing days, testified on Capitol Hill in 2012 at a hearing on Title IX: “I have the privilege of working with the NCAA to write . . . pregnant and parenting policies for schools. What was happening was Julie Foudy, a colleague of ours at the [Women’s Sports] foundation, went into the story on [ESPN’s] ‘Outside the Lines’ showing that girls that were pregnant were being forced to have abortions or give up their scholarships. And right away, the NCAA got on it.
“We wrote up . . . a legal memo and sort of an overall piece. But policies at schools can just literally take out of the material and put into their student handbook to let them know that they don’t need to slink away and, you know, go off into the future. That their . . . scholarship is protected and that their ability to come back is protected and that their rehabilitation is protected.”
Still, many young female athletes have come to see pregnancy as a hindrance to the opportunity they earned for a college education and, in some instances, for a career as a professional athlete. Four-time Olympic gold medal sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross revealed in her 2017 autobiography, “Chasing Grace,” that she suffered the wrenching decision to abort two weeks before the 2008 Beijing Games to preserve her chance to medal again for the United States.
“In that moment, it seemed like no choice at all,” wrote Richards-Ross, who won her second gold medal in Beijing. “What would my sponsors, my family, my church, and my fans think of me?”
Richards-Ross bore a son with her longtime boyfriend turned husband, retired NFL defensive back Aaron Ross, in 2017.
In the past, the NCAA’s actions have mattered. North Carolina’s bathroom bill was watered down in 2017, and the NCAA lifted its ban on championships in the state. The Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina state capital grounds in 2015, prompting the NCAA after nearly a decade and a half to allow the state to hold postseason tournaments.
All the while, no one missed either state as hosts, and the NCAA wound up standing on the fair side of history. Now confronted by the misogyny of the antiabortion crusade, the NCAA should recall its recent past of protest and repeat it.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.