In March, with its marquee event taking place in the wake of political controversy, the NCAA received scorn for its silence. Before Houston hosted the men’s basketball Final Four, activists and civic leaders urged the NCAA to take a position on the city’s vote on an ordinance to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination. When the NCAA declined, critics pointed to the behavior as typical of a governing body unwilling to make stands and unable to act nimbly.
On Monday night, the NCAA reversed course in sweeping fashion. It announced it will relocate all seven championship events scheduled to take place in North Carolina during the 2016-17 season, including the first and second rounds of the lucrative Division I men’s basketball tournament, because of the state’s controversial “bathroom bill” that restricts transgender people from using public restrooms other than the gender listed on their birth certificate.
In pulling events out of North Carolina, the NCAA signaled a shift in how it reacts to social and political issues. The NCAA had taken positions in the past on issues such as the Confederate Battle Flag, the use of Native American mascots and Indiana’s “religious freedom” law, which many viewed as a means to discriminate against gays. But never had it taken the step of removing an entire year’s worth of events. The decision may force the NCAA to confront more of them in the future: By shunning North Carolina, the organization could be seen as tacitly endorsing local law in any state or city that hosts its events.
“I think what it shows is, one, the NCAA is capable of doing the right thing,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, perhaps the keenest critic and observer of the NCAA. “And two, when it wants to, it can act quickly. For many years, the excuse for inaction has been the idea that the NCAA is like the United Nations: It’s so hard to turn the aircraft carrier around, we’ve got 1,100 institutions, all that nonsense. So it shows when they want to do something, they can do it and do it quickly.”
Because the NCAA proved it can and will act, though, the question it will face in the future is when to act. Groups now may cite Monday’s decision as precedent to clamor for the NCAA to move events from cities or states on the basis of other hot-button issues.
The example of Houston and the Final Four provides a meaningful distinction. In that case, activists wanted the NCAA to influence voters by using the threat of removing the Final Four five months before it would take place. In North Carolina, the NCAA could apply pressure directly on elected officials through the value the state places on sports, particularly basketball, and through economic impact.
“My first reaction is, ‘Gee, why didn’t they make a big stand and make a statement in Houston? That sure would have been great,’ ” ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke said. “On the other hand, even then, we knew from some focus group we had done that was not going to move voters. We had actually tested it. Most voters’ reaction was, ‘Well, I wasn’t going to go to the NCAA. It doesn’t affect me.’ As much as we all wanted to see the NCAA make a statement, I don’t think any of us were convinced it would change the outcome.
“You don’t go after the voters. I think that was the difference. I think the NCAA looked at Houston and said, ‘We’re attacking our own supporters. We would be attacking the very people who might go to an NCAA game.’ And so in the case of North Carolina, they’re more able to take direct action toward elected officials.”
Bilas, a practicing attorney who lives in North Carolina, lauded the NCAA for protesting a law that he believes cuts against case law, “not to mention common sense and human decency.” He believed the NCAA could justify decisions without setting a firm standard.
“I think it has to be more of a case by case,” Bilas said. “If you try to set some sort of bar for when you will speak out, for when you will act and when you won’t, that can place you in a box you don’t want to be in. . . . The fact [HB2] affects so many within the membership is an important factor, and that so many members seem profoundly moved and affected by this is an important factor as well.”
The NCAA could use as a standard the guidelines for how it reached the decision to relocate events from North Carolina. In April, the NCAA Board of Governors, which consists mostly of college presidents and chancellors, issued a directive that required cities interested in hosting an NCAA championship to answer specific questions on how it would protect athletes and spectators from discrimination.
“The higher education community is a diverse mix of people from different racial, ethnic, religious and sexual orientation backgrounds,” Kansas State President Kirk Schulz, the board’s chair, said at the time. “So it is important that we assure that community — including our student-athletes and fans — will always enjoy the experience of competing and watching at NCAA championships without concerns of discrimination.”
In disqualifying North Carolina from hosting events, the NCAA focused on four specific criteria: HB2 invalidated any local law that could prevent discrimination against LGBT people; it’s the only statewide law of its kind; it allows government officials to refuse services to LGBT people; and five states and several cities prohibit travel to North Carolina for public employees because of the law.
Regardless of how the NCAA wields its political capital in the future, it has established its willingness to act. It may lead to more questions, but for now it has quieted those who doubted it would.
“Any time you take an action in one area, then the question arises — if you were willing to do this, why weren’t you willing to do that?” Bilas said. “What rises to the level of taking such a stand? But I don’t think you let that stand in the way of doing the right thing in this particular instance.
“The NCAA can’t stop everything with regard to the commerce or the business of college sports. But they can certainly do what they can. And the NCAA has the absolute right to decide where to put championships. I think it’s a perfectly appropriate action to exercise their voice.”