This weekend, tens of thousands of basketball fans—frankly, most of them screaming for Kentucky, those lunatics–will flock to Indianapolis to watch the NCAA Tournament Final Four. And they will accompanied by hundreds, maybe thousands of protestors. Despite terrific, iconic final four teams in Duke, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and undefeated Kentucky, the lead story on non-sports outlets is going to be about the protestors.
The blowback to Indiana’s passing (and Governor Mike Pence’s signing) of a religious-freedom law has surpassed what anyone involved had anticipated. Pence himself looked shocked, bewildered, and a little lost while trying to defend it on morning shows over the weekend, and the controversy has instantaneously metastasized into a national drama, thanks to the tournament this weekend. Much like the corporate world, the sports world is a force for the status quo—and on these issues, the status quo has been liberalizing rapidly. And, much like corporations, sports teams and organizations have real power, responsive to the sometimes vocal constituencies of their players. NCAA President Mark Emmert has already said the NCAA will examine how the law “might affect future events as well as our workforce.” (The NCAA is based in Indianapolis, and the Women’s Final Four is schedule to be held there in 2016.)
The NBA and the Pacers released a joint statement blasting the law, saying, “We will continue to ensure that all fans, players and employees feel welcome at all NBA and WNBA events in Indiana and elsewhere.” Even Charles Barkley, one of the lead commentators for the tourney this year who has been featured (with Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson) in advertisements lauding Indianapolis all month, blasted the law, saying the Final Four should be taken away from the city .
Putting aside for a moment how astounding it is to see sports, of all places, at the forefront of this social issue—it was only eight years ago that LeBron James said he’d be wary of having a gay teammate because he wouldn’t be “trustworthy”—the key to this backlash is that, generally speaking, when sports leagues put pressure on cities and states, the pressure is effective. We’ve in fact seen it with this exact law. It was less than a year ago that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed that state’s “religious freedoms” bill, in large part because the NFL was so angry, partly about the potential passage of the bill and mostly because it would be hosting the Super Bowl there in February 2015. The last thing the league wanted was the sort of protests Indianapolis will be receiving this weekend. (Compared to that, DeflateGate was a breeze.) Brewer did not deny that the league’s threats—including a leak to Sports Illustrated that the league was already looking into possible relocation scenarios that it would enact if she signed the law—were a major reason she vetoed the bill. There were (probably overinflated) estimates that the Super Bowl would bring nearly $500 million to the Phoenix economy—though not Glendale—and Brewer could not afford to risk losing that. So she caved. The message was undeniable: Sports leagues, for pure business reasons, could not abide anti-gay legislation, which is precisely what the new Indiana law is considered by so many to be.
If sports leagues turn on Indiana, as it appears will be the case if the law is not repealed (and Pence repeatedly said it wouldn’t), it could be devastating for Indianapolis. Long a sleepy, cloudy, industrial burg, Indianapolis has sprung to life in recent years, in large part because of a sparkling new airport (built in large part to help spur a Super Bowl visit) and a vibrant, walkable downtown that’s ideal for hosting sporting events. This will be its seventh Final Four, it regularly hosts the Big Ten Tournament (this Illinois grad can verify that Indianapolis is hands-down the best B1G tourney host) and, most impressively, it received widespread plaudits for Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. The NFL was so pleased with how well-run and well-organized that Super Bowl was—and how there were enough hotels and restaurants downtown to satisfy all the visitors, particularly when everyone can just walk to the stadium and walk home—that it was widely assumed that Indianapolis would be receiving another Super Bowl down the line, perhaps as early as 2019. There’s no chance of that now, not while that law still exists. In fact, as long as that law is on the books, it’s difficult to imagine any sports organization placing any major event in Indianapolis: It is simply against the current prevailing corporate culture, in sports or otherwise. It is plain bad business for the NFL to mess with that. There is no Super Bowl in Indianapolis’ future, not anymore.
You know who should keep a particular eye on how this plays out? Georgia. The state has been wrestling with its own version of a religious-freedom bill, introduced by State Senator Josh McKoon, and while it was tabled for this session of the state legislature, McKoon is expected to try again when the House reconvenes. It will be difficult to argue, even for the bill's supporters, that its passage wouldn’t be a self-inflicted and likely fatal wound for Atlanta’s desire to host major sporting events in its soon-to-open $1.4 billion stadium. The New Atlanta Stadium—as it will be called until a corporate sponsor pays the Falcons millions of dollars—will begin hosting the Falcons and an expansion MLS team in 2017 but is the centerpiece of a plan to make Atlanta a sports hub, hosting not just the Super Bowl, but also the Final Four, soccer’s Gold Cup and the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Georgia can kiss all of that goodbye if McKoon’s bill passes. They won’t have a chance.
The Final Four in Indianapolis should ensure that outcome by making clear to all parties what’s at stake. When the protestors descend on Indianapolis this weekend, it will be a black eye for the NCAA and a most unwelcome distraction for the organization and CBS/Turner, which paid $10.8 billion for the rights to air the tournament over a 14-year stretch. It’s a headache no one wants to deal with, regardless of any actual discrimination that could happen in the wake of the law. The NCAA, and others, will make certain it does not happen again. I hope Indianapolis enjoys hosting this big event this weekend. Because it won’t happen again for a long, long time.