NCAA Gay-Rights Rule Puts Spotlight on Arizona Final Four

Updated on
  • College sports body demands host cities protect LGBT people
  • North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, others could lose games

Thirty states and hundreds of cities could be barred from hosting the biggest events in college sports after the NCAA announced this week that it won’t hold playoffs and championships in cities and states without civil-rights protections for gay and transgender people.

That could include moving the 2017 Men’s Basketball Final Four from Glendale, Arizona, and this year’s college softball championships from Oklahoma City. It also puts in limbo places such as Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; Boise, Idaho; and Greensboro and Charlotte, North Carolina, which are scheduled to host men’s basketball playoff games in 2017 or 2018.

Following national controversy over a law in North Carolina that restricted protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people, the National Collegiate Athletic Association said Wednesday that it will require cities and towns that want to host collegiate championships and the organization’s administrative conferences to “to demonstrate how they will provide an environment that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination, plus safeguards the dignity of everyone involved in the event.”

How it will do that is still open to discussion. The policy change applies to places that have already been awarded games and those that would bid for future playoffs, said NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn, but the organization’s national office still needs to decide what standard sites must meet.

A handful of states have laws that have been described as openly hostile to gays; others, including Arizona, offer protections in some but not all instances. Still more have failed to settle the issue one way or another. Glendale, for example, is in the process of drafting an ordinance with anti-discrimination language that would include LGBT protection.  

“Arizona looks forward to hosting the NCAA Final Four next year,” said Annie Dockendorff, spokeswoman for the governor’s office, adding that Governor Doug Ducey “has been adamant that there is no room for discrimination in our state.”

Only 18 states have broad laws that protect people based on sexual orientation or gender identity specifically in accommodation or sports venues, according to Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay-rights group based in Washington.

“If people have the ability to turn you away from the hot dog stand because of how you look, that’s a big problem,” said Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel for HRC and author of a city-level LGBT equality index. “It’s also about safety, because a transgender person coming to see their favorite team shouldn’t have to worry about where they go to the bathroom after they’ve had a few beers.”

Football playoffs

“The higher education community is a diverse mix of people from different racial, ethnic, religious and sexual orientation backgrounds,” Kirk Schulz, chairman of the NCAA board and incoming president of Washington State University, said in a statement. “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.”

The NCAA is the biggest sports organization to say it will take its business elsewhere. The National Basketball Association, which is scheduled to play its 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte and has a franchise there, and NASCAR, which has offices in Charlotte, have criticized the recent North Carolina law. Executives from both organizations said they would consider moving events or business from the state.

The top games in Division I college football are also exempt from the NCAA’s new policy. The College Football Playoff, which puts on the national semi-finals and title game, replaced the Bowl Championship Series in 2014, and Executive Director Bill Hancock said in March that “public policy matters are better left to the experts and voters to resolve.” The private company is run out of Irving, Texas, a city of about 215,000 with no anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

NCAA influence

The impact of the NCAA rule may be more psychological than economic, said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at College of the Holy Cross. After the regional finals and the Final Four in the men’s basketball tournament, NCAA championship events generate little revenue for their hosts. For Charlotte, the loss of the NBA All-Star game, which brings wealthy tourists from around the country, would be a much bigger financial loss than an NCAA basketball weekend.

College playoffs may not make cities rich, but constituents like them, said Matheson, also an NCAA soccer referee.

“The dollars aren’t the sorts of things that are most likely to influence change,” he said. Political pressure may instead come from “the huge number of Duke or North Carolina fans who no longer get to go to what are essentially home games in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament.”

The NCAA has prompted changes in legislation and policy before. In 2007, Oregon stopped offering sports gambling as part of its state lottery, an NCAA requirement for the state to host championships moving forward. (Delaware, Nevada and Montana have continued to offer sports betting.)

And after the organization barred schools with Native American mascots from hosting title contests, or displaying mascot names or images at any NCAA championships, schools including North Dakota and Arkansas State made changes.

Local policies

Meanwhile, some host cities and states are determined to prove their fitness under the new NCAA rule, even if they don’t have laws on the books. Glendale spokeswoman Kim Larson said the city hired a consultant to conduct public outreach on the topic last year, and in December 2014, the city council pledged its support for equal treatment of LGBT individuals in housing and hospitality.

“The City of Glendale recognizes the importance of anti-discrimination and inclusion measures for our community and has been actively engaged in dialogue regarding these important issues,” Larson said.

Nashville, for its part, has a local non-discrimination policy where it relates to government workers and Tennessee State University also has its own set of rules that protect LGBT people, said Sean Braisted, spokesman for Nashville Mayor Megan Barry. Tennessee law prevents cities from extending other protections to LGBT people beyond what is established by the state legislature.

“Nashville will gladly work with the NCAA to show how our city, along with its many businesses and public venues, is committed to inclusiveness, diversity and fairness,” Braisted said.

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to remove an erroneous reference to a Tennessee law)