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Calling Foul on Indiana's Anti-Gay Law

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The fallout from an Indiana law that basically legalizes homophobic discrimination has reached the sports world, just as the state's capital is set to host the Final Four. 

After Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law Thursday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association released a statement in response:

The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events.  We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees.  We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.

The NCAA is deeply ingrained in the state of Indiana, the location of its national headquarters. The men's Final Four kicks off this Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where it is also scheduled for 2021. There are currently 10 Division I teams based in Indiana, five of which competed in March Madness this year. The Big Ten football championship game is also scheduled to take place at Lucas Oil through 2021, while next year's women's basketball Final Four will be held a few blocks away at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

On Friday, former NBA legend and current NCAA tournament analyst Charles Barkley strongly condemned the law,  urging the association and the National Football League to take action. "Discrimination in any form is unacceptable to me," Barkley said. "As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states' cities."

Lucas Oil Stadium is also home to the NFL's Indianapolis Colts and last hosted the Super Bowl in 2012. The big game isn't scheduled to take place in Indianapolis through at least 2018. Unlike the NCAA, the NFL has remained quiet on the controversial law. "We do not have a comment at this time," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Friday. "We are in the process of studying the law and its implications."

The league is plenty familiar with this kind of situation, however, playing a role in defeating a similar law in Arizona, which the state legislature passed early last year. With the Super Bowl taking place in Phoenix, the NFL issued a statement condemning discrimination and dropped hints that it might move the game. Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill.

The NBA released a joint statement with the Indiana Pacers and the WNBA's Indiana Fever, both of which play at Bankers Life. "The game of basketball is grounded in long established principles of inclusion and mutual respect. We will continue to ensure that all fans, players and employees feel welcome at all NBA and WNBA events in Indiana and elsewhere."

Former Pacers great Reggie Miller added this on Twitter:

It's unrealistic to expect the NCAA to move this year's Final Four just five days before tip-off, while the NFL is frankly lucky it doesn't have to make that kind of decision in the foreseeable future. But things get a lot more complicated when it comes to next year's college tournaments, especially the women's, given recent developments in Connecticut.

On Monday, Connecticut governor Dannell Malloy announced he would issue an executive order to ban state-funded travel to Indiana. "I won't allow any of our citizens in Connecticut to face discrimination in other states," Malloy said, specifically mentioning gay and lesbian college athletes. 

According to Malloy, the ban "would include our university systems." This is significant for the University of Connecticut.  The Huskies won last year's men's tournament, while the women are a basketball powerhouse and will play tonight for their eighth-straight Final Four appearance. Of next year's women's Final Four in Indianapolis, Malloy said at a press conference today, "I hope they'll be able to reschedule that." There is the possibility that the private UConn Foundation could pay for the women's travel and lodging for that part of the tournament; Malloy said he couldn't address these specifics at this time.

While other states, including Connecticut, have similar religious freedom laws, many of them also have civil rights legislation to prevent anti-gay usages. Some of Indiana's cities, including Indianapolis, have local laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, but the state's civil rights laws don't include the LGBT community as a protected class. This opens the door for the religious freedom law to be used to challenge local civil rights legislation protecting gays.

Indiana's position as a prime athletic destination gives sports a unique opportunity to effect real change in the name of social good. The NFL should follow its own precedent and join the NCAA and the NBA in pressuring the state to reconsider the law. Many businesses -- including Angie's List, Eli Lilly and Apple (through an op-ed article by chief executive officer Tim Cook) -- have made their displeasure known, and the pressure is working. On Monday, Indiana officials, including Pence, pledged to "clarify the intent of the law" to ensure it wouldn't be used to justify discriminatory practices. The sports community should come together to ensure that the rights of Indiana's gay citizens become codified under state law.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net