Monday, May 2, 2016

NCAA Takes a Small and Disappointing Step to Address Anti-LGBT State Laws

On Wednesday, April 27 the NCAA announced that the Board of Governors was instituting a new requirement for sites hosting or bidding on NCAA events.  Current and future hosts for NCAA events will be required 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.”  
The NCAA’s announcement comes in response to the recent rash of over 100 state laws proposed or passed that single out LGBT people for discrimination.  The NCAA had previously announced that it was “monitoring” the situation in North Carolina where the most sweeping of these laws was passed last month. With the announcement of their new requirement, the NCAA finally broke its silence on the topic to belatedly join a chorus of other private and public organizations and individuals speaking out against the legalization of discrimination with boycotts, protests and strong public statements against the law.
While the NCAA announcement is a step in the right direction, it is a timid and ambiguous step unbecoming a national organization that claims to promote “inclusiveness in race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity as a vital element to protecting the well-being of student-athletes, promoting diversity in hiring practices and creating a culture of fairness.”
Some media reports and LGBT rights organizations have inaccurately described the NCAA announcement as an action that denies states that have enacted discriminatory laws singling out LGBT people the opportunity to host NCAA events.  However, a close reading of the NCAA announcement reveals that the new requirement actually is far less bold.  The new requirement does not rule out the selection of states with anti-LGBT laws as hosts of NCAA events. Instead it asks potential hosts 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 this well-intended but vague directive will be implemented as part of the bidding process is as yet undetermined.  The NCAA national office has been directed by the Board of Governors to figure this out. If the Board of Governors intended the new requirement to mean that the NCAA will not schedule events in states with discriminatory laws, they need to make that intention clear instead of talking in general terms about requiring demonstrations of attention to the safety, health, dignity and freedom from discrimination of all spectators and participants.  
The ambiguity of the NCAA’s new requirement is particularly disappointing in light of their clear policy denying schools that have offensive Native American mascots and states that fly the confederate flag the right to host NCAA events.  I applaud the NCAA for using their influence as a powerful national sports governing body to take a firm public stance against these pernicious symbols of racism.  The laws enacted in North Carolina, Missouri and Tennessee, however, are more than symbols. These laws affect the legal status of LGBT people and can have serious consequences for their safety, well-being and quality of life. These laws deny an entire class of citizens the right to live in a discrimination-free environment or the right to challenge discrimination when it does occur. Surely, enacting laws that target a particular group of people for discrimination warrants as strong a stand as the NCAA has taken against symbols of injustice like Native American mascots and the confederate flag.
The new requirement leaves open the possibility that a state that has enacted anti-LGBT laws may host an NCAA event as long as they provide the NCAA with an explanation of how event sponsors intend to create a safe and discrimination-free environment. Apparently, the NCAA expects the school or organization sponsoring an NCAA event in these states to create a “safe zone” of some kind that ignores state law.  What would need to be included in this safe zone? Certainly the facility where an event is held would need to be included, but what about hotels, restaurants, private businesses, public bathrooms, medical facilities and other public accommodations that spectators and participants in an NCAA event use during an event?
Will this cone of safety and non-discrimination extend to harassment on the sidewalk or in parking lots around the sports arena, hotel or restaurant? How will this safe zone be enforced in a state where it is perfectly legal to decline service to LGBT people based on personal religious beliefs, where state law requires that transgender people use the public toilet that aligns with their sex assigned at birth rather than their gender identity or where LGBT people have been explicitly excluded from protections against discrimination by state law?
The new NCAA requirement raises these and other critical questions that need answers. Perhaps the biggest question of all is how an organization that professes to have a strong commitment to LGBT inclusion could settle on such an ambiguous and weak statement. It is hypocritical to award NCAA events to states with discriminatory laws.  It is unrealistic to believe that potential hosts for NCAA events can assure the NCAA that they can provide a discrimination-free bubble for the event within the broader climate of risk that LGBT people in that state face.
Perhaps most disappointing, the NCAA has wasted an opportunity to stand firmly and publicly against discrimination. This new requirement is an unacceptable, unrealistic and empty bargain that allows the game to go on and enables the NCAA to claim that it is acting on its stated organizational commitment to diversity and inclusion.  The NCAA can and must do better than this if we are to take seriously their commitment to LGBT inclusion.