Keith Strudler: March Madness In Indy
For the NCAA and its vaunted Final Four of the men’s basketball tournament, the timing could have been better. Essentially on their way to Indianapolis, the site of the decisive three games of the 68 team tournament, it would be hard for any of the four remaining universities – Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin, or Michigan State – to change their travel plans. And it would be even more difficult for the NCAA to change the site of these college basketball games, held in a football stadium, at the 11th hour, especially since Indianapolis is also the home of the NCAA headquarters itself and the site of many of its national championship tournaments. Not to mention the thousands of fans who are Indy bound for this Easter pilgrimage of sorts.
So regardless of Governor Jim Pense’s signage and subsequent defense of Indiana’s new religious freedom law, the NCAA basketball tournament and all its fixin’s are headed to Indy. Also coming to town is controversy, protests, and national media not normally found at a sporting event. They will all be there to discuss politics at an event that aspires to be anything but political. In fact, the NCAA already has its hands full with unpaid labor claims, health insurance issues, lingering Title IX debates – so the last thing they want or need is to hold their cash cow, where they amass the vast lion share of their annual revenues, while people are debating anything other than Wildcats or Badgers.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone will come to Indianapolis this weekend. USC athletic director Pat Hayden, whose son is gay, will not attend the College Football Playoff committee meeting this week in town. UConn head men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie and his staff won’t attend the Final Four in protest – and on the mandate of his university president Susan Herbst. It’s unclear whether others will similarly skip the event and the coinciding National Association of Basketball Coaches Convention, but those that do will be noticed.
The NCAA and its commissioner Mark Emmert, to his credit, informed the Governor that they might move future championship events from the state of Indiana. He also insinuated that he’d consider other sites for the organization’s headquarters, which would be an awful blow for a city and state that is truly the center of intercollegiate athletics.
Other sports figures – and certainly corporate and political figures outside of sports – have weighed in on the decision. NASCAR, an organization hardly known as progressively left-wing, has publicly denounced the law. Sports broadcasters Charles Barclay, Keith Olbermann, and Ryan Rucco have all called for teams and leagues to leave the state. And Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, one of the few who could actually make that happen, has gone on record against the law. So while no one’s picked up and left town, certainly they’re talking to a travel agent.
This is by no means the first intersection of politics, and this particular political issue, and sports. Certainly in recent months and years, sports organizations and their athletes have taken a progressive stance towards inclusion and tolerance. They've made it clear that discriminatory legacies and efforts wouldn't be supported by our nation's pastimes. We'll see how far that ethos translates into action in what could be a fascinating game of political chicken.
Right now, sports speaking out against discrimination against the LGBT community is relatively safe. A deep reading of American polls shows not only our nation's less divided stance on equity, but also a fairly simple trend line towards justice, if you excuse my analysis. So NASCAR cares far more about the inclusiveness of economy than any myth of Americana, which, for the record, doesn't pay much.
It is entirely likely, and probable even, that the NFL and NBA and NCAA won't have to make any further, and more dramatic decisions on this affair, since Governor Pense is already scrambling to "fix this," as he puts it. I assume politicians around the country will take note and avoid similar pitfalls. But this brush with reality does remind us of one important truism. Sports can never be apolitical, even when they'd like to be. And throughout time, sports has an unparalleled opportunity to impact the larger social world, from Jackie Robinson to Billy Jean King to Jason Collins to right now. And in every case, history has rewarded sports that err on the side of progress. I imagine that to be the case here in Indiana.
Now, does that mean the NCAA should pull the Final Four this weekend? Probably not at this late hour, since that certainly could evoke the law of unintended consequences. Should they play there again under this law. Certainly not. By then, I'm sure the timing would be better.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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