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Keith Strudler: The NCAA And North Carolina

If five years ago someone told you that in 2016, the NCAA would boycott one of the two American Carolinas, you’d bet the farm it was South Carolina. You know, the one that flew the Confederate Flag at the statehouse. The home of Strom Thurmond. The one the NCAA already boycotted since 2001. And you would be wrong.

That’s because Monday, the NCAA said it was pulling every playoff and championship game – seven in total – scheduled for North Carolina this academic year. That includes a couple of men’s basketball tournament games. It also includes things like the Division II men’s baseball championship, and the Division I women’s soccer title. It’s a hodgepodge of toys, games over a range of sports and divisions. But all would bring families and players and fans from out of town to spend money in the state. Now, they’ll go elsewhere. Just like the NBA, which pulled next season’s All-Star Game from Charlotte.

All of this is in response to HB2, affectionately known as the “bathroom law.” The law that says people can only use bathrooms of the gender on their birth certificate. The law that essentially privileges bigotry against members of the LGBT community. That law will now cost the state millions and millions of lost dollars around sports. This is just for the sporting events we know about. It doesn’t take into account all the people that simply and quietly choose not to travel to the state for things like marathons and softball tournaments and the like. Also not to mention the bad PR that comes from all of it, making perhaps the rising star of the New South now a reminder of the region’s more repressive history.

The NCAA has already taken its bows, with Commissioner Mark Emmert hitting the circuit yesterday to talk about how HB2 doesn’t represent the values of college sports. He’s gotten a fair amount of compliments about being on the right side of history, all of which I believe is true. We will eventually get this right. But cynics also realize that the NCAA may have acted more pragmatically than heroically. Several states have already banned non-essential state travel to North Carolina. So holding a championship there just might not work. Something to consider before giving Emmert a Nobel Peace Prize.

Regardless, it seems corporate sport has spoken. And yes, the NFL and NBA still have teams there. But the soft money on the margins is already leaving town. It doesn’t seem the state’s leadership is quite ready to listen. In fact, just after the NCAA announced its position, North Carolina Republican Party spokesperson Kami Mueller said she looked forward to college football and cheerleading squads sharing hotel and locker rooms, making full and absurd misuse of the slippery slope argument. It’s like banning food because we might all explode our own stomachs. This is where we are, heels so dug in we’re staring at knee caps. All over bathrooms.

I firmly believe this will resolve itself in a matter of months – perhaps even before some of these NCAA championship games take place. Of course, I also believed that Trump would be down 20 points in the polls right now, which shows what I know about the American ethos. But here’s what’s interesting about this story. We all know that sports can help push the envelope of progress and inclusion. It’s happened with race, and it’s happening with sexual orientation. That’s not new. But we, as a collective, are now nibbling at the edges of a much larger discussion around sport and gender, a place more binomial than software code.

This dialogue started years ago, with people like Billy Jean King, who forced sports fans to consider a narrative outside of heterosexuality – which has always been a cornerstone of the idealized athletic image. It continued when people like Greg Louganis came out, and eventually Billy Bean and Jason Collins and Michael Sam. Gay athletes have fought to be allowed to play – without prejudice, without bigotry, without isolation. And even though there are still miles to go, the trip thus far has been remarkable. Now we stand at the onset of yet another journey, and sports seems to be one very important vehicle. For a long list of reasons, sport lies at the crux of how we, as a people, treat people who don’t fit neatly into conventional boxes and assumptions. Perhaps it’s ironic. The place where everyone gets split up at a young age by boys and girls and medical forms is now telling the world – and particularly North Carolina – that it doesn’t always work that way.

For that, we should be proud. Proud of the NBA, the NCAA, the ACC – which just pulled its basketball tournament from the state – and proud of all the athletes who have stood up for what’s right. That’s true whether it’s a boycott, a letter, a symbol on a uniform – however that point comes across. That’s how change happens, which I’m hoping comes soon.

I’d hate for five years from now, for this Carolina to suffer like its southern neighbor once did.

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

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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