NCAA raises concerns over Indiana’s religious objections law

Mark Emmert said the NCAA will examine how Indiana's new bill may affect future events in the state.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

With the Final Four a week away from shining a spotlight on Indianapolis, NCAA President Mark Emmert said Thursday that the governing body for college sports is concerned about an Indiana law that could allow businesses to discriminate against gay people.

The law would prohibit state and local laws that "substantially burden" the ability of people, including businesses and associations, to follow their religious beliefs.

The NCAA offices are located in Indianapolis, and Emmert said the organization was concerned about how it might impact student athletes and employees. His terse statement also suggested the NCAA might consider moving future events out of Indianapolis.

"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," Emmert said, hours after Gov. Mark Pence signed the measure into law. "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 conflict arises as thousands of college basketball fans prepare to converge on the city for the conclusion of the NCAA tournament, an economic behemoth in college sports. The 14-year television contract alone for the event is worth $10.8 billion.

The NCAA has been a mainstay in downtown Indianapolis since 1999, when it relocated from its Kansas location in part because of a rich public-private investment deal from the city to establish the headquarters.

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But the new law could put the association in a difficult position. While it has a close relationship with Indiana’s capital city, college sports have been at the forefront of several breakthroughs for gay rights in the last two years, and the young adults and college students the NCAA represents have generally been supportive of those changes.

Last year, former University of Missouri football player Michael Sam came out as gay as he prepared for the NFL draft. Sam had told his teammates and coaches months early and said he found nothing but support among them and on campus. When Sam and his teammates were honored at halftime of a Missouri basketball game, hundreds of students lined up outside the arena to block a handful of anti-gay demonstrators.

This past season Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay men’s Division I basketball player at the University of Massachusetts. Gordon, who has said he plans to transfer, has had nothing but good things to say about how his teammates and coaches reacted to his coming out last year. And he said not once was he hassled at opposing arenas for his sexuality.

An online push for the NCAA to react to the bill began a couple of days ago with the hashtag #Final4Fairness.

Former professional basketball player Jason Collins, the first openly gay athlete to play in the NBA, tweeted on the subject:

The LGBT Sports Coalition also called for the NCAA, the Big Ten, the NFL and USA Diving and USA Gymnastics to pull events from Indianapolis over the next 16 months.

A spokesman for Pence reiterated that the governor does not believe the bill "in any way legalize discrimination in Indiana."

"For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and this law will not do so in Indiana either," he said.

Indianapolis, a hub for major sporting events, is booked for several over the next decade.

The Big Ten has held its football championship game at Lucas Oil Field since 2011 and has contracted to remain there until 2021. The conference also is scheduled to hold its men’s basketball tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in 2020 and 2022. The Big Ten women’s basketball tournament is set to be held in Indianapolis from 2017-22.

This year’s U.S. national gymnastics championships and next year’s Olympic diving team trials will be held in Indianapolis.

The Final Four is scheduled to return to Indianapolis in 2021 and the women’s Final Four is set to be there next year. The city is also hoping to land the 2019 Super Bowl.

The NCAA has stepped into social debates before, and there is precedent for it taking events elsewhere.

The association in 2001 imposed a ban on holding championship events in South Carolina and Mississippi because Confederate battle flags fly at state capitols. The ban does not prevent schools from earning the right to host a regional event, as with postseason baseball and women’s basketball tournaments.

In 2005, the NCAA banned schools that had what it deemed to be hostile or abusive mascots from hosting championship events. That ban mostly targeted schools with Native American mascots.