NCAA shines as leader against discrimination

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Tonight, the men’s college basketball Final Four tips off in Indianapolis, where last Thursday, the state legislature passed a “religious freedom” bill that will effectively allow “businesses to turn away gay and lesbian customers,” according to CNN. Given the timing of the Final Four with the passing of this law, sports’ role in opposing homophobia has a chance to be highlighted again.

The NCAA is headquartered in Indianapolis, making this issue hit close to home for its leadership, which moved quickly to comment on Indiana’s “religious freedom” law that effectively legalizes discrimination against gays and lesbians.

In response to the law’s passage, NCAA president Mark Emmert said that the NCAA intends to “closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.” The NCAA’s statement was timely, concise and necessary, but it perhaps didn’t go far enough. Emmert did seem to intimate that the association would refuse to host future events in Indiana under the new law, but a more forceful proclamation would have been symbolic.

A week’s advance was not enough time for the NCAA to move venues for an event as large as the Final Four; However, its concern over the implications of Indiana’s law was refreshing to see and a sign that the gay rights movement has permeated sports to the degree that such a law necessitated an immediate response from the NCAA, which recognized in the statement that some of its student-athletes and employees are gay. But the NCAA speaking out in defense of its employees and against discrimination should not be the only proclamation against Indiana’s law coming from the sports realm.

Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel wrote that other sports organizations that have a stake in Indiana, like the NFL, should follow suit and not hold future events in Indiana. Given that the NFL’s Colts are the most prominent sports team in the state, should this law continue to be in effect, it would be just as necessary for the NFL’s leadership to speak out.

As the cultural tide is turning positive toward gay rights in America, laws like this are the last grasp of efforts to institutionalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. American sports are beginning to fully recognize their role in ending this kind of discrimination and promoting tolerance, and this trend should hopefully continue in the coming months and years.

Sports are frequently the bellweather for Americans’ acceptance of difference, and the process by which tolerance becomes the norm in sports will have to include not only athletes, but also the leagues and associations they play for. To date, the climate of major American leagues has been such that few individuals have been able to come out without being ostracized by teams and teammates. In a nation where discriminatory laws against gays are permitted to exist, it takes timely steps like that of the NCAA this week to make cultural institutions into tolerant spaces.