It was one thing when the NBA pulled the 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte over North Carolina’s House Bill 2 — a measure widely criticized as discriminatory toward the LGBT community — but mess with college sports in the Tar Heel State, and HB2 might really be in trouble.
Late Monday, the NCAA announced it was pulling seven championship events out of North Carolina in the coming school year over the state’s so-called “bathroom law” — legislation best known for barring transgender people from using government building bathrooms in accordance with their gender identities.
The action came on top of numerous protests and calls to repeal the measure, all of which have gone unheeded by North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who’s running for reelection.
But given how important college sports are in North Carolina — a state that has hosted more men’s basketball tournament games (251) than any other in the last 65 years — the NCAA’s move could put more pressure on lawmakers to repeal HB2 than ever before.
“College sports has been the biggest thing in North Carolina going back 70 years,” said Dr. Thad Williamson, an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and author of the book, “More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many.”
“For most people, it’s the thing that bonds families together. Seats get passed down to grandkids. It’s a huge part of everyday life in North Carolina,” Williamson said. “I think [the NCAA’s decision] is going to get a lot of people speaking about HB2 and realizing that nationwide revulsion against this law is not going away anytime soon.”
The loss of the games will undoubtedly add to the financial toll HB2 has already taken on the state.
In addition to the $100 million tourism experts believe the NBA All-Star game would have brought to North Carolina, the Charlotte Chamber has estimated an economic blow of $285 million and a loss of as many as 1,300 jobs in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region as a result of HB2. The Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, meanwhile, has projected the law could cost Raleigh as much as $40 million in convention business.
Companies like PayPal have backed out of major expansions in the state over the law, and musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Itzhak Perlman have canceled shows.
But there could be even more consequences. On Monday, the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), another collegiate sporting organization that hosts many events in North Carolina, said its council of presidents was set to discuss HB2 at a previously scheduled meeting later this week.
“On a personal note,” said ACC Commissioner John Swofford, “it’s time for this bill to be repealed as it’s counter to basic human rights.”
Still, some aren’t convinced the latest action against North Carolina will have much impact. The Republican leadership has already stood by HB2 through costly boycotts and multiple lawsuits against the state — including one spearheaded by the U.S. Justice Department — that some critics can’t imagine anything changing their minds at this point.
“It’s hard to believe that lawmakers in North Carolina haven’t already repealed the law, given the repercussions and clear disagreements that voters in the state have with it,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com. “Will this be what pushes [the repeal effort] over the edge? I can’t get inside the heads of North Carolina Republicans.”
McCrory, who signed HB2 into law after a one-day special session last March, appeared as defiant as ever on Tuesday, saying in a statement that the NCAA had “failed to show… respect” for the states now grappling with questions of transgender rights and privacy concerns — an issue, he noted, that would ultimately be settled by the federal judiciary.
“I strongly encourage all public and private institutions to both respect and allow our nation’s judicial system to proceed without economic threats or political retaliation toward the 22 states that are currently challenging government overreach,” McCrory said, referencing two separate, multi-state lawsuits against the Obama administration’s guidance that public schools grant transgender students access to the bathrooms of their choice.
“Sadly,” said McCrory, “the NCAA, a multi-billion dollar, tax-exempt monopoly, failed to show this respect at the expense of our student athletes and hard-working men and women.”
A spokeswoman with the state Republican party also spoke out against the NCAA’s move, calling it “so absurd it’s almost comical.”
“I genuinely look forward to the NCAA merging all men’s and women’s teams together as singular, unified, unisex teams,” said the spokeswoman, Kami Mueller, in a statement viewed by critics as a less-than-encouraging sign change would come from the legislature.
Yet, for their part, the two schools with perhaps the most to lose from the NCAA’s decision — Duke and the University of North Carolina — each came out in support of the action.
“Duke agrees with the decision,” said the school’s president, Richard Brodhead, on MSNBC Tuesday. “It was the NCAA’s to decide, and obviously they have many things to try to compute, and I think at the end of the day they regarded this as a fairness and equal rights, equal protection kind of issue. Certainly that’s the way that we see it.”
North Carolina Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat who introduced a failed bill to repeal HB2 last session, told NBC News he would try again when the legislature reconvenes. The NCAA’s decision, he said, may help his cause.
“I think it’s certainly going to put it back on the front page. Though I don’t know if it will change the minds of our Republican governor and leadership,” he said. “They’re pretty dug in.”
LGBT rights activists, meanwhile, are confident the courts will side with them, even if lawmakers never will. Last month, a federal judge issued a limited injunction against HB2, saying the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on claims the law violates existing federal protections. The same judge is scheduled to hear the full challenge in May.
“If the legislature does not fix this, we are confident that the law will eventually be overturned in court,” said Mike Meno, communications director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “We’re optimistic that HB2’s days are numbered.”