When ultra-visible organizations with major economic leverage press for political change, sometimes the right thing to do is to tell them to take the proverbial long walk off a short pier. Or something more colorful.
But what if the change being sought is one that advances ideals of fairness and human dignity? Then, to go along would not be a case of bowing to selfish special interests. It would represent progress toward the goal of a society, or state, that rejects discrimination in all forms – even those bitter residues of discrimination involving sex and gender.
The template is drawn from now-familiar headlines. The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Atlantic Coast Conference – the two most important bodies in the college sports industry that is entwined in North Carolina’s economy and culture – have brought down their respective hammers to protest state government’s notorious 2016 plunge into bigotry.
No NCAA tournament games will be held here, presumably so long as the law known as House Bill 2 remains on the books. Nor will the ACC stage any of its championships in North Carolina. The law’s multifaceted assault on the rights of gay, lesbian and transgendered people – including college students, fans who attend college sports events and, yes, athletes – is more than the organizations say they can abide.
From regional opening rounds in next year’s version of March Madness, the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, to a slew of games and matches in baseball, soccer, tennis and other sports – throw in the ACC football championship for good measure – the cancellations are a gut-punch to host communities such as Cary, Durham, Greensboro and Charlotte.
Losses in visitor spending will balloon into the millions, and local budgets counting on the associated tax revenues will be squeezed.
Republican candidates in the campaigns leading up to Election Day on Nov. 8, including Gov. Pat McCrory, lean on upticks in the state’s economy as proof that their low-tax, limited-government approach is paying off for ordinary citizens.
On that score there’s much room for skepticism; North Carolina might well be in even better shape in the midst of recovery from the national recession if it were more proactive in boosting education, environmental protection and public health. Still, H.B. 2’s legislative backers and McCrory – who’s had to assume the awkward role of chief H.B. 2 cheerleader – now find themselves responsible for an economic fiasco whose full dimensions cannot yet be gauged.
Prejudice on parade
The NCAA rebuke quickly became national news. It drew even more painful attention to a law that, since its enactment during a one-day special legislative session in March, has painted North Carolina as the nation’s most determined enforcer of LGBT intolerance.
A backlash first erupted among big-name musicians who cancelled upcoming concerts. Companies proud of their inclusiveness toward employees and customers suspended planned investments.
Then in July the National Basketball Association, after failing in its push for an H.B. 2 rollback, yanked its 2017 All-Star Game away from Charlotte. For the state’s largest city and the state as a whole, the move was both expensive and embarrassing.
The NCAA waited another three months before acting, giving state leaders a further chance to concede H.B. 2’s damage and fashion an overhaul or repeal. The Greensboro-based ACC also was willing to wait for changes. But the law’s backers continued to argue it was necessary to keep male predators disguised as women out of women’s restrooms. That, despite existing laws and ordinances under which any such intruder could be prosecuted.
Privacy also has been held up as a concern. Granted, that’s a bigger issue for some people than for others. But women’s restrooms, we have it on good authority, do usually have individual stalls with doors.
Spotlight on gender
In its bathroom provisions, the nub of H.B. 2 is that it requires someone in public buildings to use the facilities matching the sex indicated on his or her birth certificate. That’s a problem for someone who has changed gender identities – a process that, it should go without saying, is not undertaken on a whim.
Nor should someone born a man, say, who now regards and presents herself as a woman be treated simply as a man who’s dressing up. The transformation is more profound, and it deserves to be respected when someone chooses to go down that difficult road.
The law makes matters worse by excluding gays and lesbians from the protections of state anti-discrimination rules and by preventing localities from enacting their own protections.
It thus amounts to a license to treat people unfairly as employees or customers on the basis of their sexual orientation – nothing less than an outrageous human rights abuse, even if certain social and religious conservatives believe that same-sex relations are morally wrong.
Fine – those folks are free to avoid such relations and to shun gays and lesbians in their places of worship. But religious dogma should not become an excuse to inject discrimination into the secular laws that apply to believers and non-believers alike.
Senators’ second thoughts
With North Carolina’s customary role as a host of college sports’ showcase events knocked for a loop, a handful of Republican legislators have now broken ranks by saying in effect, “Call off the dogs!”
GOP Sen. Tamara Barringer of hard-hit Cary gratuitously notes that she’s still doesn’t want to see men in women’s bathrooms, as if H.B. 2, which has no means of enforcement, could do anything about it. But she’s correct in saying that the law, approved in a pell-mell rush, has had unforeseen and hurtful consequences. She was the first to call for repeal.
McCrory and other top Republicans in Raleigh are trying to weather the storm. They accuse the NCAA of picking on North Carolina when other states have similar provisions. They say it’s political correctness run amok.
The News & Observer reports that Tennessee and Arkansas also have laws that bar localities from passing anti-discrimination measures stricter than the state’s, and that no state protections exist there for gays and lesbians. So North Carolina – long regarded as a beacon of Southern enlightenment, at least relatively speaking – does have company at the bottom of the discrimination barrel.
But the NCAA also cites North Carolina as having “the only statewide law that makes it unlawful to use a restroom different from the gender on one’s birth certificate, regardless of gender identity.” The newspaper says that claim is accurate. Washington even has a state law specifically permitting people to use gender identity when choosing a restroom.
“So while Washington is the outlier on one end, North Carolina is the outlier on the other end,” the newspaper concluded. “The other 48 states have yet to choose which direction to go, although most of the country’s largest cities are following Washington.” That’s apparently what Charlotte officials had in mind when they enacted the ordinance that Republican legislators used H.B. 2 to overturn.
The law’s supporters thought they sensed a hot-button social issue they could exploit. Now the question is whether they can avoid being seared by the backfire.
There’s a school of thought – count me in – that says college sports have become far too commercialized. The whole enterprise has swelled to a gargantuan scale. The pressures to win – driving campus officials to channel huge sums toward glamorous stadiums and team facilities – are enormous. The stakes in terms of television revenues are off the charts.
The situation reflects policy decisions at the highest levels of our universities and colleges – decisions that have proven hard to walk back. But if vast influence has been ceded to the NCAA and affiliates such as the ACC, at least it’s encouraging to see that influence now being used in a way intended to uphold the rights of people for whom discrimination remains a real threat.
Depriving North Carolina of the next round of tournaments and championships will disappoint athletes and fans and will cost jilted host communities a bundle. There’s still reason to hope, however, that political chiefs will act so that the events can be resumed sooner rather than later. A clear message from the November elections could move that process along.