NCAA tournament: Indiana "religious freedom" law bound to punish Final Four’s … –

Indianapolis has always struck me as the perfect place to hold a basketball championship. A lot of people who’ve been to a lot of NCAA Final Fours feel that way.

I’m looking forward to attending my 23rd Final Four beginning on Friday in Indy. It will be my sixth there since my first in 1991.

And, though many of you rightfully hold animosity toward the very sight of the acronym “NCAA,” I can tell you the association is full of good people who truly love the game of basketball. That’s doubly true of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana that the NCAA calls home.

It’s that synergy of passion and proximity that makes Indy the perfect home of my favorite event in all of sports. It’s the soil that cultivated John Wooden, Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird. It’s the residents who hold the game in their hearts. They love serving as ambassador of its present and conservator of its rich history.

And so, what’s recently gone on at the Indiana statehouse is sad on a number of fronts. Recent legislation signed on Thursday by Indiana governor Mike Pence has divided not just the state of Indiana but the country in the name of “religious freedom.”

I don’t buy it. I think it’s a cynical political ploy. And it’s no good for anyone, least of all a state that stands to lose not just its business but its image as an inclusive, welcoming place for visitors during one of American sports’ great events.

The legislation, in and of itself, does not seem like that big a deal on the surface. It merely mimics similar federal law put into place 22 years ago, signed by then-President Bill Clinton, and copied in various versions by other states. It purported to protect the freedom or various religious groups, not just Christians, to not be bound to contradict their beliefs because of government action.

I’ve been told by several friends with legal backgrounds that this particular legislation might well not have been noticed, had it been passed 15 or 20 years ago.

But in the light of recent progressive measures in support of same-sex marriage – particularly with a relating Supreme Court case set to begin arguments in exactly one month and culminate in a landmark decision in the summer – such legislation has naturally become a lightning rod.

In specific, it appears to be a route by which various entities in Indiana may refuse service to homosexual couples under the guise of religious belief in direct contradiction of both state and federal laws protecting against discrimination.

The most common hypothetical examples I’ve read usually involve a baker or florist refusing to accept service for a wedding of homosexuals. But such a business could easily conceal its bias by simply saying it is booked up.

It could get a lot more serious than that. What about Catholic adoption agencies who could very conceivably cite the law in order to refuse a qualified gay couple with good jobs and upstanding backgrounds? Is this acceptable?

On Thursday, NCAA president Mark Emmert issued a statement saying the organization was “concerned” about the legislation and vowed to “closely examine the implications of this bill” in regard to future events. He did not foreshadow any concrete action.

Certainly, it’s too late to move the men’s Final Four from Indy next weekend. But what about the Women’s Final Four in 2016? How can the NCAA not consider moving it elsewhere?

It’s no secret that a substantial percentage of the nation’s female college basketball players are lesbians. How can the NCAA in good conscience ask these women to play the sport’s most important event in the very capital city where such regressive legislation has just been passed, in a place where they could be refused any and all services simply based on who they are? It’s a sick joke.

I feel especially sorry for the people whose jobs were once so easy and now must become so complicated – those who have enthusiastically marketed the vibrant city of Indianapolis. They now needlessly find themselves on the defensive, thanks to a cadre of hate-filled zealots and their enabling hack politicians.

I found this bitterly ironic greeting on the website:

“It’s our job to promote the city of Indianapolis. And that job has never been easier, more energizing or more rewarding than it is right now. As an unprecedented level of cooperation between business and government boosts Indianapolis to a completely new level, we’re reveling in the opportunity to show our city off.”

Good luck with that now that your governor and his cavemen followers have labeled the state as a safe harbor for 1950s sociology.

Imagine, let’s say, an Indianapolis catering business run by a religious-conservative owner receiving a call from an openly gay coach and her partner who decide to hold a party at next year’s Women’s Final Four. They can now legally be refused service.

I can hear some people dismiss this with, “So what? They can just call somebody else!” But that’s easy to say when you’re not the ones being treated as second-class citizens.

Couching such discrimination as “religious freedom” or with any other duplicitous euphemism is absurd. Let’s just call it what it is and what’s in the heart of people like Pence and his followers: It’s hate. It’s purposely divisive. It’s small-minded. And it’s wrong.

I imagine Pence holds as his compass the cynical pandering to his reactionary political base and a possible run for president in 2016. But the non-aligned people of Indiana should know they are being sent downstream when it comes to sports business. Don’t take my word for it. Consider the comments of one of the most powerful and influential sports personalities in the world.

The first time I spoke with Philadelphia-bred and Los Angeles-based sports agent Arn Tellem was 1991 and he was Billy Owens’ agent. He has since built his client list to include, among others, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis, arguably the three most dynamic young players in the NBA.

In an email quoted on Friday by The New York Times, Tellem said the Indiana legislation “codifies hatred under the smoke screen of freedom and jeopardizes all that has been recently accomplished. … It legalizes discrimination against LGBT individuals and will cause significant harm to many people.”

Tellem went on to urge the NBA, its Indiana Pacers and the NCAA to “not only condemn this blatantly unconstitutional legislation, but to take forceful action against it by re-evaluating their short- and long-term plans in the state.”

You can imagine businesses, conventions and job-seekers will reconsider as well, irrespective of their beliefs about gay marriage. When public perception affects cash flow, it’s remarkable how everyone’s moral needle tends to move.

The Big Ten has some major decisions to make, too. Two of its schools are rooted in Indiana, the geographic center of its footprint. Both its football and basketball championships have been held in Indianapolis. A recent statement indicates the conference, as the NCAA, is in a holding pattern, Jim Delany and its presidents holding moistened index fingers aloft to gauge the breeze of public sentiment.

That all sucks for Indy. But it really sucks for college basketball’s biggest stage.

Indianapolis has always been the place all of us who love the game could call our home away from home. It appears my next visit might be my last one for quite a while.

That’s sad for me personally. But mainly, it’s just sad in general.



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