The NCAA has taken a seat on the bench in the political game.
The organization that governs college athletics was once at the forefront of hot-button issues such as the Confederate flag and transgender rights.
But that stance evolved quickly as one Republican-controlled state after another rushed to pass laws that supporters hail as a war on “wokeness,” even as critics deride them as exclusionary and a step backward in human decency.
The NCAA's new approach came into sharper focus during March Madness as Texas — which has largely banned abortion and was debating a host of proposals that would limit gay and transgender rights — prepares to host both the men's and women's Final Four this weekend.
Nary a word has been spoken about moving these events out of Houston and Dallas.
“It's just an extraordinary time, which requires extraordinary courage, an uncommon courage,” said Ricardo Martinez, the CEO of Equality Texas. “I'm disappointed that the NCAA is not being as vocal as they once were”
Clearly, the member-led organization now sees little benefit from getting involved in a culture war that has divided the nation into two distinctly different camps, with little room for compromise.
“It's so important to think of who composes the NCAA — specifically, the Division I institutions, which are predominantly public institutions,” said Teresa Valerio Parrot, whose firm, TVP Communications, focuses on clients in higher education. "When they vote with the NCAA on where to hold events, they may be seen as passing judgment on their own home state.”
There was a time when the NCAA was more than willing to pass judgment.
More than two decades ago, the organization approved a ban on staging championship events in states that prominently displayed the Confederate flag, a policy that impacted Mississippi (where the state flag incorporated the Civil War banner), as well as Alabama and South Carolina (which flew the flag at their state capitols).
That ban is now moot since Alabama and South Carolina took down their flags, while Mississippi changed its official state banner in 2020 to remove the Confederate battle emblem.
In 2016, the NCAA also imposed a championship ban on North Carolina after that state passed a so-called “bathroom bill,” a law that restricted which public restroom transgender people could use and limited protections for LGBTQ people in the state.
The NBA imposed its own sanctions, moving the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans.
After the law was repealed and replaced with a compromise bill, the NCAA rescinded its ban — with some reluctance — while the NBA returned to Charlotte with an All-Star weekend a couple of years later.
As recently as two years ago, Major League Baseball yanked its All-Star Game out of Atlanta after the Georgia Legislature passed a voting law that opponents claimed was an attempt to limit participation by people of color.
Since then, numerous states have approved or are considering bills that address a wide range of disputed issues, from voting restrictions to abortion access to gun laws to LBGTQ rights to transgender athletes to drag shows.
Any thoughts of the NCAA — or any professional sports league, for that matter — taking a significant stand in these debates has been largely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of legislation.
“The NCAA has to be wise in its use of its position and its communications,” said Greg Sankey, commissioner of the powerful Southeastern Conference. “You also have to understand states are going to make their decisions, then we’re going to have to follow those decisions.”
The NCAA did not respond to requests for an interview, but did issue a brief statement to The Associated Press on Tuesday evening.
“The NCAA and its member schools are committed to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion,” it said. “Each host site is expected to provide an environment that is safe, healthy and free from discrimination.”
Martinez, whose group works to protect LBGTQ rights in Texas, said 140 bills targeting that community have been filed in the current legislative session — a nearly five-fold increase over just two years ago.
He said the NCAA has squandered a chance to stand with marginalized groups in Texas during both Final Fours, even without the steep logistical challenges of moving those events to other cities.
“Silence is as big a message as any,” Martinez said. “Had they approached this with more attention with the local organizers, they could have figured out ways to contribute to fostering and creating a safe space.”
Instead, he said, “I haven’t heard anything. They haven’t contacted me, and we are the largest statewide organization."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker took over this month as the NCAA's sixth full-time president — and the first to come from the world of politics rather than higher education.
He set a tone for compromise when asked during an interview with The Associated Press about the NCAA's stance on transgender athletes, who've been at the center of a heated debate since Lia Thomas, who had transitioned from male to female while at Ivy League Penn, won a national title in women's swimming last year.
“I think our championships need to reflect the fact that we’re in all 50 states, but the people who actually host those championships need to make sure that every kid who participates in them gets the kind of positive experience out of it that they should get,” Baker told the AP.
Sankey senses that someone such as Baker assuming the role as president “is probably a good opportunity for the NCAA to evaluate how it uses its leadership position in an effective way while also making sure it focuses on its core function, which is supporting high-level competition and educating young people.”
Jon Steinbrecher, who has been commissioner of the Mid-American Conference since 2009, noted how difficult it is to match political sentiments with expanding and ever-changing conference alignments,
“I’ve got a league of 12 public institutions from five different states and they’ve got different viewpoints across the board and different majorities across those states," he said. “You have to pick your battles. If you want to stand up for something, then make sure it’s a broad enough issue that it’s worth the fight.”
Good luck finding an issue that has broad support across political and cultural lines in today's divided America.
Besides, the NCAA finds itself largely consumed with issues such as Name, Image and Likeness and the transfer portal, which have quickly revolutionized the way the college game is played.
Adding to the complexity of NIL are states considering their own laws governing the benefits an athlete can receive through endorsement deals or even outright payments.
"With name, image and likeness, which isn’t a moral issue, but this state does this and that state does that, which makes it a challenge,” Steinbrecher said.
Parrot is wondering whether college athletes will be willing to take their newfound clout into the political arena.
“If they're saying that student athletes have the right to choose where they go to school, how they earn NIL money, how they use the transfer portal,” she said, “what happens when they choose to hold events in locations that don't allow, let's say, women making a decision about the autonomy of their own bodies?"
Parrot pointed to a recent survey that showed 25% of students had ruled out an institution based on the laws and policies of the state where it was located.
Of course, she quickly noted, college athletes likely have far different priorities than the student body as a whole. For top-level recruits in sports such as football and basketball, signing with a school that enhances their chances of getting to the pros is sure to remain the top priority.
“If there’s an issue that as a team we want to stand up for, then we’ll do it,” said UConn freshman Alex Karaban, whose team is headed to the men's Final Four. “But as of now, we're focused on the basketball side of it.”
There also could be a difference between the attitudes of male and female athletes, especially regarding abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade.
“It's going to be interesting to see if any of this influences where student athletes enroll," Parrot said, “and where they don't.”
Paul Newberry is a national sports writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org
AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tom Withers in Cleveland, Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Connecticut and Ralph Russo in New York contributed to this report.
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