North Carolina has hosted more NCAA tournament games than any other state, but it won’t get a single one this season. On Monday night, the NCAA announced it would remove championship events from the state this academic year. The action was a response to the state’s controversial Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, more commonly known as the bathroom bill, House Bill 2 or HB2. Most notably, the decision means that the planned Greensboro regional of the NCAA tournament (first and second rounds) will be moved elsewhere. It’s a major blow to a state whose athletic identity at the collegiate level centers on basketball.
And in response, Kami Mueller, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina GOP issued a statement:
“This is so absurd it’s almost comical,” she wrote. “I genuinely look forward to the NCAA merging all men’s and women’s teams together as singular, unified, unisex teams. Under the NCAA’s logic, colleges should make cheerleaders and football players share bathrooms, showers and hotel rooms. This decision is an assault to female athletes across the nation. If you are unwilling to have women’s bathrooms and locker rooms, how do you have a women’s team? I wish the NCAA was this concerned about the women who were raped at Baylor. Perhaps the NCAA should stop with their political peacocking—and instead focus their energies on making sure our nation’s collegiate athletes are safe, both on and off the field.”
Setting aside how misguided this statement is from a p.r. perspective, it’s also based on some fundamentally faulty reasoning. But before responding to it, let’s take a brief look at the history of HB2. The bill was a response to Charlotte Ordinance 7056, which in part expanded anti-discrimination protections to transgender people in public accommodations. Federal law already protects against discrimination on the basis of race and religion, but most states still legally allow discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The city of Charlotte wanted to extend civil rights to more of its citizens.
In response, North Carolina Republicans drafted, voted on and signed into law HB2 in 11 hours and 10 minutes. According to the NCAA’s press release, the reason it found the North Carolina law unacceptable was that it “invalidate(s) any local law that treats sexual orientation as a protected class or has a purpose to prevent discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals.” And that’s a proper interpretation of the bill. To the NCAA, this isn’t just about bathrooms—it’s about ensuring that LGBTQ people who participate in or travel to NCAA events are afforded equal protection under the law.
In short, North Carolina—like many states—had a gap in civil protections, particularly for trans people. Charlotte tried to close that gap. The North Carolina state legislature responded with HB2. And now the NCAA, like PayPal and Deutsche Bank and Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam and the NBA with its All-Star Game, has decided it doesn’t want to do business in North Carolina.
Now onto Mueller’s statement. She argues that the NCAA’s logic is internally inconsistent, that if it doesn’t believe in separate bathrooms it can’t believe in separate sports teams. But actually the two beliefs are in lockstep with each other. The federal law Title IX requires equal opportunity for each gender in athletics (and other activities) for colleges and universities that receive federal funding. The NCAA’s compliance with Title IX has led to a 600 percent increase in female participation from 1972 to 2012. And yet, women are still underrepresented in collegiate sports. Last year, women made up 57 percent of all college students, but only 40 percent of collegiate athletes were female. It’s nice to imagine a world in which men and women participate in all sports together equally—just as it’s nice to imagine a world without racism—but until it becomes a reality, the NCAA’s member schools must go above and beyond to create opportunities for women.
Mueller also writes that colleges should “make” cheerleaders and football players share bathrooms, showers and hotel rooms. This is an extension of an argument that has either been explicitly stated or implied going all the way back to marriage equality debates. Just because something is lawful doesn’t mean you must do it. Allowing trans athletes to use the locker rooms and bathrooms that align with their gender identities isn’t the same thing as forcing female athletes to sleep in the same hotel room as their male counterparts.
Finally, Mueller argues that the NCAA should be more “concerned about the women who were raped at Baylor.” And no doubt, the NCAA should bring the hammer down on Baylor for its violations of Title IX and its allowance of environment that was emotionally and physically harmful for women. But the two issues are unrelated. That’s akin to me writing that Mueller and the North Carolina GOP should spend less time defending a law that a majority of North Carolinian’s disapprove of and more time trying to ensure that all of its citizens have fair and equal voting rights—something a U.S. District Court recently had to force them to do. It’s true, but it misses the point.
The NCAA made this move because it can and it felt it should. It is an independent organization free to decide when and where to host its championship events. It already refuses to consider states that fly the Confederate flag on public property. It is now ensuring that its student-athletes—and its fans—will indeed be safe “off the field,” as Mueller implored. Studies have linked denying transgender people bathroom rights with increased suicide attempts. No study has ever shown an increase in any kind of physical or sexual assault in areas with inclusive bathroom policies.
While Mueller and the North Carolina GOP may view the NCAA’s action as “so absurd it’s almost comical,” it’s unlikely that North Carolinians will find the absent entertainment and lost revenue funny. And if North Carolina voters want to keep their state the king of the NCAA tournament, they’ll need to send a strong message in November.