By Dan Bernstein
Pro sports leagues can do good things, even with all the time we spend discussing their failures and shortcomings.
Witness the influence of the NFL, for example, lending its considerable financial muscle to the effort against Georgia’s latest “religious liberty” bill to allow discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Falcons owner Arthur Blank is building a new stadium in which he hopes to host several Super Bowls. But a league spokesman made it clear last week that the new law could derail any possibility of that.
“NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or any other improper standard,” VP Brian McCarthy stated. “Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”
Agreeing with the NFL in opposing the law were other companies with business or potential business in Georgia, such as Disney, Apple, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Marriott, Dell, UPS, Microsoft, Twitter and others.
And then on Monday Georgia’s Republican governor vetoed the bill after it had passed the state house and senate in just hours. “Our people work side by side without regard to the color of our skin, or the religion we adhere to,” Nathan Deal said. “That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”
His lips were moving, but that was money talking.
Similar corporate efforts were not enough to topple an even nastier new law in North Carolina, however, one designed to prevent local municipalities from creating non-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. This time, the governor signed it.
In a notably pointed editorial, The Charlotte Observer called House Bill 2 a move “straight into the South’s dark, bigoted past.” It placed Pat McCrory on “a tragic list of 20th century governors” alongside George Wallace and others, “men who fed our worst impulses, men who rallied citizens against citizens, instead of leading their states forward.”
The 2017 NBA All-Star Game is scheduled for Charlotte, and the league responded to the enactment of HB2 by saying “The NBA is dedicated to creating an inclusive environment for all who attend our games and events. We are deeply concerned that this discriminatory law runs counter to our guiding principles of equality and mutual respect and do not yet know what impact it will have on our ability to successfully host the 2017 All-Star game in Charlotte.”
Backlash against North Carolina has come broadly and swiftly, with a federal lawsuit already filed by the ACLU and Lambda Legal. State attorney general Roy Cooper announced that he would not defend the law in court, calling it “a national embarrassment” that “will set North Carolina’s economy back.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg added their names to a group of business leaders standing in official objection, as did Charlotte-based Bank of America. Other state governors and mayors of major cities took the symbolic action of imposing bans on official state travel to North Carolina. A White House spokesperson weighed in as well, saying the legislation was “meanspirited.”
An ironic turn came Tuesday, as one city moved to swipe the NBA All-Star game from Charlotte.
An official City Council statement said in part “The city draws strength from our diverse community. This unity creates our embracing spirit, a quality that has made [us] the destination of choice for numerous international business conventions, professional and college sporting events, as well as one of the largest concentrations of Fortune 500 companies in the nation. We would certainly welcome the opportunity to show that very spirit as the host of the 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend.”
The city? Atlanta.
Just saved from the same ignominy by the grace of business-pressured veto power, Atlanta, Georgia is now trumpeting itself as a bastion of tolerance.
The NBA’s reaction might indicate it knows something about what could be happening in North Carolina. “We appreciate the invitation,” their statement read, “but are hopeful that the city of Charlotte and the state of North Carolina can work through their differences far in advance of the 2017 All-Star Game.”
That’s much softer than the initial comments about the law. Perhaps the NBA is betting that the legal and national outcry will intensify and force positive change before its deadline for a decision to move the festivities.
The NBA should wield the threat of such a move more actively, rather than let other businesses and organizations do the work for them. They should be off the sidelines, and in this game.