NCAA decision to return to North Carolina leaves some student-athletes disappointed

AP Photo/Phil Sears

The NCAA said this week that it's giving championship events to North Carolina again.

Liam Miranda was a senior at Duke in 2016 when then-North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 into law. Miranda was rowing on the women's team as a closeted transgender man, not ready to face the possibility of giving up his sport. He was fearful of what it would mean to be an out trans athlete when there were so few, let alone at the Division I level.

After HB2, which mandated the use of restrooms in publicly funded spaces in accordance with the assigned sex listed on a person's birth certificate, he was living in a state that discriminated against trans people.

The NCAA provided a boon of hope for Miranda. Six months after the passing of HB2, the NCAA pulled seven championship events from North Carolina for the 2016-2017 season. Though the announcement came a few months after Miranda graduated, it sent a strong message about the NCAA's stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer inclusion.

"Seeing [HB2] get passed -- and the conversation that came from it -- was really devastating, and that's why it was meaningful to see the NCAA and the ACC take a stand against it," Miranda said in a phone interview. The ACC and NBA also pulled events from the state after HB2's passage.

On Tuesday, the NCAA announced North Carolina would once again be granted events, including the first- and second-round men's basketball tournament games in Greensboro in 2020, and championships in 2018 and 2019. Earlier this month, the NCAA said it would reconsider the state for events following the passage of HB142, a measure touted as a repeal of HB2. While HB142 removes the requirement to use public facilities as directed by a person's birth certificate, it prohibits municipalities from passing ordinances that regulate those facilities until 2020, a similar provision as in HB2.

The NCAA's most-recent announcement has left some student-athletes questioning how to move forward.

"A part of me was happy for the state, knowing that from a purely financial perspective, this was undeniably good news. I think there are a lot of North Carolina students who cherish the opportunity to perform at the highest level in their home state," said Ezra Baeli-Wang, a University of North Carolina senior on the fencing team and president of the ACC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).

"But obviously the political implications are troubling," he said. "The intent and ideals behind the NCAA's withdrawal from North Carolina had to do with taking a principled stance against discrimination. The compromise bill is decidedly weak and has fundamental flaws."

Baeli-Wang co-authored a letter to the North Carolina legislature in February, urging the body to repeal HB2 in light of the possibility of losing the opportunity to host NCAA championships. That letter was co-signed by other members of the ACC SAAC, including Duke football player Chris Taylor, NC State diver Gabi McDermott and Wake Forest golfer Tanner Owen.

Baeli-Wang says the activism in which he and his peers have engaged hasn't been widespread among student-athletes, partly because people aren't informed.

"Many student-athletes are unaware of the language of [HB142] and exactly what was changed," Baeli-Wang said. "Instead, they're focused on the fact that a new bill passed, and as a result the NCAA is coming back to North Carolina. That's what matters most to them. It is a small minority that recognizes that this is not exactly a victory for the LGBTQIA community or any individual who was hoping for a triumph of equality."

Sarah Fletcher, a rower at Duke, whose administration publicly criticized HB2, has felt a similar disconnect among student-athletes. When HB142 passed, the sophomore received many text messages celebrating the repeal.

"It's a little disappointing because a lot of the conversations I've been having are about HB2 being repealed," Fletcher said in a phone interview. "It was very easy for athletes to take [HB142] at face value. People had to go and really read the fine print."

Sophomore swimmer Riley Hickman said the fact that Duke is a private school is contributing to the lack of awareness.

"[HB2 and HB142 do] not affect our campus," Hickman said. "Outside of the campus is where the problem exists, and it can be difficult for athletes to see the lives of people around us. There is a small fraction of students who are talking about it, but it's not as strong as I would hope it to be."

The move also conflicts the increasingly strong stances the NCAA has taken against anti-LGBTQ legislation. Since 2015, NCAA has spoken out against Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and said it was watching a similar bill in Georgia that was later vetoed.

The NCAA has also published materials for member schools specifically on LGBTQ inclusion, held webinars for coaches on intra-team dating, hosted summits on the intersection of religion and LGBTQ identity, employed a staff member who works on LGBTQ inclusion and amplified the community's voice at their annual Inclusion Forum. 

"They aligned themselves with the LGBTQ community, especially student-athletes, and for them to reverse that decision after we get handed a law that is no better is really disappointing. It backpedals all the work they did," Miranda said.

The NCAA's decision to award championships to North Carolina reverberated outside of the state. National LGBTQ organization such as the Human Rights Campaign, Athlete Ally and National Center for Transgender Equality argue the heart of the issue -- the safety of LGBTQ people -- hasn't been resolved.

The NCAA declined to comment beyond their statement this week.

The organization may be setting a precedent for other anti-LGBTQ legislation being considered across the country. Texas, another state that hosts major sporting events, is considering Senate Bill 6, which mirrors the bathroom language in HB2, and HB 2899, which overrides existing LGBTQ-inclusive local ordinances and bans municipalities, counties and public schools from protecting groups of people not enumerated in state or federal laws. 

Before HB2 was repealed, the Associated Press estimated the law would cost North Carolina more than $3.76 billion in lost business over 12 years.

"As an [LGBTQ] athlete, I felt less than human," Bree Horrocks, a junior basketball player at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said of the NCAA's decision. Horrocks is one of only a few publicly out LGBTQ athletes in women's college basketball. "I felt more like a feature of a business or an asset to a business. It felt like they were in it for the money and not for the student-athletes, and their loyalty should lie with the student-athletes."

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