NCAA, NFL, and Business Groups Use Financial Power to Protect Their Neighbors

In early 2014, we saw the power a major sports franchise can have to stop bad “religious freedom” bills when conservative Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a broad state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). After the bill passed the legislature and before Gov. Brewer’s veto, the National Football League (NFL) issued a statement implying that, if this bill should pass, they may not choose to host the Super Bowl in the state as planned.

Then, in April 2015, enormous backlash from the business and sports community erupted when the Indiana and Arkansas legislatures passed RFRA bills in their own states. The outrage in Indiana was particularly strong, with negative feedback and even boycotts from the Indianapolis Mayor, celebrities, NCAA, NCAA athletes, multiple CEOs, NASCAR, law professors, Angie’s List, health care providers, musicians, authors, performers, conventions, faith leaders, and entire states. In reaction to the backlash, Governor Mike Pence attempted to find a solution, but ultimately settled on an inadequate fix to the RFRA bill that addressed discrimination in public accommodations, but did nothing to protect against housing and employment discrimination.

This week, the NCAA, based in Indianapolis, announced that it will reconsider where it chooses to host championships based on civil rights protections for the LGBT community. Because these so-called “religious freedom” bills threaten state and local non-discrimination ordinances, states that pass these bills have the potential to lose a lot of money that comes with hosting sporting events like the Final Four.

The financial leverage of the business community came up recently in Georgia as well. Recent studies by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau illustrate that Georgia could see “a negative economic impact of $1 billion to $2 billion if [RFRA] passes without civil rights protections.”

Unfortunately, we still expect to see “religious freedom” bills introduced all over the country in 2016. But, money talks, and luckily business groups and major franchises agree: legislation that condones discrimination and undermines civil rights laws is not acceptable.