It was one thing when the NBA pulled the 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte over North Carolina's House Bill 2 — a measure widely criticized as discriminatory toward the LGBT community — but mess with college sports in the Tar Heel State, and HB2 might really be in trouble.
On Wednesday, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) announced it would be relocating all neutral-site championships for the 2016-17 season from North Carolina over the state's so-called “bathroom law” — legislation best known for barring transgender people from using government building bathrooms in accordance with their gender identities. The most notable championship the decision will cost the state is the ACC's football title game, which was scheduled to take place in Charlotte.
Wednesday's action comes less than 48 hours after the NCAA sent a similar message to North Carolina, announcing it would pull seven championship events from the state in the coming school year over the controversial law.
It also follows months of protests and calls to repeal the measure, all of which have gone unheeded by North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who’s running for re-election.
Yet given how important college sports are in North Carolina — a state that has hosted more men’s basketball tournament games (251) than any other in the last 65 years — lawmakers may now be under more pressure than ever to repeal HB2.
“College sports has been the biggest thing in North Carolina going back 70 years,” said Dr. Thad Williamson, an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and author of the book, “More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many.”
“For most people, it’s the thing that bonds families together. Seats get passed down to grandkids. It’s a huge part of everyday life in North Carolina,” Williamson said. “I think [the NCAA’s decision] is going to get a lot of people speaking about HB2 and realizing that nationwide revulsion against this law is not going away anytime soon.”
The loss of the games will undoubtedly add to the financial toll HB2 has already taken on the state.
In addition to the $100 million tourism experts believe the NBA All-Star game would have brought to North Carolina, the Charlotte Chamber has estimated an economic blow of $285 million and a loss of as many as 1,300 jobs in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region as a result of HB2. The Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, meanwhile, has projected the law could cost Raleigh as much as $40 million in convention business.
But college sports are different for North Carolinians and represent something more than dollar signs.
"[W]e’re a state that loves sports," wrote Ed Hardin in an article that graced the front of the Greensboro News & Record's sports page on Tuesday. "We’re a state that considers basketball and soccer and baseball and golf to be part of our identity. We've hosted a men's postseason basketball tournament, ACC or NCAA, every year since 1985, but we won't in 2017."
"This is a blow to our way of life," he said.
Still, some aren’t convinced the latest action against North Carolina will have much impact. The Republican leadership has already stood by HB2 through costly boycotts and multiple lawsuits against the state — including one spearheaded by the U.S. Justice Department — that some critics can’t imagine anything changing their minds at this point.
“It’s hard to believe that lawmakers in North Carolina haven’t already repealed the law, given the repercussions and clear disagreements that voters in the state have with it,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com. “Will this be what pushes [the repeal effort] over the edge? I can’t get inside the heads of North Carolina Republicans.”
McCrory, who signed HB2 into law after a one-day special session last March, appeared as defiant as ever on Tuesday, saying in a statement that the NCAA had "failed to show... respect" for the states now grappling with questions of transgender rights and privacy concerns — an issue, he noted, that would ultimately be settled by the federal judiciary.
"I strongly encourage all public and private institutions to both respect and allow our nation’s judicial system to proceed without economic threats or political retaliation toward the 22 states that are currently challenging government overreach," McCrory said, referencing two separate, multi-state lawsuits against the Obama administration's guidance that public schools grant transgender students access to the bathrooms of their choice.
"Sadly," said McCrory, "the NCAA, a multi-billion dollar, tax-exempt monopoly, failed to show this respect at the expense of our student athletes and hard-working men and women."
A spokeswoman with the state Republican Party also spoke out against the NCAA’s move, calling it “so absurd it’s almost comical.”
“I genuinely look forward to the NCAA merging all men’s and women’s teams together as singular, unified, unisex teams,” said the spokeswoman, Kami Mueller, in a statement viewed by critics as a less-than-encouraging sign change would come from the legislature.
Yet, for their part, the two schools with perhaps the most to lose from the NCAA’s decision — Duke and the University of North Carolina — each came out in support of the action.
“Duke agrees with the decision,” said the school’s president, Richard Brodhead, on MSNBC Tuesday. “It was the NCAA’s to decide, and obviously they have many things to try to compute, and I think at the end of the day they regarded this as a fairness and equal rights, equal protection kind of issue. Certainly that’s the way that we see it.”
North Carolina Rep. Darren Jackson, a Democrat who introduced a failed bill to repeal HB2 last session, told NBC News he would try again when the legislature reconvenes in January. The NCAA's decision, he said, may help his cause.
"I think it's certainly going to put it back on the front page. Though I don't know if it will change the minds of our Republican governor and leadership," he said. "They're pretty dug in."
LGBT rights activists, meanwhile, are confident the courts will side with them, even if lawmakers never will. Last month, a federal judge issued a limited injunction against HB2, saying the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on claims the law violates existing federal protections. The same judge is scheduled to hear the full challenge in May.
“If the legislature does not fix this, we are confident that the law will eventually be overturned in court,” said Mike Meno, communications director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “We’re optimistic that HB2’s days are numbered.”