When Indiana Governor Mike Pence last week signed a bill allowing businesses in the state to deny service to patrons on religious freedom grounds, it created a politically charged debate that will play a role in the lead-up to one of the country’s largest sporting events.
This week’s Final Four, held in Indianapolis, will be a cauldron of protests both for and against the bill, which critics believe opens the door to discriminate against the LGBT community. Adding to the drama is that the NCAA’s home offices are also in Indianapolis, a fact not lost on NCAA President Mark Emmert, who hinted at relocating the offices in a statement he criticizing the law.
“We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill,” Emmert’s statement read. “Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”
There are other implications as well. City officials have expressed concern the Big 10, which hosts several events annually in the city (including the Big 10 football championship game) will leave the city due to bill. Gen Con, a large gaming convention has already said it will leave the state after it’s current contract is up, which runs through 2020.
The backlash to the bill is something Visit Indy, the state’s largest CVB, was fearful of when it was first discussed. Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Indy, told Connect Sports as much when we reached out to him.
“Since February, we have opposed Indiana’s RFRA bill, a bill similar to 19 other states who have adopted the legislation. From the beginning, we were quick to warn the bill could cause a misperception of Indy being unwelcoming. We are confident the 75,000 people who depend on tourism for a paycheck will continue to display the ‘Hoosier Hospitality’ we are known for worldwide. No piece of paper can take away what is at the core of an Indy resident, a genuine desire to welcome. ‘Hoosier Hospitality’ is alive and well in Indy.”
Politicians and activists have attacked the bill as essentially legalizing discrimination. Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post outlining his opposition of the bill, and Marc Benioff, SalesForce CEO, tweeting his company will no longer host programs in the state.
“These bills rationalize injustice by pretending to defend something many of us hold dear,” Cook wrote. “They go against the very principles our nation was founded on, and they have the potential to undo decades of progress toward greater equality.”
The public heat directed toward the state has been intense and should only grow between now and the start of the Final Four on Saturday. It seems the AFSCME, which has announced it will pull out of state and move its October meeting, will be the first of many at this point unless the clarification Pence says is coming works the way he—and the events industry—hopes it will.