We use sports as a respite, a means of escape from real-life issues that can keep us awake at night.
However, although there are plenty of other forums to tackle potential third-rail topics such as politics, religion, socioeconomics, race and pop culture, our fun-and-games become a platform time and again. With good reason.
Athletes, coaches, team owners and league officials don’t live in a vacuum. Regardless of their occupations, they’re no different than cabbies and construction workers or accountants and architects. Everyone has a position when controversies swirl.
Being affiliated with sports doesn’t mean you disconnect from everything else around you.
Which brings us to Indianapolis, site of the men’s Final Four this year (and in 2021), not to mention the women’s Final Four in 2016, the annual Big Ten championship football game, the annual NFL scouting combine and a number of big-ticket affairs.
It’s a given that Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin and Michigan State will play at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend. But other high-profile events might consider relocating from Indiana due to the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which apparently gives businesses the right to deny service if someone’s sexual orientation is contrary to the business owners’ religious belief.
If you think sports and politics and sports and religion shouldn’t mix, get over it. We have witnessed such correlations at least since Olympian Jesse Owens taught Adolf Hitler a lesson on false ideology 1936.
Eighty years later, the world is 80,000 times more connected. Church and state are about the only things that remain separated and even that’s a stretch.
So forget about detaching the world of sports from its social and political environs. Especially for colleges, which are charged with educating young minds and keeping them open.
“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committee to providing an inclusive environment for all our events,” president Mark Emmert said in a statement last week. “We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees.
“We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending (the Final Four) are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”
In other words, the NCAA might consider relocating its national office from Indianapolis in addition to moving championship games. The state already has suffered fallout on the business side, as Indianapolis-based Angie’s List announced the cancellation of plans for a $40 million headquarters expansion.
“Angie’s List is open to all and discriminates against none,” CEO Bill Oesterle told The Indianapolis Star. “We are hugely disappointed in what this bill represents.”
For Oesterle, a Republican who managed former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ first election campaign in 2004 and supported current Gov. Mike Pence in the 2013 race, the most important color isn’t red or blue. It’s green – as in his company’s revenue of $315 million last year.
That’s chump change for the NFL, which took in roughly $11 billion. Good luck convincing commissioner Roger Goodell that the league should stick to the gridiron and keep its nose out of statehouses.
The Grand Canyon State will tell you to save your breath. The NFL pulled the Super Bowl from Arizona in 1993 because the state failed to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday. And New England’s Super Bowl victory against Seattle might’ve taken place elsewhere if Arizona Gov. Brewer hadn’t vetoed an Indiana-like measure last year.
Don’t be surprised if the NFL moves the weeklong scouting combine (held in Indy since 1987), which has evolved into a national event with live coverage by NFL Network. Indy also hosted the Super Bowl three years ago. Could it be the city’s last?
“We do not have a comment at this time,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Star. “We are in the process of studying the law and its implications.”
Companies that ignore the potential fallout of Indiana’s new law do so at their own peril, arguably breaching their fiduciary duty.
Individuals, whether private citizens or public celebrities, can react at the ballot box and cash register. Some prefer keeping their thoughts to themselves. Others don’t mind sharing.
Figures in the sports arena have that option. They just garner more attention when exercising their right to choose the latter.
“I’ve never been big into politics but I’m very disappointed in my adopted home state of Indiana and the passing of Senate Bill 101,” former NBA great Reggie Miller tweeted. “I’ve always been about inclusion for all, no matter your skin color, gender or sexual preference. We are all the same people, beautiful creatures.”
Sports and life. They go together like picks and rolls.
We now return to our regularly scheduled program in Indy.
Enjoy the Final Four!