INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — As pressure builds for the repeal or revision of Indiana’s new religious objection law, the NCAA faces a decision about whether to look for a new venue for next year’s women’s Final Four.
NCAA President Mark Emmert has indicated the Indianapolis-headquartered organization would consider relocating all types of college sports events out of state if the law doesn’t change. But none on the calendar is quite as urgent as next year’s women’s championship.
Indiana’s capital city, which has built an economy and reputation as an attractive base for major sports events, is being watched carefully as fallout swells about the law, which opponents say amounts to legalized discrimination. The NCAA was among the first sports organizations to express concern with the law when it was signed by Gov. Mike Pence last week, and many others have followed, including the NFL, the NBA and NASCAR.
The men’s Final Four is in Indianapolis this weekend and could not have been moved on short notice. But officials have made it clear there is enough time to consider relocating future events, and that they want an environment welcoming to all athletes and fans.
“What’s going on in Indiana is troubling,” NCAA vice president of women’s basketball championships Anucha Browne said Wednesday.
“We will assess all our championships in the state of Indiana. We do anyway. We want to ensure that student athletes have a positive experience wherever we take them and our fans to. It’s the right thing to do.”
The Indiana law prohibits any laws that “substantially burdens” a person’s ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of “person” includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.
Although the legal language does not specifically mention gays and lesbians, critics say the law is designed to protect businesses and individuals who do not want to serve gays and lesbians, such as florists or caterers who might be hired for a same-sex wedding.
Pence on Tuesday asked lawmakers to send him a clarification of the state’s new religious-freedom law later this week. Emmert is set to address reporters Thursday afternoon, and is expected to face questions about the college governing body’s stance on the issue.
The Final Four will bring thousands of visitors to downtown Indianapolis over the next five days, along with hordes of media to cover one of the most popular events on the sports calendar. That makes Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of Saturday’s semifinals between Duke and Michigan State and Wisconsin and Kentucky, the perfect place for protesters to be heard and seen.
Indianapolis is planning to have “a noticeably higher police presence” in the city’s downtown area during the Final Four weekend, and officials have created a designated area immediately south of the Lucas Oil Stadium where people can hold protests, said Al Larsen, spokesman for the city’s Department of Public Safety.
Already, some have said they won’t attend this year’s Final Four.
University of Connecticut men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie and his staff will not be attending the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention in Indianapolis, abiding by a travel ban ordered by Connecticut’s governor.
UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel said he hopes the Huskies’ women’s team, which is making its eighth straight Final Four appearance in Tampa, Florida, this weekend, will not be faced with difficult decision about whether the team should participate next year.
“If (the law) doesn’t change than I would encourage the NCAA to look to move the venue so that we wouldn’t get into a situation where any institution would have to consider that kind of choice,” he said.
Final Four sites are set years in advance, though Indianapolis is penciled in for one every five years in both the men’s and women’s tournaments as part of an agreement between the city and the NCAA.
Next year, as part of the 35th anniversary of NCAA women’s basketball, the Division II and III championships will also be held in Indianapolis. That would make moving the event more complicated, but not impossible.
“It takes more than a year to plan a Final Four,” Browne said. “If that is the direction the NCAA chooses to go, we’d have to figure it out.”
Potential host cities need an 18,000-seat arena available to play the games, a convention center for the Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association convention and fan events and more than 3,000 available hotel rooms.
“And the big one is who’s going to pay for this?” said Gary Alexander, the executive director of the local organizing committee for the 2014 women’s Final Four in Nashville, Tennessee. “Our fundraising effort virtually launched in 2010 or ’11.”
Nashville organizers raised $2.7 million in sponsorship money, Alexander said.
“If the NCAA is willing to help subsidize the city that this comes to then, yes, it is possible (to relocate),” Alexander said. “But I think that in a years’ time, can a community raise $2.5, $3 million … that’s a pretty scary thing. I don’t think a community would be willing to do that on short notice.”
Alexander said if the NCAA were to move next year’s women’s Final Four, he believes it would find cities willing to try to make it work.
“It would be an honor to host it. Two, you would be helping out the NCAA which would bring favor for the way the NCAA viewed your community for a number of NCAA events,” he said.
UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma said he believes Indiana lawmakers can come up with a solution to the problem.
“I’m sure they don’t want the Final Four to be canceled,” he said. “I’m sure they don’t want all this bad publicity that they’re getting. Nobody wants that. But c’mon, come to your senses here. Just go on with your life and let everyone else go on with theirs. That’s my approach with my team and I don’t understand anybody that’s got a different approach.”
Doug Feinberg reported from New York. Associated Press Writer Pat Eaton-Robb in Storrs, Connecticut, contributed to this report.