The NCAA has taken a seat on the bench in the political game. The organization that governs college athletics was once at the forefront of hot-button issues such as the Confederate flag and …
I am anchor
NCAA takes seat on bench in the political game
FILE- A basketball with an NCAA logo and a Title IX inscription rests on a rack before a First Four game between Illinois and Mississippi State at the NCAA women's college basketball tournament Wednesday, March 15, 2023, in South Bend, Ind. The NCAA, the organization that governs college athletics, was once at the forefront of hot-button issues such as the Confederate flag and transgender rights. But that stance evolved quickly as one Republican-controlled state after another rushed to pass laws that on everything from abortion to transgender rights. The NCAA’s new approach came into sharper focus this week as Texas prepares to host both the men’s and women’s Final Four. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina, File)
By PAUL NEWBERRY
The NCAA has taken a seat on the bench in the political game.
The organization that governs college athletics was once at the forefront of hot-button issues such as the Confederate flag and transgender rights.
But that stance evolved quickly as one Republican-controlled state after another rushed to pass laws that supporters hail as a war on “wokeness,” even as critics deride them as exclusionary and a step backward in human decency.
Nary a word has been spoken about moving these events out of Houston and Dallas.
Clearly, the member-led organization now sees little benefit from getting involved in a culture war that has divided the nation into two distinctly different camps, with little room for compromise.
“It's so important to think of who composes the NCAA — specifically, the Division I institutions, which are predominantly public institutions,” said Teresa Valerio Parrot, whose firm, TVP Communications, focuses on clients in higher education. "When they vote with the NCAA on where to hold events, they may be seen as passing judgment on their own home state.”
There was a time when the NCAA was more than willing to pass judgment.
In 2016, the NCAA also imposed a championship ban on North Carolina after that state passed a so-called “bathroom bill,” a law that restricted which public restroom transgender people could use and limited protections for LGBTQ people in the state.
The NBA imposed its own sanctions, moving the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans.
“This new law has minimally achieved a situation where we believe NCAA championships may be conducted in a nondiscriminatory environment,” the NCAA board said at the time. “If we find that our expectations of a discrimination-free environment are not met, we will not hesitate to take necessary action at any time.”
Since then, numerous states have approved or are considering bills that address a wide range of disputed issues, from voting restrictions to abortion access to gun laws to LBGTQ rights to transgender athletes to drag shows.
Any thoughts of the NCAA — or any professional sports league, for that matter — taking a significant stand in these debates has been largely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of legislation.
“The NCAA has to be wise in its use of its position and its communications,” said Greg Sankey, commissioner of the powerful Southeastern Conference. “You also have to understand states are going to make their decisions, then we’re going to have to follow those decisions.”
The NCAA did not respond to requests for comment. Baylor President Linda Livingstone, who chairs the NCAA board of governors, declined an interview request.
From all indications, the organization's willingness to get involved in highly divisive issues is over.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker took over this month as the NCAA's sixth full-time president — and the first to come from the world of politics rather than higher education.
He set a tone for compromise when asked during an interview with The Associated Press about the NCAA's stance on transgender athletes, who've been at the center of a heated debate since Lia Thomas, who had transitioned from male to female while at Ivy League Penn, won a national title in women's swimming last year.
“I think our championships need to reflect the fact that we’re in all 50 states, but the people who actually host those championships need to make sure that every kid who participates in them gets the kind of positive experience out of it that they should get,” Baker told the AP.
Sankey senses that someone such as Baker assuming the role as president “is probably a good opportunity for the NCAA to evaluate how it uses its leadership position in an effective way while also making sure it focuses on its core function, which is supporting high-level competition and educating young people.”
Jon Steinbrecher, who has been commissioner of the Mid-American Conference since 2009, noted how difficult it is to match political sentiments with expanding and ever-changing conference alignments,
“I’ve got a league of 12 public institutions from five different states and they’ve got different viewpoints across the board and different majorities across those states," he said. "You have to pick your battles. If you want to stand up for something, then make sure it’s a broad enough issue that it’s worth the fight. And that’s for anybody."
Good luck finding an issue that has broad support across political and cultural lines in today's divided America.
Besides, the NCAA finds itself largely consumed with issues such as Name, Image and Likeness and the transfer portal, which have quickly revolutionized the way the college game is played.
"With name, image and likeness, which isn’t a moral issue, but this state does this and that state does that, which makes it a challenge,” Steinbrecher said.
Parrot is wondering whether college athletes will be willing to take their newfound clout into the political arena.
“If they're saying that student athletes have the right to choose where they go to school, how they earn NIL money, how they use the transfer portal,” she said, “it's going to be interesting to see what happens when they choose to hold events in locations that don't allow, let's say, women making a decision about the autonomy of their own bodies."
Of course, she quickly noted, college athletes likely have far different priorities than the student body as a whole. For top-level recruits in sports such as football and basketball, signing with a school that enhances their chances of getting to the pros is sure to remain the top priority.