In 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a ban on all non-essential state-funded travel to North Carolina after lawmakers there passed HB2 — an anti-LGBTQ bill that, among other things, prohibited transgender people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity.
Despite a sham bill “repealing” HB2 earlier this year, New York’s ban remains in place: It prohibits state-sanctioned travel to North Carolina for any conferences, conventions, lectures, meetings, or other events for any public employees, including those at New York’s public universities.
It has also complicated the schedules for New York’s public university sports teams. Already, several games have been canceled or relocated as a result of North Carolina’s homophobia. The State University of New York at Albany had to back out of a non-conference men’s basketball game scheduled to take place at Duke last fall, and the NCAA altered the seeding for Stony Brook University’s women’s lacrosse team in the postseason tournament so they wouldn’t have to travel to UNC-Chapel Hill. A similar travel ban was put in place for Indiana in 2015 in response to their since-revised “Religious Freedom” law, and that too caused New York’s Division I teams to cancel trips at the last minute to that year’s NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis.
To date, the games that have been impacted by the ban have all been either non-conference games—which are scheduled arbitrarily and are relatively easy to replace—or postseason games, which are similarly adaptable.
Unlike non-conference games, however, contests between conference members aren’t quite so malleable. And that means the continued transphobia of lawmakers in North Carolina—a state that takes its college athletics very seriously—is having a direct and deleterious effect on their state’s Division I sports.
A looming scheduling problem
The Colonial Athletics Association (CAA) is the only conference in Division I whose membership includes public schools in New York—including Stony Brook (full disclosure: the author’s alma mater) and Albany, both part of the public SUNY system — and at least one school in North Carolina, the privately owned Elon University.
Until 2017, the CAA had been able to put off the problem. Both Stony Brook and Albany are associate members of the conference, meaning the only sport in which they compete is football. Thanks largely to blind luck, neither team was scheduled to play at Elon in 2016 (Elon did play Albany, but the game was held in New York).
But on September 30 of this year, the Albany Great Danes will kick off against the Phoenix of Elon University at Rhodes Stadium in Elon, North Carolina. The game is the result of a complicated scheduling matrix that the conference front office relies on to fill the calendars for each member university, and was decided years ago, well before HB2 became law.
Last fall, it wasn’t entirely clear this year’s game would be allowed to proceed at all. Officials from the conference and from Albany told ThinkProgress they were monitoring the situation, hoping the North Carolina legislature would ultimately succumb to pressure from businesses and LGBTQ rights groups and repeal the transphobic law, thus putting an end to New York’s travel ban.
The sham repeal
After the passage of HB2, North Carolina hemorrhaged billions of dollars in lost revenue. The NBA All-Star game was pulled from Charlotte, as were several NCAA tournament events like the first two rounds of March Madness, the ACC championship tournament, and the women’s Division I lacrosse championship. Corporations like PayPal shelved plans to open new offices in the state, and some 100 companies announced similar plans to boycott the state in response to the law.
After months of stubborn resistance, Republicans finally appeared to waver in their commitment to discriminating against the LGBTQ community. But the “deal” they struck with Democratic lawmakers was hardly a compromise: Though they repealed the original HB2, they replaced it with a nearly identical bill that kept the bathroom provisions intact and similarly banned individual cities in the state from passing their own non-discrimination ordinances until at least 2020.
Still, the “repeal” provided cover for organizations like the NBA and the NCAA to return their business to the state. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver awarded Charlotte the 2019 All-Star Game, and the NCAA announced their self-imposed ban on tournament events in the state was over as well.
New York State was not convinced, though. Shortly after the replacement bill was signed into law, Gov. Cuomo’s office reaffirmed the state’s ban, arguing that North Carolina did not meet the standards set by the governor’s office for lifting the ban.
The long, disruptive arm of North Carolina’s transphobia
With no hope for a clean repeal of HB2 in sight and an immovable conference football game fast approaching, the CAA was forced to find a solution. According to the University at Albany, the football team was granted an exemption from the state to ensure their 2017 game would proceed as scheduled. But the conference is now being forced to consider the ban in future scheduling.
“We had a meeting this summer in which we looked at our scheduling philosophy going forward, and made some practical decisions relative to this occurrence,” said CAA Commissioner Joe D’Antonio this week, in the most diplomatic language possible. “We are in the process right now of putting together a new scheduling matrix for 2018 through 2021.”
In other words, North Carolina’s transphobia is hampering the conference’s ability to build the schedule it wants for at least the next four years. In May, the NCAA issued a similar statement regarding the women’s lacrosse tournament, saying their selection committee “was aware of the public universities impacted by statewide travel bans across all championships and the potential impact on the student-athlete experience.”
Might the circumstances change in the future? Sure. And D’Antonio is prepared to make adjustments moving forward. “I would never go as far as to say those games would never be scheduled,” he said.
As a Division I conference with a sizable footprint in North Carolina, the CAA and its commissioner felt compelled to to publicly condemn HB2. “Diversity and inclusion are such important principles at all ten of our full member institutions,” said D’Antonio in a statement last year. “Our decisions express the desire of our Conference to stand up against discriminatory practices, while also making sure that the student-athletes of the CAA, as well as all people that take part in our championships, are provided with a tremendous experience in a fair and non-discriminatory environment.”
Republicans in North Carolina might have done enough to clean up their act and convince the NBA and other organizations to resume normal operations in the state. But for New York State and others, North Carolina’s heels are still tarred.