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How the RFRA could affect college athletics in Indiana

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The impacts of this legislation could affect NCAA-sanctioned events in the state, and could even impact recruitment and scheduling at schools like IU.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Last Thursday, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed SB101 into law, after an overwhelming Republican majority passed the bill in the state house. This bill, which is Indiana's version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (and different than both the similarly named national law and the laws that have been passed in other states), has had a ripple effect across the state. Businesses have canceled expansion plans, while other states and cities have placed travel bans on state functions in Indiana. A #BoycottIndiana movement has made the rounds on social media, and a satirical tourism video has been released. In addition, many universities and towns in the state, including IU and the city of Bloomington, have made strong statements coming out against RFRA, as has Indy Mayor Greg Ballard, who is a Republican himself. Thus, the opposition has been bipartisan and overwhelming.

The far-reaching backlash that has stemmed from the law has even caught the attention of college athletics. The NCAA, of course, has its headquarters in Indianapolis. This weekend, the state capital will play host to the men's basketball Final Four. With fans in driving distance coming from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Kentucky, as well as a broad national fanbase coming from Duke, the weekend is primed to be a huge revenue generator for Indiana. According to NCAA president Mark Emmert, however, future events in the city are under review and no longer set in stone. Emmert believes that the NCAA's event should be held in inclusive environments, and the passage of this law in Indiana is "inconsistent with our values" as an organization.

For all of the NCAA's issues - and there are many - the organization deserves credit for coming out strongly against RFRA, and putting pressure on the governor and state legislators who passed it so hastily. If the NCAA decides to act, Indianapolis - and by extension, the entire state - could lose out on the women's Final Four next spring, NCAA men's first and second round games in 2017, and another men's Final Four in 2021.

At the conference level, the Big Ten, with two member institutions in the state, has also taken notice. Last Friday, the B1G issued a statement saying that they "will further review its impact" at their next meeting. If the conference is concerned enough about the law to pull events out, then the impact could be wide ranging as well. Right now, the B1G football championship is played every December at Lucas Oil Stadium. Do you think Jim Delany would have any issue moving that game to the Meadowlands? Probably not. The B1G men's basketball tournament is scheduled for Bankers Life Fieldhouse next season. That could go as well. Same with the women's tournament, which will be in Indy from 2017 to 2022. My grand idea to hold the B1G baseball tournament at Victory Field seems unlikely now too.

For other sports in the state, the Colts and Pacers have spoken out against the bill, and the NFL has also voiced its concerns, considering they hold their Scouting Combine in Indy every offseason. Indianapolis has carved out a niche as being an excellent host city for these types of events. Indy's hosting of the Super Bowl was particularly praised three years ago. With the passage of RFRA, the governor is basically putting the city's competitive advantage in this area in danger. As a result, this law is more than just a terrible, bigoted social policy. It's going to affect the state's economy as well.

I wanted to quickly bring up a couple other points though, that seems to be overlooked in the controversy surrounding RFRA. How could this affect athletic teams within the state, and could it end up hurting athletic recruiting? LGBT athletes and recruits could view today's legislation and potentially cross off IU, Purdue, Butler, Notre Dame, or any of Indiana's other fine academic institutions. If a top athlete is gay, then why would he or she want to come to a state that allows businesses to openly discriminate? It's a shame, too, because Bloomington was such a diverse and inclusive place to live in, and IU does a great job of providing a ton of LGBT-related groups and support services.

Last year, Derrick Gordon of UMass came out as the first openly gay college basketball player. Earlier this week, he announced his intent to transfer. Gordon's stats for the Minutemen lead me to believe that he could be a serviceable player at any D-1 school, as the guard averaged 10 points and 5 rebounds per game last season. However, it's hard for me to believe that he'd want to transfer to a school in Indiana after the passing of RFRA. Thus, it's not just recruits who could be affected, but also getting top transfers to come play at schools in the state.

And it may not just be the players who may suffer from this dangerous legislation. The unintended consequences of the RFRA may trickle down to scheduling as well. Remember the state travel ban in Connecticut? One could make the argument that, since UConn is a state school, the Nutmeg State might not be willing to pay to travel to potential games in Indiana. With UConn women's hoops being such a juggernaut, and the women's Final Four being held in Indy next year, this could become a huge conflict. Could it become tougher for Indiana schools to schedule home games within the state against out-of-conference opponents? If businesses are going out of their way to stay away from Indiana, then schools might decide not to come to Indiana either, if their opposition to the bill is that severe.

Already, many businesses around the state have announced they would be #OpenForService to everyone. The Indy Star even placed an editorial about the law on its striking front page this morning.


As a result, legislators in the state may take swift action to fix the effects of RFRA. I wouldn't be surprised if something changes as soon as before the Final Four arrives in town this weekend. Gov. Pence has even scheduled a press conference for 11 a.m. this morning to further discuss it. Unfortunately, it might already be too late, and the reputation and precedent that this legislation sets could be enough for the NCAA, the B1G, other universities, and even LGBT athletes not to want to even bother. Because make no mistake about it - the effects of this law are already being felt throughout the state. And this includes within the realm of college athletics.