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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Lia Assimakopoulos

Why the NCAA hosts Final Four, other championships in states with controversial laws

DALLAS — Not long ago, the NCAA was seen as a leader in social activism.

During the 2016-17 school year, it relocated seven championship events from North Carolina because of a since-repealed law regulating the bathrooms transgender people can use.

This month, the women’s Final Four is in Dallas and the men’s is in Houston, despite Texas bans on abortion in most cases and on K-12 transgender athletes competing on teams that align with their gender identity.

There hasn’t been an outpouring of calls to move either event. The nation’s shifting political climate and public opposition to transgender athlete participation have all but eliminated pressure on the NCAA to take stands as it did in North Carolina, experts say. Texas is one of 28 states with laws that either severely restrict abortion or trans athlete participation.

“In the last three years, there’s been more anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced and adopted than in any other time in our nation’s history,” said Hudson Taylor, founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ athletes. “It’s not as easy for the NCAA or anyone else to say, ‘Oh, we can go here, and we can’t go here,’ because there’s so many shades of awful that are happening in states and cities across the country.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has directed lawmakers to expand the state’s ban on transgender athlete participation, which he and supporters say is necessary to ensure fairness in women’s sports.

“Women and only women should be competing in college or high school sports, as well as representing the United States of America in our Olympic sports,” the governor said last month.

Following an outcry over gender equity issues during the women’s Final Four in San Antonio in 2021, the NCAA issued a statement pledging to support women athletes and coaches and address gender equity in college sports. That loyalty is in question for women’s rights and LGBTQ activists, such as Athlete Ally, because of the NCAA’s allegiance to states such as Texas, which is tied with California and Oklahoma for the most scheduled Division I college championships over the next decade.

“Obviously, somebody’s not following through on what they say vs. what they do,” said Sue Favor, who created a September 2021 petition urging the NCAA to move the women’s Final Four out of Dallas. “The NCAA is really not consistent in what they pledged to do and then what they actually execute.”

How the NCAA picks championship sites

In Dallas for a recent news conference ahead of the women’s Final Four, NCAA vice president of women’s basketball Lynn Holzman said the site selection committee chooses locations that demonstrate the ability to keep fans safe and free from discrimination, a longstanding NCAA policy, according to an April 2021 statement from the Board of Governors.

“We are committed to doing that. That’s for our fans and others,” she told The Dallas Morning News. “We’re going to create that safe and healthy environment around our event that is inclusive.”

The NCAA said it has worked with the Dallas organizing committee “to ensure this is how the championship will be conducted,” but declined to make the Board of Governors available for interviews.

Following the North Carolina boycott, the NCAA created a nondiscrimination questionnaire for host cities to complete as part of the championship bidding process, requiring them to disclose current or anticipated legislation that could discriminate against athletes, coaches, administrators, game officials or fans during an event. The questionnaire specifically asks about transgender athlete bans.

Of the 149 NCAA championships announced through 2035, 105 are scheduled to take place in states that restrict abortion and/or ban transgender athlete participation.

“I think where we continue to see sort of a failure of the process is what gets done with that survey response,” said Taylor, a straight man who started his activism as an All-American wrestler at the University of Maryland. “Has that actually been put to use in any kind of meaningful or measurable way? And the answer is probably not.”

Holzman said Dallas’ nondiscrimination questionnaire has not been called into question. The NCAA has not moved a championship since its action in North Carolina.

‘An attention-grabbing move’

In the mid-2010s, the NCAA and other sports leagues and entertainers frequently took stands against controversial legislation, with the idea that the economic benefits of hosting championships could sway political decisions.

“It’s an attention-grabbing move, moving the tournament,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “If you hit the state’s lawmakers in the state’s wallet, then they take notice.”

The Dallas Sports Commission estimates a $30 million economic impact for the city from having the women’s Final Four at American Airlines Center, which is expected to host about 21,000 people each of the two nights on March 31 and April 2. Houston will host the men’s Final Four the same weekend.

Rottinghaus and other political experts say if the NCAA were to attempt to boycott Texas or other states for their abortion or trans athlete restrictions, it wouldn’t have the same impact as it did in North Carolina in 2016-17.

“I think what would happen is that the Republican leaders would use that as a badge of honor. They would claim that these ‘woke’ companies aren’t welcome in Texas,” he said.

Abbott has doubled down on his stance on transgender athlete participation, promising that Texas lawmakers will pass a bill during this year’s legislative session expanding the state’s K-12 ban to include college athletes.

Public opinion leans toward the effort. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) oppose allowing transgender women and girls to compete on teams that align with their gender identity, according to a June 2022 NPR/Ipsos poll.

Last week, a Texas Senate committee voted 7-3 to pass Galveston Republican Sen. Mayes Middleton’s Senate Bill 15, one of two bills to ban transgender college athlete participation. It will next be debated by the full Senate.

When asked during the committee hearing whether he was concerned that Texas could lose out on hosting NCAA championships because of the bill, Middleton said the NCAA has not pulled any games from states that have passed similar bills since updating its policy regarding transgender athletes.

The NCAA is phasing in the new policy adopted last year after Lia Thomas, a trans woman from Austin, was allowed to compete on the women’s swimming team at the University of Pennsylvania. The policy says the national governing body of a sport will determine transgender athlete participation.

Additionally, starting Aug. 1, 2024, all transgender student-athletes must document testosterone levels twice annually (once at the beginning of their competition season and the second six months following). Additional documentation must be provided within four weeks of championship selections for an athlete that plans to participate in an NCAA championship. This process will continue annually for eligible students.

Spring Republican Rep. Valoree Swanson, who wrote the bill Texas lawmakers passed in 2021, is carrying a version of expanded ban on transgender athletes in the House. In a news release this month, she said a majority of representatives support House Bill 23, the “Save Women’s Sports Act.”

“Women have fought tooth-and-nail to enshrine their right to equal opportunity in high school and college sports,” Swanson said. “We must not lose ground and allow biological males to endanger the safety and advancement opportunities for young women in college and in UIL sports.”

In January, activists rallied during the NCAA convention in San Antonio to demand that the organization “stop discriminating against female athletes.”

Mary Elizabeth Castle, the director of government relations for Texas Values, an Austin-based advocacy group, was one of the speakers at the convention.

“I’m pleased that the NCAA has taken a neutralized approach as far as still being willing to hold their conventions, hold their tournaments in the state of Texas,” she told The Dallas Morning News. “I do think that the NCAA should have taken a stronger stance … and keep sports the way they are supposed to be, which is established by the Title IX law in years of precedent since the ‘70s.”

‘A line too far’

Growing support for bans on abortion and transgender athletes has allowed the NCAA to blend in with the crowd and avoid taking a stand as it did in North Carolina, said Richard Lapchick, author, activist and director of the Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.

“I don’t know if they’re taking advantage of it by backing away, but the controversy around it kind of gives them an excuse that people aren’t going to be as diligent at pushing them to do something here,” he said.

Texas’ transgender athlete ban went into effect Jan. 18, 2022, and its trigger law banning abortion after the overturning of Roe vs. Wade followed in August. Since then, the NCAA has announced three additional championships in the state: women’s Final Fours in San Antonio in 2029 and Dallas in 2031, and the men’s in Arlington in 2030. That’s a total of 15 championships planned until 2035 in Texas, tied with California and Oklahoma for the most in the country.

The NCAA has scheduled 22 championships in Arkansas, Kentucky, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia over the next decade — all states that ban transgender college athlete participation, and other than Montana, all states with abortion bans.

Taylor, of Athlete Ally, cited concerns about maternal health care in states that have outlawed abortion as another reason he believes the NCAA should feel compelled to threaten to move championships.

He said some LGBTQ organizations argue the NCAA moving tournaments isn’t the best way to inspire change because it limits activists’ ability to build bridges with conservative lawmakers.

Pulling out of a state altogether also means the NCAA and its athletes would no longer have a stake in making a difference there.

“I think sometimes what’s missed in decisions to remove — I understand those decisions completely — but to remove events from areas like that, you miss the opportunity to be a voice in that area and to realize how many people you have that are advocating alongside of you,” TCU women’s basketball coach Raegan Pebley told The Dallas Morning News in October.

Lapchick said he believes athletes have the best chance of inspiring change. Athletes across all sports and levels have led the movement for social change for decades, and many in the NCAA won’t shy away from fighting a political battle, even if it means standing up against the league.

Favor, Taylor and other activists hope the NCAA resumes its calls for change.

“I have to believe that there must be a line too far for someone,” Taylor said. “What that line is, I think, is still open for debate.”


Staff writer Lauren McGaughy contributed to this report.

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