The NCAA's Own House Is A Mess For Queer And Trans People

No one should be surprised when an institution that harbors religious discrimination against trans and queer people has failed us in the moment when their solidarity could have been a breakthrough for our rights.
Soulforce activists Haven Herrin, Beth Mims, and D.J. Hudson receive hi-fives from fans as they show off the banners that got
Soulforce activists Haven Herrin, Beth Mims, and D.J. Hudson receive hi-fives from fans as they show off the banners that got the group threatened with criminal trespass and ejected from the American Airlines Center at the Final Four in Dallas.

Banners have been dropping at NCAA games lately, and it’s not all about HB2. The debate about North Carolina’s so-called Bathroom Bill, however, has certainly been an apt backdrop to the travel campaign showing up at NCAA events.

The Give Back IX campaign, a partnered project between Soulforce and Campus Pride, has been calling on the NCAA for over a year to take a long, hard look at their approximately 65 member schools that discriminate against women and LGBTQI people.

Defending Title IX Protections for Women and LGBTI People

At least 30 of these schools use Title IX exemptions to protect their discriminatory treatment, or, in the absence of a formal exemption, they simply carry on with their practices of punishment, expulsion, marginalization and firing that have been in place for decades.

Soulforce, for its part in the campaign, works with the students and community members on the ground around high visibility NCAA games to hoist banners, tailgate, and wear message T-shirts that at once demand accountability from the NCAA and show support for LGBTQI people on Christian campuses.

Our tactics have recently been met with more intense police intimidation and threats of arrest, as when we lifted a banner at the women’s Final Four game in Dallas on Sunday.

The issues that drive the Give Back IX campaign are larger than any one law, but there is not much of a leap between how bizarre the prominence of the NCAA is in those legal debates and the problem of discriminatory schools getting to enjoy NCAA membership.

While many know that the Trump administration rescinded the guidance that Title IX ought to apply to trans people, few know that the administration in its first few days granted a blanket Title IX waiver to all religious schools.

Christian Higher Ed Becoming More Political

The kinds of Christian schools that seek Title IX waivers and discriminate against their own students, Soulforce contends, are the testing ground for the “religious exemption” strategies of the Christian Right that extend well beyond campus.

The Christian schools that have been setting legal precedent for “religious liberty” arguments for decades are scarcely different, in theological or political views, than the architects behind HB2, SB6, or the 70 other anti-LGBTQI laws intended to roll back LGBTQI rights.

Liberty University is a perfect example of this web of sports, politics, and religion.

Trump will be giving the commencement speech this year, and the school’s president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. is Trump’s handpicked leader for a task force on higher education deregulation. Their school policy reads:

Sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University.

The Give Back IX campaign hosted a similar action at Liberty University a few weeks ago at the NCAA Big South Conference women’s basketball conference championship. We tailgated, handed out rainbow pennants to fans, hoisted a banner, and made full use of their free speech zone.

Soulforce activists hoist a banner at the Big South conference women’s basketball championships held at Liberty University, a
Soulforce activists hoist a banner at the Big South conference women’s basketball championships held at Liberty University, a known anti-LGBTQI campus.

Why Sports Institutions Matter in This Debate

The NCAA’s commitments safety and inclusion at their events does not yet extend to schools like Liberty University for the regular season.

Soulforce has visited over 100 schools like Liberty University in the last 10 years. On our most recent tour of Christian campuses, which intentionally included several schools with anti-trans Title IX waivers fresh from the Department of Education, a staff member at a Southern Baptist school named in 2016 that we were on the right track with the NCAA work, saying “A lot of the schools won’t change on their own, but they care about their sports.”

That is why we find ourselves pursuing the same strategy as the North Carolina GOP, though of course toward opposite ends.

In North Carolina, the NCAA provided a sounding board for the politicians who were desperately trying to make the reconfiguration of HB2 into something just palatable enough for the NCAA such that the championship games could return to North Carolina.

Likewise in Texas, lawmakers created a specific loophole in SB6 for sporting event hosts to set their own bathroom policies, in an obvious attempt to sidestep the $4 billion in lost revenue expected for North Carolina under HB2.

North Carolina Sets a Bad Precedent

The NCAA dubbed the repeal of HB2 and replacement bill, HB142, a “minimal achievement”, which could not be a more dispiriting slump to forfeiture. “Minimal achievement” means minimal solidarity at a time when the NCAA had a lot of social and political capital to spend on the LGBTQI community’s behalf.

The NCAA is both a player and a political football in these legal debates about trans rights because we are still taking about business and money far more than we are talking about the dignity and safety of LGBTQI lives.

The centrality of the NCAA in the HB2 debate – Will they stay? Will they go? – and the odd absence of trans voices in the media’s reporting underscored just how little notions of fairness and safety, the NCAA’s own stated values, are guiding the future of the law. HB142 was a business decision, and so was the NCAA’s decision to allow championship games to come back to North Carolina this week.

The NCAA’s decision this week, in turn, affirms all the religious schools that have contributed lawyers, legal precedent, cultural affirmation, or theological beliefs to HB2 and other laws like it, which of course includes some of the NCAA’s own members. It also sets a bad precedent for other states considering similar laws.

Sports help give architecture and credence to what we collectively hold true, valuable, or acceptable about bodies. Bodies can and should be read expansively to include race, physical ability, gender, and sexuality, which is why sports have recently been such a hotbed of activism across many issues.

Give Back IX will continue to call on the NCAA to use its considerable power to have our backs, because, like it or not, sports and money speak loudly and interface with the Christian Right in complex ways.

Calling on the NCAA

We will, however, know the true ethics of the NCAA if and when they take money out of the equation.

They must care about the safety and well-being of fans and athletes not only at the big championship games but the regular season games held at all sorts of religiously discriminatory campuses.

They must stop undermining their own principles when it comes to member schools that haven’t played fair in the lives of LGBTQI people for decades.

They must demand more than flat pieces of policy on paper and, instead, require their member schools to be meaningfully accountable for gender justice on campus.

They must meet with LGBTQI people who have attended their religious member schools and take responsibility by setting a concrete timeline for repairing the harm in which the NCAA is complicit.

The choice to fold up their defiance in North Carolina must have been a difficult one and an easy one at the same time – difficult because we truly believe that the NCAA would prefer justice for the LGBTQI community and easy because continuing to defy HB142 would lead to closer inspection of the dissonance between the NCAA’s principles and practices.

No one should be surprised when an institution that harbors religious discrimination against trans and queer people within its own house has failed us in the moment when their leadership and solidarity, though it would have come with a cost, could have been a breakthrough for LGBTQI rights.


Learn more about Soulforce and the Give Back IX campaign here.

Click to send a letter letter with the Give Back IX “Checklist for LGBTQ Sports Inclusion” to the NCAA president here.

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