If the NCAA Won’t Boycott North Carolina’s New Anti-LGBTQ Law, College Athletes Should

Duke played the University of North Carolina on Feb. 18, 2015 at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Over 100 student athletes have called on the NCAA to continue boycotting North Carolina after the state failed to take a stand against anti-LGBTQ discrimination in its handling of the so-called repeal of House Bill 2.

The collegiate sporting league announced last week that it would allow the Tar Heel State to host March Madness games once more after lawmakers struck a deal to overturn HB 2. That 2016 law barred transgender people from using public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity and nullified municipal LGBTQ non-discrimination protections in the state. The NCAA had warned that the state could forfeit championship games until 2022 if HB 2 were not overturned by the end of March, but the signatories and critics point out that the so-called compromise changes nothing. Cities won’t be able to pass new regulations to protect LGBTQ public accommodations until 2020, and the state will remain in charge of bathroom access in K-12 schools indefinitely. That’s extremely bad news for trans students.

“HB 142, the new law, is not a repeal of HB 2,” the athletes write in a letter posted to OutSports. “It still prevents LGBTQ people, and particularly transgender people, from being safe in North Carolina. … North Carolina doubled down on discrimination; now the NCAA must double down on its principles to ensure that all members of the community, including LGBTQ athletes, coaches, and fans are protected, included, and respected at its events.”

The NCAA has already made its decision, and the result shouldn’t be surprising. Money talks in North Carolina, and basketball talks even louder. The Tar Heel State is home to Duke and UNC Chapel Hill, two of college sports’ most dominant teams. They’ve boasted six titles between them since 2000, which brings in an enormous amount in yearly revenue for the state. If college athletes want to make their voices heard, appealing to the NCAA’s better nature won’t work. To send a message about discrimination, students should stop playing in North Carolina until the law is repealed.

There’s a long history of athlete activism at the student level, dating from our current Black Lives Matter era all the way back to the 1930s. In 1936, the Howard University football team sat out a home game against Virginia Union in protest of the administration’s refusal to provide its athletes with food and refreshments. Other students, holding signs like “We Want Ham and Cabbage for the Team!” marched on campus in solidarity with the players. Nearly 80 years later, footballers at Louisiana’s Grambling State alleged that the school made them pay for their own Gatorade. They refused to play Jackson State in protest of subpar treatment, which included locker rooms covered in mildew and mold. Multiple players got staph infections.

These sorts of demonstrations are extraordinarily effective. After the Grambling story went viral, administrators spent $30,000 to upgrade the team’s weight room. In the case of the University of Missouri, 30 football players announced in November 2015 that they would be sitting out future games in response to the worsening racial climate on campus; a swastika made of feces was found on a dorm room wall. The players said that they wouldn’t take the field again until system president Tim Wolfe stepped down. It only took two days before Wolfe handed in his resignation.

The reason these actions are so effective is that athletes have a unique power to hit universities where it hurts: their pocket books. Mizzou brought in $91 million from student athletics during the 2014-2015 season. If the team had missed its upcoming game against Brigham Young University, the contract stipulated that Mizzou would have to pay BYU $1 million. Grambling faced a $22,000 fine for failing to play Jackson State (although reports suggest the district waived the penalty).

There’s no better illustration, however, of the enormous clout that student athletes have than the Black 14 controversy in 1969. Head coach Lloyd Eaton booted 14 players from University of Wyoming football after team members announced they would be wearing black armbands during an upcoming game against BYU. The protest was intended to draw attention to exclusionary racial policies in the Church of Latter-day Saints, which blocked African-Americans from holding the priesthood at the time. Young men of color weren’t even allowed to be leaders in the LDS-run Boy Scouts of America, as evidenced by a successful 1974 lawsuit brought on behalf of the NAACP. The scene on Oct. 18, when the two teams played in Laramie, was brutal and volatile. Protesters picketed the hotel where the BYU football players were staying and threw bottles onto the field. The jeers followed the BYU team for the next decade, one of the key factors that led to the Mormon Church finally lifting its anti-black policy in 1978.

You can disagree with some of the methods, but the results are clear: When college athletes speak up, America listens. If athlete advocates can help bring the Mormon Church to heel, these students have the opportunity to play a vital role in combating anti-LGBTQ hate.

Peaceful student protest is more necessary than ever in North Carolina, where legislators have shown they will act when their wallets are threatened. State lawmakers struck a deal after Associated Press released a report stating that North Carolina could lose up to $3.7 billion over the next 12 years if HB 2 weren’t repealed. Companies like PayPal and Deutsche Bank pulled planned expansions to the state last year, while the NBA announced that the league would relocate the All-Star Game as long as the law remained in effect. Commissioner Adam Silver has yet to announce whether the state will again be eligible to host that game.

Without further action, transgender people will continue to be put at risk by discriminatory, dangerous policy. Statistics from The Williams Institute, a pro-LGBTQ think tank at UCLA, found that 60 percent of trans individuals report being harassed or attacked in public bathrooms in their lifetimes, and bills like HB 142 (the HB 2 “repeal” bill) only make that problem worse. Local news outlets have reported a wave of violence against LGBTQ people in North Carolina since anti-trans legislation was first enacted last year.

College athletes have been on the frontlines of change for decades. LGBTQ people need them to keep fighting—and sit their next game in North Carolina out.