Ground Game

It’s the most powerful political organization in the US, and you’ve definitely heard of it

Shea Rush, of the North Carolina Tar Heels, took the court with teammates for practice ahead of the 2017 NCAA Final Four on March 31.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Shea Rush, of the North Carolina Tar Heels, took the court with teammates for practice ahead of the 2017 NCAA Final Four on March 31.

It’s one of the most politically powerful organizations in the United States. But it doesn’t give money to candidates, run advertisements, or even publicly support political causes. Indeed, its mission is about something else entirely.

But the NCAA, the governing body of college sports, has not only waded into controversial political issues recently, but it has also forced legislatures to reverse course in ways that traditional political activists only wish they could.

On Monday, the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team won the national championship, ending the tournament-turned-national-pastime known as March Madness. But the following day, what really pleased Tar Heel State politicians was news that the NCAA would lift its ban on holding college tournaments in the state. The group lifted the ban because state lawmakers decided to overturn a bill that forced people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their birth gender — effectively discriminating against the transgender community.


When North Carolina passed HB2 last year, many large businesses in the state argued it made the state appear close-minded, and that would hurt their ability to recruit top talent. Advocacy groups also complained. In fact, many believed that the controversy over the “bathroom bill” was a key reason the state’s governor wasn’t reelected last year.

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But it wasn’t the major banks headquartered in Charlotte, such as Wachovia or Bank of America, that prompted legislators to reverse course. It also wasn’t the businesses in the state’s research triangle. It may not have even been the voters last November.

It was the National Collegiate Athletic Association that turned the tide, according to Duke University professor Orin Starn, who studies and writes about culture and sports.

“NCAA pressure was the game-changer with North Carolina’s bathroom bill. It appeared that the law would stay in place until the state’s basketball fans realized there would be no tournament games played here,” said Starn. “And so we witnessed the unlikely spectacle of the much-criticized billion-dollar sports leviathan at the forefront of defending LGBT rights.”

Not everyone was happy with the NCAA’s decision to allow tournaments in North Carolina. The compromise legislation that overturned HB2 only lasts until 2020.


Gay rights groups say this isn’t actually a repeal, while social conservatives argue the Legislature backtracked on protecting the public and upholding traditional values. The state’s new governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, said, “It wasn’t a perfect deal.” Even the NCAA said it would end its boycott “reluctantly.”

US Representative Joe Kennedy III, a Newton Democrat, wrote a letter to the NCAA expressing his disappointment.

“It makes you wonder if the NCAA was really serious in the first place when they put in this ban, given that they are lifting it for a new law that doesn’t go far enough to protect a vulnerable and targeted community,” said Kennedy later in an interview.

This isn’t the first time the NCAA has boycotted a state over a political issue.

In fact, this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament began in an odd way. Historically, there is an opening round somewhere in North Carolina, usually in Greensboro. With the NCAA’s ban in North Carolina, an opening round instead took place in South Carolina for the first time in 15 years.


It was great timing for South Carolina. The NCAA had just lifted its boycott of the state after it removed a Confederate flag from State House grounds.

And the NCAA has gone further than state boycotts.

In 2015, the NCAA threatened to move its large national headquarters and Hall of Fame out of Indiana after state lawmakers passed a so-called religious freedom bill that would have effectively allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers. Eventually that bill, signed into law under now-Vice President Mike Pence, was overturned under pressure from the NCAA and other businesses.

The president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, said at a press conference last week that the NCAA “doesn’t consider itself an entity that has any business telling a state what their laws should be.” (The NCAA did not respond to a request for an interview.)

The president of the University of Notre Dame, the Rev. John Jenkins, expressed a similar opinion in The Wall Street Journal last fall after the NCAA initially banned tournaments in North Carolina.

“In the interim, it is not the role of the NCAA to employ the economic power it derives from member universities to attempt to influence the outcome of the legal process or change legislation,” Jenkins wrote. “When it comes to complex, contentious social issues, universities have a critical role to play in fostering reflection, discussion and informed debate. No matter how popular or profitable certain college sports become, athletic associations should not usurp that role.”

But given the millions of dollars in economic impact that these tournaments can have, the NCAA must not be taking these boycotting decisions lightly.

As a number of states, including Texas, are considering bills similar to North Carolina’s, a major part of the political debate is how the NCAA will respond. San Antonio is scheduled to host the men’s basketball Final Four next year.

And last week, Emmert said that his board was monitoring what was happening in Texas.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter: pages.email.bostonglobe.com