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In Indiana religious freedom fight, sports wields considerable clout

Amid furor that new law discriminates against gay men and lesbians, sports entities are among the most vocal in their opposition.

Large banners and flags supporting the 2015 Mens Final Four are on the front of the NCAA National Headquarters in downtown Indianapolis. (Brian Spurlock/USA Today)
Large banners and flags supporting the 2015 Mens Final Four are on the front of the NCAA National Headquarters in downtown Indianapolis. (Brian Spurlock/USA Today)Read more

TO GIVE YOU an idea of how influential sports have become in this nation's fractionalized and petty political discourse, just look at the timeline since Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed Senate Bill 101 into law last Thursday.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, who is openly gay, condemned the law, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The CEO of Salesforce, the billion-dollar tech company, did as well, Marc Benioff saying he would halt plans to expand into the state. Angie's List announced it, too, was canceling a $40 million expansion of its Indianapolis headquarters, a move that was to add 1,000 jobs.

There were protests in Indianapolis and Bloomington. Mayors in San Francisco and Seattle said they would not do business with Indiana.

And yet despite all this, when Sunday morning rolled around, there was Pence on ABC's "This Week," defiantly telling George Stephanopoulos, "We are not going to change this law."

Two days later, there was Pence again, in a morning news conference, saying that the bill had "a perception problem" and that "we have to fix this."

Translation: We're going to bend it as much as we can to rescue this mess and my presidential candidacy.

What changed? The thought of losing the NCAA Tournament forever, and perhaps the NCAA itself, as well. The thought of NASCAR driving by it, too. Maybe the NFL is watching. And U.S. Swimming. And, and . . .

Here's NCAA president Mark Emmert to Gregg Doyel in the Indianapolis Star: "We're going to have to sit down and make judgments about whether or not [the RFRA] changes the environment for us doing our work, and us holding events. We're deeply committed to the whole notion of inclusion. We have a very diverse membership. We value that very, very highly. We've got to work in and we've got to host our events in an environment that makes that possible . . .

"We don't want to, because of political activity, disrupt an event that's been in the making for so long, [and now] you've changed the experience for the student-athletes. But if we have to move events, we'll do it."

Seldom does the NCAA president get to take a popular stand these days, and maybe 10 years ago, 20 years ago, this would not be it. But it's a different world now, one in which CEOs such as Cook exist and thrive, a world in which Michael Sam can initiate a productive national dialogue, one in which even a crusty character like NHL executive Brian Burke becomes an advocate for gay and lesbian rights.

With green as a color that washes over all others, sports has long influenced social norms and policy. What's changed is how in-your-face that influence has become, how that green dictates inclusion and, in this case, opposition and outrage.

In a statement released yesterday, NASCAR said that it was "disappointed by the recent legislation passed in Indiana," and that "[we] will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance. We are committed to diversity and inclusion within our sport and therefore will continue to welcome all competitors and fans at our events in the state of Indiana and anywhere else we race."

Here's Emmert again in Doyel's column: "We have to, like most folks, be in a place where we can attract and retain and support a workforce that is highly diverse and values an inclusive environment . . . Indianapolis has been great for us, and we hope it continues to be. But we have to do what we have to do."

And so, the governor's weekend obstinacy had softened considerably by 11 a.m. yesterday, as he tried to pawn the whole thing off as one big misunderstanding among the enlightened. Hours after Emmert made the rounds on national television and radio talk shows and within an hour of NASCAR's statement, Pence urged lawmakers to "move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone."

Lest anyone be misled, Pence and the supporters of this bill were urged to do just that by the opposition while the bill was debated on the floor. They refused. Lest anyone be confused by Pence's moment of clarity, this bill gained traction after a small business in Washington state was forced to provide services for a gay marriage despite what it said were religious objections to do so.

When Pence signed the bill in a private ceremony last week, he was flanked by Eric Miller and Micah Clark, leaders of two of the socially conservative advocacy groups that had pushed for it. After Pence held his news conference yesterday, an email from Miller's group, Advance America, was sent out to churches and supporters that read, "Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be forced by the government to participate in a homosexual wedding."

Clark was equally blue: "If you have deep faith in Republican leaders to stand up to the liberal agenda and media intimidation, then I am overreacting. If you feel as though our religious liberties could be traded off for Indianapolis sporting event tax revenues, then welcome to my world."

Actually, it's our world, Micah.

And on behalf of the NCAA, NASCAR and all the athletes who have spoken out against discrimination - you're welcome.

On Twitter: @samdonnellon