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The NBA Took the All-Star Game Away From Charlotte. Here’s Why It Matters

9 minute read

The NBA announced Thursday that negotiations had failed. In a statement the league said it had been trying to work for months with officials in North Carolina to “foster constructive dialogue and try to effect positive change” concerning the controversial law known as HB2, which has been widely criticized as discriminatory against LGBT people. Those efforts had met with resistance and so the NBA played a card it had threatened to throw down months before, taking the 2017 All-Star Game—with all its fanfare and economic impact—to another state. Republican Governor Pat McCrory responded by calling the move “[politically correct] B.S.”

This is far from the first bad thing that has happened to North Carolina since the law was put in place earlier this year. PayPal canceled plans to bring hundreds of jobs to the state. Hollywood bigwigs promised not to film any more productions there. The likes of Bruce Springsteen and Cirque du Soleil canceled shows. The lost revenue is easily in the tens of millions. One estimate put the economic impact of the All-Star Game alone at $100 million. And while weathering all that criticism and loss makes McCrory and his allies tenacious, tar-heeled heroes to some social conservatives, critics say the state’s image is being scarred deeper by the day.

“It further sullies North Carolina’s reputation,” state senator Dan Blue, leader of the minority Democratic party, says of the NBA’s decision. “If North Carolina, through HB2, is going to be the place of inequality and unfairness and hostility, they’re not going to participate in it.”

That the NBA made this move says something not only about the state of American culture and business, but about the league itself. More than the NFL or Major League Baseball, says Skidmore College American Studies Professor Daniel Nathan, the NBA is inclined to take progressive political stances. He believes a large part of that is due to the racial makeup of the league, in which more than 75% of players are black. (By comparison, more than 60% of MLB players are white.) The players themselves have set their own precedents for making statements, wearing hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin and “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in solidarity with Eric Garner.

Taking such a high-profile stand over LGBT issues is new—particularly when the bathroom use of transgender people is at the center of the controversy—and black Americans tend to be less supportive than some other racial demographics when it comes to key LGBT issues like same-sex marriage. But academics who study sport culture in America believe that the broad parallels, the shared issues of minority status and discrimination, overcome the specifics. In the Jim Crow era of the 1950s, NBA teams from other states threatened not to come back to North Carolina because of how black players had been treated in Charlotte, separated from white players for meals and made to stay in separate hotels.

“It’s the league responding to the issue of difference,” says Reuben Buford May, a sociology professor at Texas A&M. “Minority athletes can appreciate that even if they may not agree with LGBT communities.” While white people may never really understand what it’s like to be black, and while there is surely still homophobia in the NBA, variety in sexual orientation and gender identity cuts across all racial groups, he adds: “If you are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, anything, you could have in your family someone who is LGBT.” In its statement on the move, the NBA said the league had been “guided in these discussions by the long-standing core values of our league,” adding that those include “diversity, inclusion, fairness and respect.”

The move of course comes with the risk of alienating more conservative fans or people who think that the NBA simply shouldn’t be weighing into state-level political squabbles, but the league is falling in line with a sweeping trend in American business. And this move is proof that its only going to continue. As LGBT people have become more accepted, big businesses have become the LGBT movement’s greatest ally. From Apple to Salesforce to NASCAR, business leaders have come out against laws viewed as hostile to this segment of Americans. Consumers, particularly young ones who tend to be more liberal, expect businesses to take stands on social issues. “Standing for something as a brand is much more important today,” Georgetown marketing lecturer Rohit Bhargava told TIME regarding this trend. LGBT rights “was something that was sort of on fringes and it became totally mainstream.”

It’s a far cry from when Michael Jordan once allegedly said, “Republicans buy sneakers too,” refusing to take sides in a political race. Now the Charlotte Hornets’ owner, CNN reported that Jordan was among the NBA insiders who tried to talk to legislators about changing the law. When the news came that the state he grew up in would be losing the game, he expressed disappointment as well as hope that the event might return to Charlotte as early as 2019. The league expressed hope for that too. But that’s unlikely to happen if the law stays as it is on the books, which is a warning shot to other cities and states that might consider such measures. “The NBA doesn’t do anything without thinking carefully,” says Skidmore’s Nathan.

The town itself, unwittingly, tipped the domino that led its own economic loss by passing non-discrimination protections for LGBT residents in February. State lawmakers passed HB2 in response, essentially negating those protections and prohibiting other towns from passing similar ones—while adding a stipulation that in places like government buildings, people must use the bathroom that aligns with the sex on their birth certificate regardless of how they identify. This essentially bans transgender women from those public women’s rooms and transgender men from the men’s.

LGBT rights groups lauded the NBA’s decision to move the game but with somber tones, saying that transgender people in North Carolina are suffering and experiencing harassment in public places and schools because of the law. A large-scale survey of transgender people in America found that 59% have avoided public restrooms for fear of harassment, even when their bathroom use hasn’t become a central issue in a state’s culture wars.

“Right-wing extremists called the question here. They said everybody has to take sides about where transgender people go to the bathroom,” says Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “And this is what happened. I’m sure the NBA would rather everything had gone on as normal, just as trans people would have.” The NBA said the move reflects its value of ensuring “that all patrons—including members of the LGBT community—feel welcome while attending games and events.”

Eliza Byard, executive director of LGBT youth organization GLSEN, says that this is “a milestone” in a “sea change” that has been happening in American society, and particularly in professional sports, over the past decade. She laments that homophobia and “gender-based attacks on your competence” are still part of sports culture but says the NBA has been a willing partner in promoting inclusion in high school sports. They’ve hosted clinics for coaches together and put out PSAs. When NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay in 2013, the group almost immediately gave him an award.

As awareness about the effects of bullying have spread and high-profile athletes have come out as openly LGBT, Byard says, professional sports has been “nudged.” And when a giant shifts its weight, those ripples can be felt far away. As Skidmore College’s Nathan says, “The purchase basketball has on the American consciousness is significant.”

The purchase basketball has in North Carolina is significant too, even if the threat of moving the All-Star Game couldn’t nudge the likes of McCrory. Leading basketball coaches in the state, including Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski, have criticized the law. And while Jordan hopes the game will be back soon, Nathan wonders whether there’s more fallout to come at the collegiate level. “The symbolic power of what the NBA has decided to do here is pretty big,” he says.

It’s hard to know what the long term effects will be. One place to look for lessons is Indiana, which suffered its own PR firestorm after passing a law seen as hostile to LGBT people in 2015. Visit Indy, the state capital’s tourism bureau, estimated that the state lost conventions worth an estimated $60 million—and says that 80 more events, small and large, were hanging in the balance. Yet unlike McCrory, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence quickly amended the law to make it clear that it couldn’t be used to discriminate against LGBT people. And that saved the city from much greater losses, says Visit Indy’s Chris Gahl. “We empathize with what they’re going through,” he says of cities like Charlotte. “You’re stuck, you are helpless to the legislature.”

Gahl says that his organization has been on the phone “for months” with counterparts in North Carolina cities, trying to give them advice on how to mitigate the impact of enduring, for instance, a billion negative tweets over the course of a month. He says that the impression unfortunately lingers; when his organization polled executives who might bring events to town several months after the press had died down, 58% of them mentioned the controversy, unprompted. “Tourism isn’t icing on the cake,” he says, noting that his organization is non-partisan. “It keeps people working. And the tourism industry as a whole is very LGBT-friendly.”

For the next several months at least, the chambers of commerce around the state who have come out against the law have little cause to hope for change. The legislature has recessed until January. In the meantime, state senator Blue says that Democratic lawmakers like him will be working on getting new state leadership elected in November. He describes the current leadership as “captive” to the “extreme right wing” who have been “spoiling for a way to retaliate against the LGBT community” since same-sex marriage was legalized. “It’s frustrating because North Carolina is not a place that dwells in the cellars of how to discriminate against people,” says Blue. “It is a state that generally believes in equality.”

NBA players reacted with varying degrees of understanding and chagrin. “I hope things [change] so that the game can be there at some point. I think those fans in North Carolina deserve it,” said the L.A. Clippers’ Chris Paul. But, he added, “Some things are bigger than the game.”

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