LINCOLN — Passing a transgender bathroom law could jeopardize Nebraska’s long history with the College World Series and its hopes of hosting future volleyball championships and basketball regionals.
The Nebraska Republican Party called for such a law at its state convention last weekend.
But the proposal could collide with a new NCAA policy opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The college sports organization’s board of governors adopted the policy April 27, after North Carolina and some other states passed laws allowing people to be refused services based on being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
“The higher education community is a diverse mix of people from different racial, ethnic, religious and sexual orientation backgrounds, said Kirk Schulz, the outgoing president of Kansas State University and NCAA board chairman.
“So it is important that we assure that community — including our student-athletes and fans — will always enjoy the experience of competing and watching at NCAA championships without concerns of discrimination,” he said.
The policy requires that sites hosting or bidding on any NCAA event show they can provide “an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination.”
Sites also must show that they would safeguard “the dignity of everyone involved in the event.”
The policy applies to events ranging from sports championships to leadership conferences, according to an NCAA statement.
But it’s not clear exactly what the organization will require of host sites. The board left details of the policy to be worked out by staff.
Spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said more information will be coming but did not say when it might be available.
That has Roger Dixon, president and CEO of Omaha’s Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, watching nervously for additional announcements.
“I’m not sure how far the NCAA is going to push this,” he said. “If Omaha has an anti-discrimination ordinance, will it suffice?”
MECA manages TD Ameritrade Park, which is slated to host the College World Series through 2035, and the CenturyLink Center, which has hosted three NCAA volleyball championships, plus volleyball and men’s basketball regional tournaments. CenturyLink will host the regional finals of the men’s basketball tournament in 2018.
Lincoln’s Pinnacle Bank Arena and the Devaney Center have hosted some regional NCAA events as well, arranged through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Campus spokesman Steve Smith said university officials were aware of the new NCAA policy but were not prepared to comment on how it might affect potential future sports events in Lincoln.
“UNL is committed to maintaining an inclusive environment that is discrimination- and harassment-free in all areas,” he said.
Dixon said MECA is preparing to bid later this year on future events.
The NCAA will start the bidding process June 6 and announce tournament sites for volleyball, men’s basketball, wrestling and other sports in December.
Whether Omaha lands any of those events will hinge in part on how the national organization implements its anti-discrimination requirements.
The organization announced its policy in the weeks following North Carolina’s passage of a law preventing cities from having local nondiscrimination ordinances.
In addition, the law requires a transgender person to use a public bathroom that matches his or her gender at birth.
The policy also came after Mississippi passed a law allowing private businesses and government workers to deny services to LGBT people based on “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
The Mississippi law bars local nondiscrimination ordinances as well.
In its press release, the NCAA noted such laws as the precipitating factor in its decision to adopt the new policy.
“The (NCAA) considers the promotion of inclusiveness in race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity as a vital element to protecting the well-being of student-athletes, promoting diversity in hiring practices and creating a culture of fairness,” the release said.
State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said the new policy shows that Nebraska is “increasingly out of touch with not only the civil rights community but also the business community” because the state does not ban discrimination against LGBT people. The policy means that passing more restrictive laws would harm the state.
But Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion said there is no reason for Nebraska to consider the NCAA policy or the possibility of losing out on hosting events when legislating.
“Economic terrorism is not a reason to make laws,” he said. “The NCAA is a bunch of left-wing loonies.”
It remains to be seen whether the NCAA will require event sites to have anti-discrimination laws or whether the new policy targets only laws that block protections for LGBT people.
Nebraska has no law protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Morfeld’s bill to ban job discrimination failed last year and again this year.
Omaha has protection through a 2012 ordinance. It is the only city in the state to have such a law.
But Nebraska has no laws blocking protections either, along the lines of the new North Carolina or Mississippi laws.
Gov. Pete Ricketts declined to say whether he would support legislative proposals blocking protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity, saying he doesn’t comment on hypotheticals.
On May 13, however, he urged local school boards to reject federal guidelines about transgender bathroom use. The guidelines said transgender students should be allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to their gender identity.
Earlier this year the Ricketts administration backed a bill that would have shielded faith-based foster care agencies from penalties for refusing to work with same-sex couples.
Ricketts said the NCAA policy or the potential loss of NCAA events would not affect the positions he takes.
“They need to make rules as they see fit, but it doesn’t impact my thought processes on what we need to do here in Nebraska,” he said.
Nate Grasz, a policy analyst for the Nebraska Family Alliance, said that the state should not bend to the NCAA policy.
“We’re well known as being welcoming, friendly and respectful to everyone,” he said. “If they (the NCAA) felt for some reason they couldn’t come here, it would be their loss.”
Grasz said he doesn’t know of any proposals in the works that might pre-empt Omaha’s ordinance, address transgender bathroom use or allow people to be denied services in the name of religion.
But there may be some coming.
The Nebraska Republican Party added a plank to its state platform last weekend calling for a law requiring transgender people to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching the gender on their birth certificates.
Dixon, from MECA, said it would be “unfortunate” if such a law passed in Nebraska. He pointed to the nationwide reaction to North Carolina’s law, which has included performers canceling concerts and businesses dropping plans to expand in that state.
“I know Nebraska is a conservative state, but I would hope we would be a little more open-minded,” he said.
In its press release, the NCAA noted that it already prohibits championship events in states where governments display the Confederate battle flag.
The organization also bars NCAA members from hosting championship events if their school nicknames use Native American imagery that is considered abusive and offensive.
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