(Yet) Another NCAA chance for leadership and inclusion

Posted on May 3rd, 2016 by

NCAA officers

Last weekend I had the extraordinary opportunity to deliver a TED Talk, at Gustavus’ TEDx Conference (kudos to David Newell and his team of students and volunteers, BTW) about some findings from a long-term research project examining workplace religious discrimination over the last 15 years. In analyzing 15 years of high-level court decisions in the United States having to do with Title VII religious discrimination cases, my co-authors and I found plenty of interesting stuff going on with the Circuit Courts’ decisions, not the least of which is the terribly nasty behaviors being directed at Muslim employees across every industry, across every part of our country. We also found plenty of conversion-oriented harassment directed toward Jewish employees, mainly in professional fields like higher education and medicine. It’s all shameful, but that’s not the research outcome I want to talk about here.

I want to talk about the behavior being leveled at gay people in the workplace as a consequence of what some are alleging are their religious rights under Title VII to express their faith. In the workplace, we are seeing instances of Christian employees asserting their religious rights to effectively discriminate against gay people in a variety of ways—from refusing to acknowledge non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, to refusing to treat gay clients in counseling and human services fields, to posting anti-gay Bible verses or images directed at gay co-workers.

Employees who believe that these kinds of discriminatory behaviors are due them under Title VII are fighting for their right to discriminate, and ultimately losing in court, as well they should.

The NCAA and leadership: Now’s the time!

The clash between the right of religious expression vs the right of non-discrimination have been making headlines on college campuses, and on April 26th the sports section of USA Today ran a cover story about the difficulty of balancing heavyweight stakeholder interests among LGBT students, the NCAA, and religiously-oriented universities and colleges.

The NCAA, that bastion of advocacy for athletes in college (sic), has been roiled in difficult decisions about athletes’ rights, and in almost every issue they have lagged in doing what is best for the students rather than what is best for preserving the money-making machine that is the NCAA. It’s time for the NCAA to step up and disallow those who want to use religion to discriminate against gay athletes.

The USA Today authors succinctly describe the issue: “Freedom of religion is an American value. So is freedom from discrimination. These values clash in so-called religious freedom laws in states such as North Carolina and Mississippi. The same tensions in the broader culture also are found in NCAA core values: One promises ‘an inclusive culture that fosters equitable participation’ for all athletes—and another ‘respect for institutional and philosophical differences.’ The question is how the NCAA balances these values when they conflict.” And oh, conflict they do.

In our research, we saw clear evidence of the Courts’ internal decision processes trying to balance religious expression rights with non-discrimination rights in workplace disputes. It’s a heady and complex issue: when does my right to express my religious faith conflict with your right to a discrimination- and hostility-free workplace when those expressions clash? Colleges and universities are struggling with exactly the same issues, but are less obviously tied to law that makes bright lines easy to see. What some are seeing as an attack on Christian beliefs and their ability to demarcate those bright lines as far as student inclusion, funding, and leadership control, others are experiencing as frank allowances of perhaps the last form of socially and federally-accepted discrimination around: sexual orientation as a demographic.

This is especially troubling because college is where many students find their emergent identities, including sexual and gender identities. The social stigmas and social pressures that gay students experience have led to a crisis in mental health risks for them; gay and transgender college students suffer elevated levels of suicidal thoughts and attempts as compared to non-gay college students. There is, in fact, so much abuse and hostility directed toward gay youth that the Centers for Disease Control have weighed in with best practices and family/community coping behaviors. All of the evidence—and I mean all of it—points to the need for special anti-bullying and anti-discrimination protections for gay youth and college students.

The NCAA is giving up its critical leadership role in squirming around the issue of LGBT rights, and needs to take a stand declaring non-discrimination as a requirement of NCAA membership. Period. It’s one thing to allow colleges and universities the latitude to interpret how their mission fits with the ideals and rules of NCAA eligibility and membership, and how to best provide for athletic opportunities for their students. It’s quite another, and completely unacceptable, that the NCAA allows member schools the latitude to deny LGBT students the opportunity to be accepted as who they are on the athletic competitive field. That the NCAA is waffling on this responsibility seems to me to simply be another instance of an organization bafflingly out of touch with the needs of actual college athletes.


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