Not every Indianapolis resident agrees, but this was a perfect storm of a weekend for the capital city to host the NCAA men’s Final Four. There is power and influence in numbers, in amateur and professional sports, in the presence of celebrities.
Embattled Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who a week ago signed a bill allowing businesses to refuse service on religious grounds, on Thursday recanted – repented? – and approved revisions to the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act designed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Now that the bill’s revision has passed through the Legislature and has been signed, the matter has been resolved. This was a successful misdirection play, a five-on-none fast-break, a victory for Hoosiers everywhere. The next time someone argues that sports is a game, and only a game, hand them a map of Indianapolis. Show them the way.
In the walk-up to Saturday’s semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium, Pence and his political cronies found no place to hide. Once the governor signed the initial bill eight days ago – legislation similar to bills in 19 other states, incidentally – the backlash swept through his state like another devastating tornado.
Leaders in several U.S. cities and states imposed bans on company-related travel. Entertainers, academics and religious groups, among them the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), threatened to cancel appearances and conventions. Major corporations considered pulling their businesses out of the state. Officials with the NCAA, USA Swimming, Gymnastics and Track & Field, all headquartered in Indianapolis, discussed the possibility of imposing sanctions, perhaps even relocating.
Factor in potential boycotts and protests at the capitol grounds that attracted an estimated 4,000, negative national and international coverage, social media’s ability to spread the word like a virus, with Pat Haden, Charles Barkley, Greg Louganis and Reggie Miller among those making the most of 140 characters, and this was a terrible week for proponents of the initial bill.
“We’ve been in crisis mode since last Thursday,” said Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy, the region’s convention and visitors bureau. “There is a perception out there that Indianapolis is not an inclusive, hospitable city. But in its amended format, hopefully the revised bill will help us repair some of the damage to our reputation.”
Before the controversy erupted, Indianapolis was viewed as a premier sports destination because of its logistical convenience, small-town charm, large-city amenities, and assortment of modern amateur and professional venues. Visitors can commute from one venue to another on two feet. Local officials routinely capture bids to host Super Bowls and NCAA tournaments, and in 2002, the city hosted the FIBA Basketball World Championship.
Often cited as the model city during Sacramento’s protracted arena ordeal, Indianapolis expects to generate $70 million during the upcoming weekend, an increase of $20 million from its last NCAA Final Four.
So the aggressive push – or actually, the aggressive push-back – continued as the bill was being revised. Emails. Phone calls. Meetings. Care packages delivered to celebrity visitors. Since the hastily organized coalition responded with the revised legislation, Gahl said area leaders scrambled to allay the concerns of businesses and individuals, relying heavily on support from the local sports figures and teams, including the Indiana Pacers and Fever.
Interestingly, Pacers president and Indiana native Larry Bird is expected to attend the games with Magic Johnson, the Lakers legend who played collegiately at Michigan State. The two Hall of Famers and longtime friends bring their own unique experience with the confluence of sports and social issues into the weekend: After Johnson revealed that he had contracted HIV, the former rivals spent part of the ensuing Dream Team summer of 1992 encouraging discussions and dispelling fears that the disease could be spread among players from sweat generated during games and practices.
The skeptics listened and, ultimately, much was learned.
“Now there’s a waiting period,” Gahl said before the revised bill was signed. “All four teams are here. Everyone wants to know when, or how, this is going to come to fruition. We’re hoping that once the revised bill is signed, we can get back to showing everyone that we are an inclusive, welcoming city.”
Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.