In the end, it wasn’t just economic impact or social justice that proved decisive when North Carolina lawmakers voted to overturn the state’s controversial law that restricted what bathrooms transgender people could use.
It was also to protect basketball, one of the state’s most treasured institutions.
The law enacted a year ago, HB2, had threatened to keep NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments out of North Carolina for years to come. Adding insult, the NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans.
The Associated Press estimated the law would cost the state $3.76 billion in economic activity over a dozen years, from the cancellation of corporate expansions to lost conventions, concerts and sporting events.
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The loss of NCAA events alone would have cost the state $250 million over the next six years, according to the North Carolina Sports Association. The NCAA has already moved major events in baseball, soccer, basketball, lacrosse and other sports from the state.
“Losing the prestige of the tournaments was weighing on people’s minds across the state,” said Todd McFall, an associate teaching professor of economics at Wake Forest University.
Bob Witeck, president and founder of Witeck Communications, a public relations firm in Washington, said he thought the new law was designed to get the NCAA and NBA to come back to North Carolina, even if it didn’t please everyone.
“They would not have done this unless they thought the NCAA was on board,” Witeck said of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican lawmakers. “I assume they all had a conversation and a handshake somewhere.”
HB2 had required transgender people to use the bathrooms consistent with the sexes on their birth certificates, rather than their gender identities. The new law that Cooper signed Thursday overturned that provision but left in place a prohibition on local governments enacting nondiscrimination laws that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
That provision expires in 2020.
“This is a compromise,” said Rep. Phil Berger, an Eden Republican who’s president pro tempore of the state Senate, “and compromises are oftentimes difficult to get to.”
Lawmakers on both sides who voted against the compromise bill Thursday said the economic and cultural significance of basketball didn’t make it acceptable to them.
“I can’t put basketball or football or sports above principled convictions,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat.
“So now the NCAA is now not only calling what legislation we pass, but the time frame we pass it in North Carolina,” said Rep. Jeff Collins, a Rocky Mount Republican.
North Carolina’s struggle over HB2 offered an unexpected opportunity for neighboring South Carolina, where recent college basketball tournament games that would have been played in Greensboro and Raleigh went across the state line.
“Any fan was really annoyed by the fact we don’t get to see those,” McFall said.
Groups advocating for a full repeal of HB2 were not satisfied with the compromise bill negotiated by Cooper and top Republican lawmakers, nor were social conservatives, who wanted to keep HB2. But the NCAA, whose constituents are universities with nondiscrimination policies, exerted its power to get the law changed.
On Thursday night, NCAA President Mark Emmert said the organization would review the new law and decide next week whether to hold events in the state going forward.
“The politics of this in North Carolina are obviously very, very difficult,” Emmert told reporters in Glendale, Arizona. “But they have passed a bill now and it will be a great opportunity for our board to sit and debate and discuss it.”
Activist groups, including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood and the AFL-CIO, slammed the new law and urged the NCAA to reject it.
“It appears they were trying to bring basketball back to North Carolina, and it came at a cost to the LGBT community,” said Ben Graumann, a spokesman for Equality NC, an LGBT rights group. “We hope they continue to stand against it.”
Enrique Armijo, an associate professor of law at Elon University in Greensboro, North Carolina, said the NCAA’s opposition to HB2 wasn’t simply a statement about the organization’s values. Its member schools have nondiscrimination protections that apply to LGBT students, and they were reluctant to send their student athletes, coaches, faculty or fans to North Carolina as long as HB2 was in force.
“I think what the NCAA is worried about is having a tournament where a team doesn’t show up,” Armijo said. “That is a very practical concern.”
Whether individual companies, cities or states reconsider their boycotts of North Carolina remains to be seen. California and New York had banned nonessential travel by state employees to North Carolina after HB2 became law.
Armijo said those moves probably weren’t persuasive in the state.
“The folks who were most involved in getting HB2 passed probably take it as a point of pride that Andrew Cuomo said we’re not doing business in North Carolina,” Armijo said, referring to New York’s Democratic governor. “That would be in my campaign literature.”
Instead, statements against the law by the state’s two most revered basketball coaches — the University of North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski — likely had more impact.
“Look, it’s a stupid thing,” Krzyzewski said in March, when Duke played in an NCAA tournament game in South Carolina. “If I was president or governor I’d get rid of it.”
“They probably think it’s not right,” Armijo said. “But they’d rather play in Greensboro than in Greenville, South Carolina.”
Colin Campbell, Travis Long and Clifton Dowell of The News & Observer contributed to this article.