Will Houston's Repeal of HERO Create Problems With NBA, NCAA?

A game for the ages was played inside NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016. Underdog Villanova defeated North Carolina 77-74 when Kris Jenkins's game-winning three-pointer left his hand mere milliseconds before the buzzer, sailing through the net and throwing the assembled 74,340 fans into a frenzy rarely seen inside the stadium.

But even as the game was being played, even as the win was being celebrated, questions abounded as to whether Houston would ever be able to host such an event again. Especially after the NCAA had said just days previously that it was preparing to refrain from conducting business in states and locales it considered unwelcoming environments for student-athletes, coaches and fans. 

That NCAA statement came in response to a question arising from both North Carolina's HB2 law, which repealed a Charlotte law protecting gay and transgender people from discrimination, and Houston voters' electing to repeal the city's HERO ordinance, which did the same thing. While refusing, after the Houston vote, to pull the game out of Houston, the NCAA strongly implied that the 2016 NCAA Final Four in Houston would be the last until what it considered to be civil rights for all people were restored. 

In April, the NCAA issued a press release stating that it would no longer allow championship events to be hosted in cities or states actively engaging in discriminatory acts. And last week, the NCAA sent out a questionnaire that must be answered by August 12 by all cities and institutions hoping to host future NCAA championship events. And those completing the questionnaire must certify that the cities and facilities will "provide an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination, plus safeguards the dignity of everyone involved in the event." 

Among the questions asked is whether the host city has laws regulating the choice of bathrooms for staff, administrators, athletes and fans. The NCAA also requests that it be provided copies of all applicable laws that would interfere with the non-discriminatory NCAA event. And it further demands hosts detail how they will provide an environment free from discrimination while guaranteeing the safety and dignity of everyone involved in the event. 

This of course is aimed directly at Houston and at NRG Stadium, and it's hard to see how city officials could get the Final Four back to Houston under these new NCAA guidelines. Houston does have laws affecting restroom usage and who can use which restroom. And it was very clear during last year's elections that the local environment was very unwelcoming toward transgendered people, going so far as the implication that they are all sexual predators

The situation does appear to be different for Rice, and possibly for the University of Houston, both institutions that from time to time host championship events like NCAA baseball regionals. Rice, especially, as a private institution, should be able to work around the NCAA guidelines when it comes to restrooms on the campus and toward providing a safe and welcoming environment for visitors and participants. 

"We are committed to providing a championship experience within an inclusive environment for student-athletes, coaches, administrators and fans," said Mark Lewis, the NCAA executive vice president for championships and alliances. "With the Board of Governors' direction, we are taking steps to assure that anyone associated with an NCAA championship event will be treated with fairness and respect."

It does also appear that the new NCAA dictates could affect NRG Stadium's continued role as the host for the AdvoCare Texas Bowl, though probably not this year since the bowl certification process began before the new regulations were created. While the bowl might not be a championship event, it would seem that if bowls must comply with the NCAA's no Confederate flag regulations, bowls would also have to comply with the non-discrimination requirements. 

The defeat of the HERO ordinance last fall won't just affect Houston with the NCAA. The NBA pulled its 2017 All-Star game from the city of Charlotte because of North Carolina's HB2 legislation, so it's doubtful the league would now allow the game to come to Houston, especially when there's a welcoming locale like New Orleans so close. 

The NFL is keeping the Super Bowl in Houston, though, despite pleas to move the game. The NFL has in the past threatened to strip Super Bowls from Arizona and Atlanta over anti-gay legislation, but appears okay with ignoring those past threats when it comes to Houston. Though it should be noted that, in regards to Atlanta, Falcons owner Arthur Blank was against the proposed discriminatory legislation, whereas Houston's Bob McNair provided financial support to the anti-HERO forces until his participation was made public. 

Maybe Houston finds another way to enact the HERO legislation, or perhaps Mayor Sylvester Turner makes getting this law back on the books a priority. But until that happens, Houstonians will just have to live on the memories of Kris Jenkins and that game-winning three-point shot.
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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal