Legislature dips into the world of sports
Boycotts often hit a nerve, part of the impetus for mounting a boycott in the first place. So it’s not surprising that legislation was introduced last week to directly strike back at the ACC for moving competitions out of state as part of a boycott.
This latest bill attempts to prevent the publicly funded University of North Carolina and N.C. State from granting media rights to the ACC if the league repeats its act of protest. Since ceding control of media rights to the conference is a prerequisite for ACC membership – a guard against schools jumping to another league – the requirement would be tantamount to forced withdrawal.
The short-lived boycotts by the ACC and NCAA were a matter of principled opposition to House Bill 2. Others continue to stay away. That the stances of the college sports organizations didn’t comport with the beliefs or votes of a handful of state representatives apparently led to their bill’s declaration of limited legislative warfare.
Introduced after the bathroom bill came off the books and the ACC voted to return its championship events to the state, HB 728 was not concocted by neophytes messing with traditional ties they don’t understand. Two of the four primary sponsors of “An Act to Direct the University of North Carolina to Respond to a Boycott of the State by a Conference of an Intercollegiate Athletic Association,” graduated from UNC. A third went to N.C. State.
Two of the same House members also were among the chief sponsors of the “Athletic Associations Accountability Act,” an attempt earlier this session to strike back at the errant ACC and NCAA by challenging their tax-exempt status.
While HB2 remained in effect, leaders of the legislative majority routinely dismissed calculations of massive lost revenue caused by boycotts in sports, business and the arts. Reminiscent of president Richard Nixon seeking to punish perceived enemies, HB 328 was advanced to encourage majority leaders to report the NCAA and ACC to the Internal Revenue Service. The sports organizations transgressed, according to the bill, by “engaging in excessive lobbying activities” and exceeding “the scope of their respective charters by using economic retaliation against the State of North Carolina for the purpose of forcing the General Assembly to adopt social legislation that is not connected to the core mission of either.”
So much for shrugging off the financial impact of being shunned.
A third bill sparked by the boycotts requires communications by UNC system schools “related to membership in or communication with” the NCAA, ACC or other conferences be made public records. The better to see you with, my dear.
Politicians getting involved in college sports is nothing new. University lobbying, and arm-twisting by senate leadership more than a decade ago, secured General Assembly authorization for the UNC system’s largest schools to pay in-state tuition for out-of-state student-athletes and a smattering of outright scholars. The recession caused the benefit to be rescinded in 2010, but not before bestowing more than $9 million over five years on well-off athletic departments and booster clubs. “The lean times have at least forced the elimination of this ill-advised and, for taxpayers, insulting policy,” The News & Observer noted in an editorial at the time.
Action on scheduling
Direct action isn’t even necessary when legislators are involved, as the state’s highest-profile, public athletic programs found late in the last century.
N.C. State and East Carolina faced off annually in football from 1970 through 1987, always in Raleigh. UNC was more reticent, meeting the Pirates nearly every year from 1972 through 1980, always in Chapel Hill. Then, after rowdy fan behavior followed ECU victories at Carter-Finley Stadium in 1985 and 1987, N.C. State canceled the series. That led to the 1995 filing of an N.C. Senate bill to force East Carolina’s sister schools to play the Pirates home-and-home. Before legislative action proceeded, administrators from all three universities put ECU back on North Carolina’s and N.C. State’s schedules. By 1997 the Pirates returned to Raleigh; by 1999 the Wolfpack visited Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and lost.
A similar manipulation occurred more than a decade earlier in Kentucky, where a state legislator introduced a bill to require haughty UK to play Louisville in basketball. Kentucky had long spurned the matchup; the schools hadn’t met during the regular season since 1922. But in 1983, a year after the bill was filed, the basketball powers commenced an annual series that’s ongoing.
State legislators aren’t the only politicians inclined to take a hands-on approach to college sports. Back in 2003, when the ACC was poaching schools from the Big East, initial plans focused on adding Boston College, Miami and Syracuse. Virginia Tech got a cold shoulder, as happened every time the Hokies came calling since the conference’s founding in the mid-1950s.
However, getting the seven votes necessary to expand under the bylaws in the nine-team league was uncertain, particularly with Duke and UNC publicly opposed. That made the vote of the wavering University of Virginia especially important. An NCAA rule arbitrarily requires a conference have at least 10 members to secure a football championship game. Virginia legislators used veiled threats to advocate Virginia Tech’s ACC inclusion, while governor Mark Warner reportedly was more direct in pressuring the president of UVa to bring along its sister school. That advocacy worked, and in turn altered the ACC’s plans. Syracuse had to wait another decade to join the league.
Down here in the Old North State, several of the same legislators trying to smack down the ACC for its boycott recently introduced a far more laudable measure calling for a “Legislative Commission on the Fair Treatment of College Student-Athletes.” HB 463 stipulates areas of interest that reform-minded observers would applaud such as permissible access to agents and attorneys, a review of restrictive transfer rules and a focus on players’ health concerns and on “profit-sharing.”
In that same affirmative spirit, N.C. legislators might put a lasting stamp on the state’s collegiate athletics by considering other positive actions. Instead of threatening UNC and N.C. State in order to exact payback for objections to HB2, nudge the schools to champion East Carolina’s membership in the ACC. ECU has tried to join high-profile conferences from the Big East to the Big 12, to no avail. Meanwhile the ACC has only 15 members. Adding the Pirates would even up the league’s ranks, strengthen the quality of its football and promote existing in-state rivalries.
Or the General Assembly could try to recoup revenues from lost postseason ACC and NCAA events by promoting a return of the popular Big Four Tournament. The early-season basketball showdown was held in Greensboro from the 1971 through 1981 seasons, matching the men from Duke, Wake, UNC and N.C. State in a pair of doubleheaders over two nights.