Colleges dance around travel bans in Mississippi and elsewhere, with the help of lawyers


New York Times News Service

A small Human Rights Campaign equality banner flies on the grounds of the Governor's Mansion in Jackson, Miss., as several hundred people rally outside the building and called on Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to veto House Bill 1523, which many believe will allow discrimination against LGBT people, Monday, April 4, 2016.
A small Human Rights Campaign equality banner flies on the grounds of the Governor's Mansion in Jackson, Miss., as several hundred people rally outside the building and called on Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to veto House Bill 1523, which many believe will allow discrimination against LGBT people, Monday, April 4, 2016. AP file

This year’s men’s Final Four seemed to go off without a hitch. All of its participants – Villanova, Kansas, Michigan and Loyola-Chicago – made it to Texas without trouble. Trading the cold and rain of their campuses for the warm Texas sun probably did not bother any of them.

But had, say, 11th-seeded San Diego State instead of 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago made an improbable run to the NCAA Tournament’s third weekend, the Aztecs’ visit to the Lone Star State might have caused a fuss. And in future years, an even more dire complication could arise: A college team might not be permitted to attend a championship event.

The reason is that several states have enacted laws banning state-funded travel to certain other states because of legal climates seen as discriminatory, including those related to so-called religious freedom or bathroom bills. The states most commonly the focus of the roughly half-dozen bans are North Carolina and Mississippi. California has a law prohibiting taxpayer-funded travel to eight states, including several that frequently host college championship events: not only North Carolina, but also Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee – and Texas.

In essence, and with several exceptions, the California law bans the use of state money to pay for travel to those states, a prohibition that generally applies to California’s numerous public universities, including, arguably, their sports teams.

Still, San Diego State’s men’s basketball team did, in fact, travel to Kansas last month to play on the tournament’s first weekend (the Aztecs lost to Houston in the first round in Wichita). And last year, UCLA played in the second weekend of the tournament in Memphis, Tennessee.

California’s public university teams have felt compelled to devise legal workarounds. The men’s basketball committee, which selected the 36 teams that received at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament and seeded all 68 in the field, disregarded state travel bans, said its chairman, Bruce Rasmussen, the Creighton athletic director.

“We, unfortunately, do not control where we play in the tournament, and we will not deny our student-athletes the opportunity for postseason play,” Shana Wilson, a senior associate athletic director for UCLA, wrote in an email. She confirmed that last year, UCLA used revenue generated by the athletic department – sources like ticket sales, donations and sponsorships, but not direct state funding – to pay for the Bruins’ trip to Memphis.

San Diego State, which is in the California State University system, used revenue from donations to finance the basketball team’s trip to Kansas in March, as well as its football team’s trip to Fort Worth, Texas, to play Army in the Armed Forces Bowl last December, said Chuck Lang, a senior associate athletic director.

“We avoid going to them as much as possible,” said Lang, referring to the eight banned states.

San Diego State does not schedule nonconference road competitions against teams in those states, though Lang said other Aztecs squads had traveled to them “because we had to” for other NCAA championship events.

Some opponents of the laws that the travel bans were meant to challenge remain uneasy about such accommodations, saying they circumvent the bans’ spirit, if not their letter.

“We would prefer that in states that have active travel bans, that organizations and agencies in those states honor those bans,” said Thomas Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, an LGBT advocacy group.

Kansas showed up on California’s list after its state government passed a law in 2016 that permitted groups on Kansas campuses to turn away prospective members who did not share their religious beliefs. Supporters of that law say it protects religious freedom; detractors like Witt say it inappropriately allows state-financed groups to discriminate.

It is debatable whether California’s travel ban applies to sports teams’ travel to NCAA championship events like the men’s basketball tournament. The law lists several exceptions under which state funds can be used to travel to those states, including for litigation or to comply with a federal request to appear before a committee. One of the exceptions is “to meet contractual obligations incurred before January 1, 2017.”

San Diego State had been a member of both the NCAA and the Mountain West Conference (which has a contract with the Armed Forces Bowl) before that date, Lang said, so the university concluded that its teams’ participation fell under that exception. Yet it used nontaxpayer funds to pay for the trip anyway, Lang said, “out of an abundance of caution.”

The California attorney general’s office has been considering whether the ban applies to “University of California and California State University athletic team staffs” for nearly a year. But the question remains unanswered. The attorney general’s office declined to comment for this article.

In the past, the NCAA has taken a stand in reaction to some state laws. It opposed the 2014 “religious freedom” law in Indiana, where the association has its headquarters. And before last year’s tournament, it responded to North Carolina’s passage of a notorious bill that put restrictions on bathroom access for transgender citizens by pulling some events from the state and threatening not to schedule more there. In both cases, the NCAA’s public opposition played a significant role in the laws’ subsequent modification or repeal, with the NCAA going on to keep events in those states and schedule others.

The NCAA sends a questionnaire to prospective host sites asking how they plan to accommodate all participants or spectators, including those who are gay or transgender. Although the association moved a basketball subregional out of North Carolina last year, it seems to recognize the extreme difficulty in making plans, often years in advance, around the shifting political priorities of all 50 states where it has members.

“We can’t control what states’ laws are, nor should we,” Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, said last year.

“If any state says they’re not going to travel to any other place for some other reason,” he added, “We can’t then say, ‘Well, we’ve decided we’re not going to go there because another state has decided it.’”

Several future NCAA championship sites could test this question. The Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments alone have scheduled several regionals and subregionals in states on California’s list. Several Division II baseball tournaments, including this year’s, are planned for North Carolina.

As with many boycotts, the travel bans stir complex feelings even among their supporters. Witt, who supports travel bans, acknowledged that he is based in a state that takes college basketball extremely seriously, and watched its flagship university make the Final Four this year.

“There are a lot of fans in the LGBT Kansas community who are big-time basketball, and KU basketball, fans,” Witt said.