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News & Record (Greensboro, North Carolina)
GREENSBORO - A law most legislators did not like, let alone embrace, might be innocuous enough to bring college sports championships back to North Carolina.
"Sports are coming back," Gov. Roy Cooper said in a speech Thursday announcing that he had signed House Bill 142 into law.
The new law is a compromise that repealed and replaced House Bill 2, the "bathroom bill" enacted in March 2016 that the NCAA and ACC viewed as discriminatory against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Both sports organizations moved all neutral-site championship events out of North Carolina.
But hours after a long day of political wrangling in Raleigh, both the NCAA and ACC merely hinted that HB 142 could convince them to lift their boycotts.
HB 142 "allows the opportunity to reopen the discussion with the ACC Council of Presidents regarding neutral-site conference championships being held in the state," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said in an emailed statement.
"This discussion will take place in the near future, and following any decisions ... announcements will be forthcoming," he said.
Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, echoed Swofford's statement during his news conference in Phoenix in the run-up to the Final Four.
"(NCAA) committees have been waiting to see whether or not North Carolina was going to change their laws," Emmert said Thursday. "And then they have to wait and see whether or not the Board of Governors will determine whether or not this bill that was recently passed today is a sufficient change in the law for the board to feel comfortable going back to North Carolina."
The NCAA's board is scattered, Emmert said, but "in the next handful of days" it will find a time to meet. A decision is expected early next week.
"I'm personally very pleased that they have a bill to debate and discuss," Emmert said. "The politics of this in North Carolina are obviously very, very difficult. But they have passed a bill now and it will be a great opportunity for our board to sit and debate and discuss it."
A lot is at stake. The NCAA awards Division I, II and III sports championships in four-year cycles. All sites for the next cycle, which runs through the 2021-22 school year, will be announced April 18.
Unless the NCAA's boycott is lifted, North Carolina will get none.
Greensboro alone has bid on 53 NCAA championship events that amount to $118 million in economic impact, according to the Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"College championships are a big part of our culture in North Carolina. It's a big deal," said Kim Strable, the president of the Greensboro Sports Commission. "We want to compete and serve our citizens. A lot of people's jobs depend on tourism and the sports industry. We want to play - whether it's the NCAA or any other sports opportunity. We hang our hat on being Tournament Town. It's a destination for a lot of sports activities. ... It means a great deal to us if an obstacle to what we do is removed."
For a year, HB 2 has been that obstacle. In September 2016, the NCAA and ACC pulled 17 championship events out of the state in response to the law.
The compromise bill became law in large part because of a Thursday deadline set by the NCAA for the state to be eligible to host championships over the next five years.
Neither side of the political debate was pleased with the compromise law.
State Rep. Bert Jones, a Republican from Reidsville, suggested lowering the U.S. and North Carolina flags over the state Capitol to "fly the flag of a certain intercollegiate association and a white flag" over the building.
"What we are doing ... stains the dignity of this body," Jones said.
Groups supporting LGBT rights panned the law, dubbing it "HB 2.0" on social media.
State Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Greensboro, said she enjoys having basketball and other sports in North Carolina. But Harrison said she was troubled that the NCAA's boycott and deadline that drove HB 142 through the legislature.
"I don't think it's a good bill," she said, adding, "I think we're at the point where even a bad bill starts to sound moderate. ... As much as I want to see a solution, this is one I can't support."
Jones and Harrison voted against HB 142. Both were in the minority.
A 'black eye'
In the end, HB 142 was a law likely passed for economic reasons.
HB 2 hurt. Just two weeks ago, the first- and second-round games of NCAA men's basketball tournament were played in Greenville, S.C., instead of the Greensboro Coliseum.
In the sports world, there's a lot riding on the new law, said Matt Brown, the coliseum's managing director.
"There are many wider-ranging impacts across other organizations that are important to us," Brown said. "The focus has traditionally been on ACC or NCAA, but we have other national championship concerns with groups such as USA Swimming and things of that nature. This could have a far greater impact of getting us back into the business we've been so successful in doing."
And the impact runs deeper than just dollars and cents.
"It's more a relief to me that there's been an effort to remove the black eye that our state has carried for the last year," Brown said. "North Carolina has always had a great national reputation for being a progressive state. To have this black mark against our name and carry it around for so long, it's been demeaning."
Contact Jeff Mills at (336) 373-7024, and follow @JeffMillsNR on Twitter.
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