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In Big 12 Expansion Battle, Gay Athletes Have Become Afterthought

From run-of-the-mill contract negotiations to placing the Big 12 in the foreground of college athletics and LGBTQ rights

Battle, The Big 12, LGBTQ, Athletes

BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall of the watches his players warm up.

Ethan Miller/Getty

August is the worst month. People get chippy, the movies are terrible, there are no holidays and the backs of your thighs tend to skin graft anything they come in contact with. For sports, things are even darker; 2016 may have the Olympics, but the other three years offer only pre-pennant baseball – the dry rub of major league sports. Which is all to say that in a thin news cycle, you take what you can get. In this case, watching a Big 12 school admission vote shift from a conversation on overvalued television contracts and the NCAA into a fight over one of the league’s most contentious issue: its opaque policy on how it handles institutionalized discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

The Big 12 has spent the last month orchestrating its own series of Bachelor-esque rose ceremonies after announcing that the conference was looking to expand its roster. A ridiculous 20 teams are currently making their pitches to Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby for a decision that may not even be handed down until October, from a conference that changes its mind near daily on whether they want to add four teams, two teams or none at all. Much of this hemming and hawing is over television deals; for each school the Big 12 picks up, the school is paid about $25 million and the conference another $100 million per year by ESPN and FOX, who own the conference’s television rights through 2025. With the Big 12 the only conference to not have its own dedicated network (a slight no doubt chafed by the fact that member school University of Texas has its own Longhorn Network), yet commanding annual broadcast fees far higher than most other conferences make over the span of a full contract, adding schools is an easy way for the league to sock away almost $800 million over the next eight years before facing what many feel is likely to be a contentious rights renegotiation.

How did we get from run-of-the-mill contract negotiations to placing the Big 12 in the foreground of college athletics and LGBTQ rights? Enter Brigham Young University, one of three colleges assumed to be a top contender for a Big 12 spot. The religious institution, currently a member of the West Coast Conference, adheres to an LDS Church Honor Code for its students, which states “homosexual behavior is inappropriate” and prohibits “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” And with BYU making headlines for its potential Big 12 move, a coalition spearheaded by LGBTQ non-profit group Athlete’s Ally, and co-signed by organizations like GLAAD and the National Organization for Women, have sent Bowlsby and the heads of the current Big 12 schools a letter urging them to deny BYU entry into the conference based on their discriminatory policies towards LGBTQ students.

This isn’t the first time the NCAA has found its murky stance on ensuring equal rights in the public eye, yet chosen to take a backseat. When the NBA decided to move 2017’s All-Star Game out of North Carolina, due to a state law removing anti-discrimination protection for LGBTQ citizens, the NCAA waffled on the opportunity to take a similar stand, despite having condemned a similar law in Indiana just one year prior. The organization instead introduced an “anti-discrimination process” for schools submitting host bids for championship games – one that has had no clear process, or guidelines as to what constitutes an “inclusive environment,” outlined since its April press release.

While the NCAA has put anti-discrimination bans into effect in the past for offensive Native American mascot imagery and states that fly the Confederate flag, in the case of BYU and the Big 12, the league gets to hide behind its favorite constitutional protection: religious institutions are often granted exemptions to parts of Title IX, like an anti-discriminatory honor code, if they can prove that enforcing the law would require them to violate religious beliefs. When pressured earlier this year to take a stronger stand towards committing to LGBTQ rights in practice and not just theory, the NCAA demurred, claiming that while it was committed to “student health, safety, and well-being” they also did their best to uphold “individual institutional values.”

As the NCAA stays above the fray, this round of civil rights chicken instead defaults to the Big 12 – though between the league’s blind eye, the conference’s financial posturing and the political goals of the 25 groups that protested BYU, it all starts to beg the question: Does anyone actually care about individual LGBTQ athletes?

The complaints about the NCAA being a capitalist company earning revenue by the billion on the backs of young athletes whose own athletic goals the league makes no money off of protecting have been elucidated at length (though perhaps, none more starkly than Missy Franklin’s dismal performance at Rio), so it should come as little surprise that they opt to sidestep any issues that could upset a rabid fan base – especially social issues they have no obligation to weigh in on. The Big 12, still reeling from the Baylor’s football program’s sexual assault scandal, doesn’t need more bad press, but even so, the decision will come down to not only picking a school that can put the most butts in seats and has the most money flowing through the program, but whether expansion to the tune of $800 million over the next eight years is worth gambling away their TV rights come 2025.

By adding BYU to the Big 12, the conference gets a school that routinely outsells its seats, has a healthy endowment, and a solid, and solidly growing, athletic program. Though BYU has offered to join the Big 12 only for football if it were to help grease the wheels, the success of their men’s basketball team, with eight appearances to the Big Dance over the last decade, is a lucrative proposition for a conference looking for ways to earn their own network channel as part of their television rights. Given BYU’s religious exemption from Title IX – even Baylor, until last year, outlawed homosexual behavior on campus – the conference, like the NCAA, can likely withstand any temporary bad press for the far more lucrative windfall taking on BYU might offer.

The Athlete’s Ally letter to Bowlsby does ostensibly put the rights of LGBTQ students in the foreground, their disavowal of this program compared to their relative silence about the many other Division II and III schools that have similar discriminatory policies, raises more than one eyebrow. To be sure, BYU and the Big 12 are a far bigger platform for moving the needle on how we view LGBTQ rights in college athletics than a D-II school. But their pick-and-choose platform should make us pause and wonder why they’re only involved when there is visibility to be had. As Ashland Johnson, Athlete’s Allly director of policy, told USA Today, the primary goal of the coalition was to send a message that discriminatory policies could cost BYU significantly. “North Carolina lost millions of dollars when the NBA All-Star game was taken away and BYU could lose millions of dollars by not joining the Big 12,” Johnson said. “The NBA has taken steps forward with the (LGBT) movement. The NCAA has taken steps forward. The Big 12 doesn’t need to take a step back here.”

While the decision on where BYU ends up is still very much anyone’s game, as the speculation winds on, one thing is apparent: caught in a battle between policy and politics, the student athletes themselves seem to be the only ones getting lost in the shuffle. 

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