NFL won't alter Houston Super Bowl plans after city's repeal of non-discrimination law

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist

HOUSTON – A day after voters struck down an anti-discrimination ordinance that created protections for gay and transgendered people in Houston, the NFL issued a statement saying the league will not alter plans to have the city host Super Bowl LI in 2017. The NCAA, however, said that while the repeal won't impact the 2016 Final Four, it could deter future events in the city.

The ordinance, which was put in place by Houston's city council in May of 2014, made it more difficult for individuals or businesses to deny services, housing and employment to others on the basis of age, race, sexual identity and gender identity.  Opposing lawmakers fought to have the ordinance struck down, and the Texas Supreme Court required the ordinance go to a vote, where it was repealed by a roughly 60-40 percent margin on Tuesday. Among the arguments, opponents of the ordinance argued that it could aid sexual predators by allowing men to use a sexual identity claim to enter women's bathrooms and then commit assaults. Houston's mayor, Annice Parker, called that campaign one of "fear-mongering and deliberate lies" and framed the failure of the ordinance as a broad stroke of injustice. 

The repeal struck a chord with the NCAA, which said it was too late to withdraw the 2016 Final Four, but that future events could be impacted.

"It takes years to plan and implement this world-class event," said Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men's basketball championships. "We will continue our work with the Houston Local Organizing Committee to provide an inclusive environment for the student-athletes competing in and visitors attending our games and events in April. This vote, however, could impact the NCAA returning to Houston for a future Final Four. There are many factors in a thorough bid process that the NCAA considers when determining what cities will host the Final Four, including but not limited to local, city and state laws and ordinances."

The NFL's stance was softer, as it made clear the repeal will not impact Houston as a Super Bowl city.

"This will not affect our plans for Super Bowl LI in 2017," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. "We will work closely with the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee to make sure all fans feel welcomed at our events. Our policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard."

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While the NFL has drawn a reputation for being benign and ambiguous in recent state political fights, other corporations have taken a harder stance. Corporate giants such as Apple, General Electric, Hewlett Packard and others all voiced support for Houston's ordinance. They were joined by presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as well as a message from the White House that encouraged the ideals of anti-discrimination legislation.

"While the administration generally does not take a formal position on specific proposals or initiatives, the president and vice president have been strong supporters of state and local efforts to protect Americans from being discriminated against based on who they are and who they love," White House spokesman Jeff Tiller said in a statement. "We're confident that the citizens of Houston will vote in favor of fairness and equality."

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair (AP)
Houston Texans owner Bob McNair (AP)

The NFL, however, has remained on the sideline. Prior to Wednesday, the NFL's only public mingling with the Houston anti-discrimination legislation came in October, when the Houston Chronicle reported that Texans owner Bob McNair had donated $10,000 to an effort aimed at striking down the ordinance. McNair was widely bashed for the move, including a scathing open letter from former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, which accused McNair of buying into "clearly outdated ideals of bigotry and intolerance."

McNair quickly rescinded the donation after it became public, and issued a statement that his motives had been mischaracterized.

Said McNair: "I recently made a personal contribution to Campaign for Houston because my thorough review of the HERO ordinance led me to believe that a thoughtful rewrite would provide a better ordinance that would provide strong non-discrimination protections for all Houstonians, which I would support, and would be less divisive of our city."

Save for Wednesday's statement, the NFL has remained silent on the Houston ordinance, a stance similar to the one taken when Indiana passed a controversial "religious freedom" law last March. That law was pilloried as legislation that sanctioned discrimination based on religion.

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