The NCAA was right to back off its threat to not allow any of its baseball and softball tournament games to be played in states that have enacted transgender-unfriendly laws.
Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State University are beneficiaries of the NCAA’s decision, as they began hosting four-team baseball regionals Friday. So peripherally is this state’s other major baseball power, the University of Southern Mississippi, whose team and fans only had to travel as far as Oxford for the Golden Eagles’ tournament action.
Before the NCAA gets mixed up in politics, it needs to be sure that the magnitude of an issue is enough to justify penalizing teams for actions they did not commit and, in the process, alienating the fans who provide ticket revenue and, more importantly, the viewership that generates lucrative television contracts for the schools.
In recent years, the NCAA used its considerable muscle to pressure states to remove the Confederate battle emblem from their flags or from being displayed in prominent public spaces. The threat of not just missing out on hosting baseball regionals but also women’s basketball tournament games was a contributing factor in finally persuading Mississippi to change its state flag last year.
The Confederate flag, though, was a direct and longstanding affront to Black college athletes, who make up the majority of the players in the highest-profile sports of football and basketball. By making it clear that the flag and its racist associations could no longer be countenanced, the NCAA calculated that whatever backlash its action produced, it would be less than if it had stood on the sidelines and let the status quo continue.
The transgender flap does not rise to that level — at least not yet. Laws mandating that transgender athletes compete according to their sex at birth impact very few individuals.
In Mississippi, not a single athlete, at either the high school or college level, has surfaced who would be impacted by the law. Although supporters of the laws, mostly Republicans, claim they are designed to ensure a fair playing field for female athletes, their main intent is to appeal to conservatives and serve as a distraction from more pressing issues.
It’s fine for the NCAA to criticize these laws, but it would only give the matter greater prominence to start penalizing schools over them. In the college baseball tournament alone, had the NCAA carried through on its threat, it could have disqualified five of the 16 regional sites that were ultimately selected, including not just the two Mississippi schools but the University of Arkansas. The Razorbacks are both the Southeastern Conference champion and the nation’s top-ranked team going into the tournament.
The NCAA needs to be selective before it injects itself into political battles, or it will get caught up in every grievance out there that touches on sports, and possibly some that don’t.
That is not a formula for success in an organization that depends on patronage from fans who line up all across the political spectrum.