The 2021 men’s NCAA basketball tournament was an event defined by big upsets, and none was bigger than Oral Roberts University, a 15 seed, conquering two top squads to make it to the Sweet 16. However, the team and school hide disturbing discrimination behind the glow of their so-called Cinderella story.
Oral Roberts’ homophobic policies came to light after the team became a fan-favorite underdog on social media. The institution’s student code of conduct explicitly states that “any homosexual behavior” is “expressly prohibited in Scripture, and therefore should be avoided by members of the University community.” A 2018 report by The Arkansas Traveler also detailed a student who was subjected to conversion therapy for being openly gay on campus.
The issues go far beyond one school. Abilene Christian University, which pulled off an upset in round one of the tournament, received a pitiful score of 5/100 from Athlete Ally’s Athletic Equality Index, and the Campus Pride Index ranks the school as one of the worst in the nation for LGBTQ+ inclusion. Baylor University, which won the national championship in the men’s tournament and made the Elite Eight in the women’s, is the only institution in any of the Power Five Division I conferences to score a 0/100 on the Athletic Equality Index. Brigham Young University, which also played in both the men’s and women’s tournaments, is also one of the Campus Pride Index’s worst schools for LGBTQ+ youth and banned “same-sex behavior” on campus until 2020.
Transgender student-athletes face even more discrimination. According to Athlete Ally, only 10 of the 65 member institutions of the Power Five conferences have publicly adopted the NCAA’s guidance for transgender participation in collegiate athletics. In fact, only 8% of institutions even have a publicly available policy for transgender inclusion. On top of problems at individual schools, dozens of states are actively pursuing legislation that would prevent transgender women from competing on women’s teams at public colleges and universities.
While not all institutions are so openly discriminatory, the lack of inclusion in college athletic departments is systemic and widespread. Athlete Ally finds that only 2.8% of NCAA Division I athletes are competing at schools that are fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities. The Campus Pride Sports Index lists Ithaca College as the only athletic department with a five-medal rating out of five, but even as one of the most exceptional schools for LGBTQ+ athletes, the department did not have a diversity and inclusion policy until 2019.
In the NCAA’s requirements for member institutions, section 126.96.36.199 outlines the importance of a “commitment to diversity and inclusion,” so it is incredibly confusing that the organization is allowing so many schools to compete that do not uphold this standard. Its failure to foster accountability is evident, and student athletes are bearing the brunt of advocacy efforts. Recently, a duo of track and field athletes at the University of Washington wrote a letter to the organization signed by more than 500 other student-athletes requesting that states with anti-trans legislation be banned from hosting NCAA championship events. The NCAA released an announcement April 12 that stated its support for including transgender athletes in competition but did not directly address the letter. “When determining where championships are held, NCAA policy directs that only locations where hosts can commit to providing an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination should be selected,” the NCAA stated. “We will continue to closely monitor these situations to determine whether NCAA championships can be conducted in ways that are welcoming and respectful of all participants.”
While moving championships out of states with discriminatory policies is a good first step, it does not address the deeply-rooted homophobia and transphobia within the NCAA and so many of its member schools. If the organization is truly committed to diversity and inclusion, it should ban any school with explicitly anti-LGBTQ+ policies from participating in NCAA-sanctioned events. Despite questions about religious freedom, the NCAA could certainly make a strong case to critics on the basis that excluding queer athletes is a violation of its own policies as a private organization. In a time when social justice has become inextricable from sports and when more people are coming out as LGBTQ+ than ever before, the NCAA must create a safe space for all athletes who it claims to support.