In North Carolina, it Ain’t Easy Being Black, Gay, or the CIAA

Fairly or unfairly, standing by for racial warfare puts you on the wrong side of the battlefield.

Last week, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association signed a new five year deal with Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment, bringing in the California-based marketing and production firm with ties to dozens of professional sports leagues and franchises, to replace the Catawba, NC-based Urban Sports & Entertainment Group, which had long held the CIAA as its biggest client.

It sucks when any firm loses one of its biggest clients to a competitor with little racial diversity on its executive team, but in this case, it is probably for the best. The CIAA faces an uncertain future from many business perspectives, choosing to remain in Charlotte while the NBA famously packed its All-Star Game and headed to New Orleans in July, and last night the NCAA packed a slew of its national championships to head to destinations yet-to-be-named.

The CIAA had an opportunity to lead the conversation nationally on gender equity, just as it did in February with its response to the 2015 “black tax” controversy at the Charlotte Ritz-Carlton. The CIAA could have refused to do business with the property, and could have sent a message to other uptown venues that the conference doesn’t tolerate financial exploitation tied to racial bigotry, whether fans choose to look beyond it or not.

Instead, the conference missed that opportunity, and accepted a $75,000 scholarship gift which followed an $80,000 settlement with aggrieved patrons, and held its conference VIP reception at the property.

But months after North Carolina legislators made discrimination a statewide law that supersedes municipal statutes, and followed that up with an attempt to make three CIAA member schools a Family Dollar version of public higher education in the state, conference officials remain steadfast in their commitment to the Queen City and the state, delivering careful messages about education and tolerance while seemingly, choosing money and tourism power over the opportunity to send a message about racial and sexual segregation.

Fortunately, NC lawmakers didn’t get that whole voter suppression of black folks thing off, but the fact remains that they tried to add it to the list of reasons why the nation’s biggest historically black basketball conference shouldn’t be anywhere near the Tar Heel state.

Everyone knows its not easy. The NBA and NCAA have discretionary millions to do focus groups, to engage with sponsors and fans, and legislative pull to determine a corporate course of action in response to a statewide sociopolitical agenda. The CIAA has none of that. In fact, it has hinged the entirety of the conference, its operations and its brand on the CIAA Basketball Tournament, and the run of social success it has enjoyed in Charlotte.

None of that is easy to reverse, and would not come without some financial shortfall in sponsorships, or social penalty from disgruntled, boycotting fans.

But the alternative message is just as clear. Even within the CIAA’s best efforts to maintain relationships with its business partners, it is an unintended yet powerful message to its fan base; our oldest conference serving the interest of black folks, with hundreds of athletes, students, faculty, alumni and donors who identify as part of the LGBT community, is secondary to the CIAA Basketball Tournament remaining as a premier sports fixture in Black America’s conscience.

And because so many of us, the fans, are willing to spend millions and shrug our shoulders at an entire summer of private and public injustice against black colleges and a segment of black citizens, the conference has no choice but to follow our lead.

The talking points are as legitimate as they are corporate; the CIAA is in the business of building opportunities for our student athletes and our member schools, we support our athletes and students regardless of sexual orientation, and we will remain steadfast in the face of opposition generated by interpersonal bias and political divisiveness.

Maybe those talking points come directly from the CIAA’s network of sponsors. Perhaps Food Lion, Nationwide Insurance, Coca-Cola and Toyota have sent word that their money is still good for supporting one of the nation’s largest basketball tournaments.

But what happens if the dominos continue to fall? What happens if the same black students who changed the face of higher education in the name or racial equity, start demanding the same of HBCUs and historically black conferences for sexual equity?

What if someone calls for a boycott of the companies supporting events that remain in North Carolina, including the CIAA? What if a black transgendered student or graduate is denied access to a facility or attacked during the 2017 CIAA Basketball Tournament, primarily because of their orientation, and what if the media or the fans begin to ask the question “would this have happened if the CIAA Basketball Tournament wasn’t here? Would this have happened if the conference wasn’t committed to North Carolina at all?”

Black people, black organizations and black ideology can never give a pass to white discrimination or privilege, under any circumstances or upon any pay schedule. The CIAA’s quiet stand in Charlotte is not unlike Great Faith Ministries in Detroit inviting Donald Trump to use it as a prop in a faux diversity outreach effort. It did not make the church appear to be more politically or socially tolerant of conservative politics, or forgiving of Trump’s trampling upon racial and social sensitivities.

The church, our people, didn’t come out looking better for the exchange. And neither did Trump. And when the intermingling of black and white interests results in a draw, it hinders every effort to get more black folks more engaged as a network of invested, attentive citizens.

From most angles, staying in North Carolina doesn’t make us politically stronger. Black folks largely have forgotten about SB873, despite Elizabeth City State University being written into its final language. We don’t care very much about HB2, and we won’t until it directly impacts a black person, and results in an unfair arrest or death at the hands of an aggressive merchant or police officer.

Staying doesn’t make us look financially savvier. The CIAA will still get just over $1.4 million from the City of Charlotte to divide among 12 cash-strapped member schools, while mostly white-owned businesses will reap $50 million from the tournament’s economic impact. In fact, one could argue that our insistence on remaining in Charlotte makes us look like what managers in the Ritz Carlton imagined us to be; too drunk, too happy, and too stupid to pay attention to how we spend our own money.

Staying makes us look like what Tom Apodaca expected us to be; too dumb to understand that a $500-per-semester tuition rate with no promises of increased state subsidies would be the quickest, cleanest path to closure or merger for HBCUs without the messy appearance of overt racism.

If the conference is being led by the tone of CIAA fans who don’t care about any of these issues, then we obviously need more leadership from the conference office to remind us of our own history and our own obligation as a race; which is to first advance each other, and second, to dismantle the benefits of white privilege, both covert and blatant.

No amount of money, fun times or exposure should come at the sacrifice of our people looking dumb or ignorant about the world around us. Maybe the fans don’t see it, or do not want to see it; but much like the NBA and NCAA, the principle of corporate responsibility suggests that social justice, almost always, yields economic returns even when most stakeholders believe that it doesn’t matter.

This is how and why collegiate and professional sports integrated, and why everyone is canceling on NC. It may cost in the short-term, but in the long-term, everyone wins and everyone makes more money.

The CIAA has missed chance after chance to be on the right side of social justice in North Carolina, even while the white power structure in the state has tried its best to make the conference an institutional black hero if it ever chose to leave.

There will only be but so many more chances for the conference and CIAA council of presidents to get it right, before they become more than a victim of anti-black politics and culture in the state, but the brokers of the same.