The fallout began soon after North Carolina’s controversial measure curbing anti-discrimination protections for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people became law in March.

Several corporations canceled plans for expansion in the state after House Bill 2 passed. Entertainers such as Bruce Springsteen canceled concerts. The NBA, NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference all pulled some of their cornerstone events.

Some colleges, including Albany and Vermont, pulled out of scheduled games in North Carolina.

The University of Maine has opted for a different approach.

Maine’s men’s basketball team will play Duke at the Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in the first meeting between the schools. Maine will receive $85,000 from Duke to play in the game, the money benefiting the Black Bears’ basketball program.

Bob Walsh, the UMaine men’s basketball coach, still believes an up-tempo style is best for his team but says his players need to get stronger as they prepare for next season.

Bob Walsh, the UMaine men’s basketball coach: “We talked about everything. The question was, how we can use it as a learning experience for our guys and to educate them?”

Maine officials, including President Susan Hunter and athletic director Karlton Creech, have weighed the national reaction to the controversy in their discussions on whether to play at Duke – a final meeting taking place as recently as Monday – but decided to go ahead. They intend to use the event as an educational experience for their student-athletes, while also showing support for North Carolina’s LGBTQ community.

“The North Carolina law is completely at odds with our belief in equality and inclusion, and not in keeping with our commitment to equal opportunity as a right for all,” Hunter said in a statement released by the university.

“If we want to make a statement and stand up for what we believe in as an institution, we have to be part of the discussion around these important societal issues. Duke University shares this commitment and we stand with them in solidarity. … Perhaps more importantly, (it) engages our students in thinking about and confronting injustice in any form.”

For the basketball team, it is an opportunity to play against one of the nation’s elite programs – even though the game appears to be a mismatch. The fifth-ranked Blue Devils have won five national championships and have appeared in 12 Final Fours under coach Mike Krzyzewski. Maine has never qualified for the NCAA tournament.

None of that matters to Maine coach Bob Walsh.

“These are the games the kids are really excited about playing,” he said. “It’s the highest level of college basketball and it forces us to prepare at a high level. But now there’s a little more to it than just playing a basketball game.”

Maine flew down Friday and its players plan to meet with a student group called Duke Athlete Ally, which advocates for social justice and inclusion. On game day, the Black Bears will wear T-shirts with an America East rainbow logo, symbolizing the conference’s commitment to inclusion. Upon returning to Orono, the Black Bears plan to meet with the school’s LGBTQ Services to share their experience.

“I think that this is going to be good for us,” said Marko Pirovic, a senior on the basketball team who reached out to Duke to meet with a student group.

“We want to let them know the support they have from the University of Maine athletes. It’s an opportunity to show people that we are standing up against the law.”

On March 23, the North Carolina General Assembly passed HB2 – formally titled the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act – sweeping away many anti-discrimination protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. As part of it, people must use public restrooms that corresponded to the gender on their birth certificate.

The outrage was immediate, with Krzyzewski – one of the state’s most visible residents – saying, “It’s an embarrassing bill.”

‘Duke has said this is a repugnant law and that is what the University of Maine would say, too. Boycotting is one way to stand up to it. Another type of pressure is to go stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Duke and show our support.’

— Robert Dana, UMaine vice president for student affairs

The NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, North Carolina, to New Orleans. The NCAA and ACC followed by pulling postseason tournaments out of North Carolina.

The University of Albany had to pull out of a men’s basketball game at Duke – and field hockey games at Duke and North Carolina – because the state of New York banned all non-essential state travel to North Carolina in protest of House Bill 2. Vermont canceled a women’s basketball game at North Carolina. In a statement, the school said its decision came because the law “is contrary to our values as an athletic department and university.”

UMaine officials saw all this. But they still decided to play, signing a contract with Duke on June 21. There were many factors to consider. Of course, there was the guaranteed money – $85,000, the same amount that Maine receives for playing at Virginia Tech and Buffalo this season – which goes a long way to helping a program. The game will be televised on ESPN2, providing a great deal of exposure for recruiting.

But both Walsh and Creech knew there had to be more to it. “We talked about everything,” said Walsh. “The question was, how we can use it as a learning experience for our guys and to educate them?”

They contacted America East, which in August became the first NCAA Division I conference to partner with the LGBT SportSafe Inclusion Program. The league has been a partner with the You Can Play Project – which promotes inclusion for all athletes regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity – since 2012.

America East provided the jerseys with the AE rainbow logo that Maine will wear in warm-ups.

The league also put Maine in touch with Chris Mosier, a transgender athlete who is a member of the U.S. national team in the duathlon, a competition involving running and cycling. Mosier, who is a vice president of program development for the You Can Play Project, competed in a national championship in North Carolina in May because he said he wanted to show that “I am not going to be stopped by this bill.”

On Thursday, he spoke via Skype with the Maine basketball team about being transgender and how to promote inclusion through sports. While he applauds those who have chosen to boycott North Carolina, Mosier said Maine’s decision to play has lasting benefits as well.

UMaine men's basketball team taking part in Skype discussion Thursday with Chris Mosier, a transgender athlete and member of the U.S. national team in the duathlon.

The UMaine men’s basketball team takes part in a Skype discussion Thursday with Chris Mosier, a transgender athlete and member of the U.S. national team in the duathlon. Photo courtesy of Matt O’Brien

“I think the great thing about this is that it is helping make the players better citizens,” Mosier said in a phone interview. “By them showing up and taking the opportunity to educate themselves, they are doing it the right way. It’s just a great opportunity for them to grow as people.”

Jay Bilas, the ESPN college basketball analyst and a lawyer who lives in Charlotte, has been an outspoken critic of the law. “It’s a sad, sorry episode for the state,” he said.

While Bilas has supported some of the boycotts, he acknowledged, “It’s not possible for everyone to do that, even if they want to. There are other considerations.

“I applaud (Maine) for what they are trying to do. They are coming to Duke to play a game, and it’s an important game for them. But for them to take the steps they are taking speaks well of them and the social consciousness they have, to seek social justice far beyond their state’s borders.”

The boycotts have been economically painful for North Carolina. According to a mid-September story in Business Insider, North Carolina had lost nearly $400 billion dollars because of HB2.

This is the T-shirt that University of Maine men's basketball players will wear at Duke University this weekend, symbolizing the America East conference’s commitment to inclusion.

This is the T-shirt that University of Maine men’s basketball players will wear at Duke University this weekend, symbolizing the America East Conference’s commitment to inclusion.

Opponents of the law, such as Shane Windmeyer, applaud the boycotts, but also realize there are other ways to show disapproval.

Windmeyer is executive director and founder of Campus Pride, a nation-wide organization based in Charlotte that creates safer and more inclusive LGBTQ communities on college campuses.

He said boycotts are effective, but only to a degree. “It’s one thing to boycott the state,” he said. “But if you have a headache, you don’t chop off your head. You treat the headache.”

Windmeyer said simply wearing a rainbow patch on a T-shirt wouldn’t be enough to justify coming to Duke, a private institution which he said has always been a very progressive campus. But if Maine’s visit is to support the LGBTQ community in North Carolina and promote inclusion, he said, “that’s a very smart and right thing to do.”

Dan Lebowitz, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, said that boycotts provide a strong statement, and that once the NBA – “the most socially conscious sports entity on the planet,” he said – pulled its All-Star Game out of Charlotte, other leagues quickly followed suit.

But every case is different, Lebowitz said. “For a place like Maine to play at a place like Duke, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s a profile raiser.”

And, he said, “They are using the platform to make a socially conscious statement. Rather than look at a boycott, like everyone else, they are going to make the most of this opportunity athletically while also making a social statement. I commend Maine for doing it. It’s a statement for the program and the university.”

Reaction on the Maine campus appears to be muted. The student newspaper, The Maine Campus, has not editorialized on the subject. Creech, the athletic director, said the school has not received any negative feedback over its decision.

The campus’ LGBTQ Services deferred questions for this story to Robert Dana, the vice president for student affairs at UMaine.

“Duke has said this is a repugnant law and that is what the University of Maine would say, too,” Dana said. “Boycotting is one way to stand up to it. Another type of pressure is to go stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Duke and show our support.”

Pirovic, the Maine senior, said he would have understood if the university had pulled out of this game. But he said they can make a bigger impact by going.

“I think it will mean a lot to them, and to us, to know that even though we’re in Maine, we’re there to support them,” he said.

And he’s looking forward to playing on Duke’s home court.

“It’s good for our guys to experience the next level,” he said. “I know it’s something I’m going to remember the rest of my life.”

 


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