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Gay coach wants Final Four moved from Indianapolis next weekend

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Charley Sullivan, associate head coach of men's rowing at the University of Michigan, argues that his unreasonable solution is the right thing to do.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

In the ultimate Indiana basketball fantasy movie Hoosiers, Gene Hackman plays Coach Norman Dale, a disgraced college coach who is given a second chance coaching a small town high school team. Stressing fundamentals, discipline and doing things right, he takes his boys all the way to the state championship.

The final game is to be played in a big arena in Indianapolis, a bigger stadium than any of his players have ever competed in. So Coach Dale does a great little bit of coaching. Before leaving their little town, he had his players measure the court they practiced on in their tiny gym. When they get to the big city, they do the same thing. The two courts are the same size.

His lesson? To stay win a state championship, stay focused on the game. The other embedded lesson? All you need for a championship game is a court, at least ten players on two teams, two coaches, some referees and a ball. No matter where it is, the game is the same.

This is a lesson the NCAA could stand to remember in the coming week. The elected representatives of the state of Indiana have chosen to pass a bill that fundamentally would allow discrimination in public accommodations in the state, based on the religious beliefs of those providing the services.

But let's be clear, this is about certain people calling themselves Christians wanting to be able to discriminate legally against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender individuals. As much as the history of race in the United States might be different than that of sexual minorities, this is the equivalent of giving a server the right to kick someone away from a lunch counter or a desk clerk the ability to deny someone a hotel room. It is abhorrent, it is hateful, and it goes against the NCAA's own professed values of equality and inclusion.

In response there has begun to be a call for the NCAA to move the upcoming Men's Final Four basketball tournament away from Indianapolis. Some people have simply asked questions at this point. Jason Collins, the only openly gay man so far to have played in the NBA, tweeted at Indiana Governor Mike Pence asking, "is it going to be legal for someone to discriminate against me & others when we come to the ‪#‎FinalFour‬?" Others, like Outsports' Cyd Zeigler (a good friend, of mine, truly,) are perturbed, but suggest that nothing much can happen at this late date. As he said on the Facebook comment thread on the article he wrote about it on Outsports, "Not going to happen. I'll focus my energies on reasonable expectations that could happen."

His comment was a response to my suggestion that the NCAA just move the tournament. To Ann Arbor, or to Columbus, or to any other college town with a basketball court that has the right measurements. And state laws that don't allow for out and out religiously based discrimination. Sure, a bunch of the ceremony, including the big journalists party weekend would probably have to look different and be scaled down. But the NCAA would stay in line with its values. It would teach an important lesson about equity and inclusion. It would not say, by doing nothing, that discrimination is acceptable.

And, see, to me, that's not OK. I'm one of very few openly gay men to coach at the highest college levels. My team wins. A lot. We have seven consecutive national championships under our belt, and are going for an eighth. We actually race in Indianapolis many years, though this year, perhaps luckily, we aren't. A race that had traditionally been held there got blown out several years ago. (In rowing, we don't call the city Windianapolis for nothing.) And, with about a week's notice, we moved the whole Midwest rowing championships to Ypsilanti, Michigan. The MACRA regatta, as the race is called, has stayed up north ever since.

Perhaps because I coach rowing, moving venues isn't an exceptionally big deal. My team was scheduled to race in Ithaca, NY this weekend, but the inlet on Lake Cayuga where we would race is still frozen. So, on Monday, the organizers of the regatta told us not to count on the competition happening. Within ten minutes of hearing that, we made the decision to travel to Camden, NJ instead.

By Tuesday, all the arrangements were made. I should point out, that with a team of 80, that's more athletes than all the Final Four teams combined. I should also point out that we did it without all the support staff and financial strength of the NCAA and the schools that will be in the Final Four. We just made it work. If we measured the race course either place, it would be 2000 meters. We may be seeing other crews than we thought we would, including our perennial rivals from the University of Virginia, earlier than we had planned. But, as our guys said when we told them, "bring it on!" Perhaps one of the things that makes our team, and our sport, great is that it requires emotional, and logistical flexibility.

I know, my friends say, but you're just rowing. Essentially, no-one cares about you. There's no press to coddle. There is no big corporate marketing mess and contracts to deal with. There aren't a bunch of important people to placate, and to make sure they have properly catered parties and receptions.

And that is exactly the point.

I actually think it would be good for basketball to go back to doing some things "old school" as it were. Bring the athletes to Ann Arbor. Hell, my team will throw the guys a barbecue down at our boathouse. They're all tall; it'll work out. Maybe we'll even teach them to row for fun. And then, when it's time to, lace up some shoes and play some ball.

It could be about the sports and not about the party.

It could be about the hoops, and not about the hoopla.

Everyone can watch from home or from parties on TV anyway; but like the Olympics and the Super Bowl, all the extravaganza just becomes something coaches have to shade their teams from anyway. Given the public relations disaster right now about the amount of money flowing through the tournament and the coaches' salaries, but not to the players, this might even be a good move to reset the image of NCAA basketball.

Now, it would be a pain. Coaches like to plan, and the corporate bureaucratic types like to plan, and the journalists like to plan. Last minute changes can be uncomfortable. But, as a friend of mine, a former Israeli tank commander taught me when I first met him fifteen years ago, every plan must be a basis for change. If you can't row in Ithaca, row in Camden. If you shouldn't play ball in Indiana, play ball in Michigan or Ohio or Illinois. We'd actually find out who the best players are, not who the best players are when everything is just right.

But, if it's a pain, why go through all this kerfuffle? Simply, because it's the right thing to do.

It's actually pretty unlikely that gay athletes and coaches are going to be discriminated against in Indianapolis. If any of the remaining players and staff in the draw are gay or bisexual, they're not out about it. I'm also assuming none of them are trans. But you never know who their families are, or who their support staff are, or who their fans are. And none of them should be put in a position where someone might be free to choose to discriminate against them under the sanction of law.

Cyd says he'll focus on "what's reasonable." But bringing about social change requires, more often than not, for us to demand the "unreasonable."

I've had the honor several times at Michigan to talk to older men, Wolverine athletes, black men who had been asked at times to stay in different hotels or eat in different restaurants "back in the day" when Michigan went to compete down south. Hearing their stories was heartbreaking. What was asked of them was unreasonable. We should never hear such stories again.

Athletes playing college basketball and football have been asking to be paid in some fashion for their part in this billion-dollar industry. To some, that, too, is "unreasonable." People who wanted to ride the bus in Selma and women who wanted to vote or to get paid the same amount have all been called "unreasonable."

It's funny how "unreasonable" usually just means "not in the interest of those in power."

Perhaps it's been "unreasonable" for me to insist I could be an openly gay college coach for the past 25 years. But I did, and people have been supportive. I imagine that my fellow rowing coaches would not think it unreasonable of me if I asked a race scheduled in Indiana to be moved. A pain yes, but not unreasonable.

But if you don't insist on change, it rarely ever happens.

So, perhaps this is a time to be unreasonable. The NCAA, and the universities that comprise it, and the athletic press complex that supports and profits from it should not do the "reasonable" thing, but the right thing.

Find a court the right size. Focus on the game. Focus on doing things the right way. Forget about the hoopla, and make the Final Four about the hoops. Celebrate the equity that comes when two evenly matched teams square off, five-on-five, for a national championship in a place where all ten are welcome, no matter who they might be.

It's the only reasonable solution to a highly unreasonable situation.