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Oral Roberts basketball’s run covers up the university’s painful history of homophobia

While Oral Roberts has become this year’s March Madness underdogs, the school’s treatment of LGBTQ students should make the university pariahs, not heroes.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oral Roberts at Florida
Oral Roberts celebrates their upset victory over Florida. This is not the inspirational story you think it is.
IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: The Arkansas Razorbacks advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time in 26 years with a 72-70 win over Oral Roberts in the South Region semifinals Saturday night.

During March Madness, there’s nothing the NCAA and college basketball fans love more than an inspiring Cinderella story. On that subject, last weekend, Oral Roberts University basketball made national news when they followed a stunning upset of Ohio State by knocking off Florida in the second round.

In so doing, the Golden Eagles became just the second 15-seed in men’s tournament history to reach the Sweet 16 and it appears they fit the Cinderella bill.

Except in this instance, Oral Roberts is what would happen if Cinderella were played by Anita Bryant. And the story would consist entirely of Cinderella screaming that you’re going to hell for the jokes you’re already making about her school’s name.

Usually, the Cinderella narrative serves to depict underdog schools in the best possible light, casting them as a band of plucky young upstarts taking down the titans of the Big 10 and ACC. Fans without a rooting interest love cheering a smaller school and the NCAA’s marketing arm encourages them to adopt one of the lower seeds as their team.

In the case of Oral Roberts, all of that narrative-building only serves to obscure the university’s status as one of the most anti-LGBTQ campuses in the country. And the basketball team’s sudden rise to prominence gives the school a national platform with which to market itself without answering for its extensive history of homophobia. So in other words, if you’re considering rooting for Oral Roberts, it’s important to know exactly what you’re cheering for.

Oral Roberts
It turns out that a university named for this guy is not the most open-minded place...
Photo by Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

LGBTQ student advocacy group Campus Pride has named Oral Roberts on its “Worst List” of “The Absolute Worst Campuses for LGBTQ Youth.” The website explained that it included Oral Roberts because “it holds an exemption to Title IX in order to discriminate against its students on the basis of sexual orientation [or] gender identity... while still receiving federal funds.”

I don’t know about you, but generally, I prefer it when my underdogs don’t seek federal exemptions in order to persecute marginalized communities. For example, “Miracle” would’ve hit a lot differently if Kurt Russell’s pregame speech ended with “I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have! But I could listen to their marriage equality views all day...”

Indeed, Oral Roberts frequently wields its Title IX exemption against LGBTQ students as enthusiastically as you’d expect from a university founded by a televangelist. And nothing sums up the school’s attitude toward the LGBTQ population better than the fact that homosexuality is listed on its website under “Sexual Misconduct Policy.” In other words, Oral Roberts views being gay the same way hockey views cross checking.

The school’s history is littered with homophobia ranging from having The Advocate’s Equality Riders arrested on campus and sent to jail in 2006 to including Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill advocate Martin Ssempa on its Board of Reference until 2010. These moments probably won’t be mentioned during the telecast when ORU takes on Arkansas on Saturday night. But they’re important to know.

As with similar evangelical Christian colleges and universities, Oral Roberts requires all students to sign and adhere to an honor code that prohibits “unscriptural sexual acts, which shall include any homosexual activity...”

That includes the athletes who will play this weekend. And while we cannot know how these players feel about the honor code, we do know that unless they pledge to adhere to it, they would not be able to play for ORU. Nobody should hold them responsible for what the administration requires, but it should not be hidden from view, either.

Tulsa Oklahoma Praying Hands at Oral Roberts University pray, praying
Thanks to that honor code, this exactly the kind of public art you get.
Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Even prior to its Title IX exemption, Oral Roberts had been using that honor code against LGBTQ students, sometimes with life-altering consequences. For example, in August 2015, ORU student Sabrina Bradford was one semester away from graduating when university administrators learned that she had married a woman the previous January.

In just a couple of days, Oral Roberts informed Bradford that she would not be allowed to enroll for her final semester or finish her degree. As a result of her being unable to graduate, Bradford lost a job offer with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. Then her marriage dissolved, and there was talk of a plan to divorce.

We’re not sure what happened next, but that’s heartbreaking. And it’s not a relic of a past era. This all transpired less than six years ago.

Even more recently, gay student Chance Bardsley enrolled at Oral Roberts on the reasoning that he needed someplace to live after his family evicted him when he came out at 18 years old. So how did ORU administrators respond when they learned they had an out gay student on campus?

Conversion therapy.

As Bardsley recalled to The Arkansas Traveler’s Chase Reavis, “They saw homosexuality as a sickness or disease, like I was broken. In their minds, they thought they could heal me. They thought we could pray this away.” Bardsley eventually left Oral Roberts as he grew to accept himself and realized, “If I keep going through this therapy, if I keep trying to change who I am, I’m going to kill myself.”

It’s a profoundly ugly history and it’s all lurking underneath the surface of this year’s March Madness. While the NCAA and its media representatives will likely try to turn ORU into an inspirational story, that puffery will only serve to obscure the human rights nightmares that have repeatedly taken place under its watch. The narrative of Oral Roberts as a feel-good story belongs in the same place as its honor code: the dustbin of history.

Instead, if Oral Roberts wants to pull off a real upset, they can start letting LGBTQ students live their lives freely.

If you are considering suicide, LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. Adults can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities. Trans or gender-nonconforming people can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.