[Updated (8/19/2016, 4:09 p.m.) with additional comments from the college.
In November, the men’s basketball team at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., will face off against Duke University in a nonconference matchup as part of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Tipoff. It’s a rare opportunity for the private institution to play on national television in Durham’s famous Cameron Indoor Stadium, against a star opponent.
But the college’s decision to participate in the game — replacing the University at Albany, which withdrew in response to North Carolina’s controversial law that requires people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex designated on their birth certificates — has caused a stir. The debate also raises questions about how colleges should or should not react to state laws elsewhere that they oppose.
Officials at Albany, a public university, pulled out of the game in July, citing New York State’s ban on nonessential state-sponsored travel to North Carolina. That executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo singled out the North Carolina law known as House Bill 2, which presents problems for transgender people. The statute has been panned almost universally by higher-education leaders and has put the University of North Carolina system in a tough spot.
A few weeks later, Marist accepted an invitation to replace Albany as Duke’s opponent. That decision passed without much notice until Tim Massie, who served as Marist’s director of public affairs for 18 years, saw a tweet this week about the college’s 2016-17 men’s basketball schedule. The first game listed is against Duke, in North Carolina.
Mr. Massie, who is gay, was appalled. On Tuesday, he blasted the decision in a Facebook post that was widely shared.
“How disappointing for me, a gay man, former long-time employee and major donor, to know Marist College doesn’t care about #LGBT rights by agreeing to have its men’s basketball team play against Duke in NC,” wrote Mr. Massie, who until May was an adjunct professor at Marist. “UAlbany showed moral leadership abiding by the state’s ban on travel to the state of hate. Yet, here’s Marist saying, no problem for us. We’re happy to go in UAlbany’s place. We don’t care about discrimination.”
The college stands by its decision, said Greg Cannon, a Marist spokesman. Senior administrators took House Bill 2 into consideration before agreeing to play, he said. But in an interview on Friday, Mr. Massie said he doesn’t think Marist’s leaders would have thought twice about the game if he hadn’t spoken out so forcefully.
“I understand that the governor’s travel ban to North Carolina does not impact private colleges,” Mr. Massie said. But the optics of Marist’s decision — agreeing to play after another New York college bowed out because of a law many see as discriminatory — are problematic, he said.
“I was shocked that the University at Albany was saying, ‘We’re stepping down’ and Marist said, ‘We’ll step in’ with no consideration at all for the concerns of the LGBT community,” he said.
Marist officials released a statement on Wednesday in response to the growing discontent, emphasizing that they oppose House Bill 2 and that Duke isn’t subject to the law as a private institution. “Reasonable people can disagree about whether a college should ever participate in a boycott of a state (or country) that passes laws or engages in behavior that we find abhorrent,” the statement read.
“It is worth noting,” officials continued, “that hundreds, if not thousands, of colleges still plan to send sports teams, musical groups, admissions recruiters, etc., to North Carolina (and other states that have laws which discriminate against the LGBT community).”
Mr. Massie said the statement “sounded like it was written by a petulant child.” In his view, Marist’s reasoning boils down to the following: Many other colleges are playing North Carolina teams, so why shouldn’t we?
“Is that a statement of leadership?” Mr. Massie asked. “The answer is no.”
It’s true that many institutions will continue to send their athletes to North Carolina. That list includes Marist; the college’s football team plays in the same conference as Campbell University and Davidson College.
At this point, no private colleges have boycotted the state, Mr. Cannon said. He also pointed out that Marist sends admissions counselors to North Carolina, works with researchers there, and has an active alumni group. “It would be disingenuous of us to cancel one basketball game in protest of these laws when it’s not practical and, frankly, not appropriate for us to cancel all of those other relationships and other events,” he said.
But Mr. Massie sees a crucial difference. The Duke game is not part of Marist’s regular conference schedule. The basketball team could have played in any other early-season tournament, he said. Yet given the option, officials chose this one.
Since writing the post, Mr. Massie said, he’s received hundreds of supportive emails and social-media messages from Marist students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Joseph Amodeo, a recent alumnus of both Marist and Albany, weighed in with a letter to the college’s president, David Yellen, on Thursday.
“Marist’s decision to demonstrate a complete disregard for the Governor’s order, Albany’s reasoning for withdrawing, and the well-being of Marist’s LGBTQ students, athletes, and alumni is deeply concerning,” wrote Mr. Amodeo, who identified himself as a member of the LGBT community. “Further, the college’s participation in this match threatens to convey a message that Marist is willing to simply ‘accept’ North Carolina’s legalized discrimination solely for the purpose of playing a basketball game.”
Mr. Cannon said the college has done a lot in recent years to improve its support of LGBT students and employees. “People are seeing this as somehow representing a shift in our attitude toward the LGBT community, and that’s not the case at all,” he said.
Mr. Massie’s financial relationship with the college runs deep: He created an endowed scholarship at the college in memory of his father, and he also gave money to pay for a speaker series in honor of his mother-in-law. “My husband and I are questioning, Do we even want our names on the scholarship or the programs anymore?” he said.
He is pretty sure Marist will ultimately play in the game. But he hopes the players will wear a rainbow patch on their jerseys to make clear their support for the LGBT community.
Indeed, Marist plans to further voice its opposition to House Bill 2 when the basketball team comes to North Carolina in the fall, Mr. Cannon said. “We can make a statement through our participation in this game just as much or more so as we could by refusing to play.”