God, Mammon, Bathrooms, and Basketball

In the Tuesday-morning quiet of a Chapel Hill that will be riding high from its NCAA championship win last night for the foreseeable future, the news arrives that the NCAA has lifted its ban on hosting games in North Carolina.

You’ve heard the story: HB 2, the North Carolina law requiring transgender people to use the public restrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate, has caused numerous companies and organizations to take their business out of the state, to the tune of nearly five billion dollars lost. The NCAA had threatened to make their boycott of the state official until 2020 if the bill was not repealed by Thursday. Despite many headlines to the contrary, there is little way in which the law passed last Thursday, HB 142, is a “repeal” of HB 2. The law itself NCGA_H142-SMTC-18(CSTC-14)-v-5 doesn’t even claim to be that. It does claim to be a “reset” of S.L. 2016-3 and S.L. 2016-99, which were earlier modifications of HB2 that dealt only and cryptically with the ability of cities to regulate “public accommodations.”

A member of the North Carolina General Assembly who opposed the bill, incredibly on the grounds that it was too much of a compromise, apparently muttered something about the shamefulness of basketball being “more important than religion.” By which he meant, it was a shame that the state’s passion for basketball was getting the better of lawmakers’ “religious” obligation to “protect women and children” in public bathrooms, the kind of spurious “moral” argument that have been made by HB2 supporters all along.

It’s important to note, however, that HB2, or, as Reverend William Barber of the NC NAACP’s “Moral Mondays” movement dubbed it, “Hate Bill 2,” is not just a “bathroom bill” (not that that wouldn’t be enough). It also did three other crucial things: it barred localities from passing any additional anti-discrimination legislation, banned raises to the minimum wage, and eliminated employees’ abilities to sue employers for discrimination in state court. The ban on anti-discrimination legislation and minimum-wage hikes are still in effect. The last provision was reversed by Governor Pat McCrory, but the reversal did place new limits on the amount of time allowed for suits to be filed.

In the deserved furor over the money lost to the state via the boycotts, it is rarely acknowledged that these more silent, cynical provisions of HB 2 were clearly meant to draw businesses to the state—businesses that wanted to pay their workers less, and protect themselves against anti-discrimination suits. North Carolina state government was an early adopter of the strategy now familiar in the Bannon administration of distracting progressives from darker, long-term strategies with very real offenses to basic civil rights. Now that the NCAA has agreed to lift their ban on scheduling games in the states based on this “compromise,” that kind of cynicism will win the day. The yearlong fight for transgender rights that HB 2 spurred has been rendered a sideshow in North Carolina.

To that member of the Assembly, I would say: you’re missing the big picture: basketball is religion in North Carolina. People told me when I moved to Chapel Hill two years ago to study religion at UNC that I should be ready to answer the question “What church do you go to?,” but nobody warned me that I should be prepared to answer “What team are you?” (In Chapel Hill, this is meant to root out Duke fans who have surreptitiously left Durham for the better housing prices: You’re either with us or against us.)

Sitting outside on the UNC quad last week on a beautiful Carolina spring day, I overheard an undergrad complaining on the phone to her mother that she didn’t have the opportunity to go to the game locally, “because North Carolina hates transgender people.” These millennial basketball fans do not hate anybody; they just want to watch the game. Okay, so there are some photos of the 55,000 pale-blue-clad youth that mobbed Franklin Street last night after the Tar Heel victory that make Chapel Hill look like a medieval hellscape. But those are just the illegal bonfires.

It is not basketball per se that the Assemblyman should be worried about as an immoral influence on the state. It’s the anti-worker measures written into HB 2 and still in effect. It’s the fact that North Carolina’s new Democratic governor Roy Cooper, elected because of exactly that economic fear, is still willing to bow to it, rather than standing up for workers and the LGBTQ community. That is, North Carolina’s morality is threatened, but by a more familiar enemy of God: Mammon.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth