Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, is on the cusp of becoming America’s newest gay icon.
Goodell, who has an openly gay brother, and the NFL have emerged as staunch allies in gay rights advocates’ efforts to defeat HB 757, the controversial religious freedom bill that passed the Georgia legislature late last week.
HB 757 began the year as “the Pastor Protection Act,” a measure giving clergy the right to refuse to perform same-sex weddings. But after two trips through the Georgia state House and Senate, the bill now gives faith-based organizations the right to hire and fire people who violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs,” as well as the right to refuse to rent facilities for events they find “objectionable.”
The bill would also make it illegal to force an individual to attend a gay wedding.
With every expansion of the bill, Georgia legislators were warned by local business leaders not to do to Georgia what Indiana legislators did in 2015, when their own Religious Freedom Restoration Act led to an immediate nationwide backlash, including more than 400 million #BoycottIndiana tweets in the week the bill passed.
A year later, local tourism officials estimate the city lost at least 12 conventions and $60 million in direct business as a result.
Brandon Lorenz, communications director with the Human Rights Campaign, called Georgia’s HB 757 “an Indiana-style bill that blatantly promotes discrimination.”
“The Georgia legislature took a bad bill and made it worse.” Lorenz said. “This is a bill that has all kinds of avenues for harm and discrimination for Georgians.”
Along with LGBT advocates, major players in Georgia’s business community have ripped the legislation.
Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and Delta Airlines oppose it. Michael Dell, Richard Branson, and Jack Dorsey have all spoken out against it. SalesForce CEO Mark Benioff, who has 16,000 employees in Georgia, has warned he’ll pull as much of his business as possible out of the state, tweeting last week:
“Once again Georgia is trying to pass laws that make it legal to discriminate. When will this insanity end?”
But in a state where football is practiced like a religion, it has been the loud and unanimous objections of the sports community that has raised the greatest doubts about whether Gov. Nathan Deal will sign the bill.
In addition to the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Braves, who called the bill “detrimental to our community and bad for Georgia,” Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank warned the bill would have a “long-lasting negative impact on our state and the people of Georgia.”
“One of my bedrock values is ‘Include Everyone’ and it’s a principle we embrace and strive to live each and every day with my family and our associates, a vast majority of which live and work in Georgia,” he said.
Blank has taken the lead in the city’s efforts to bring the Super Bowl to the city, including with a new $1.7 billion Mercedes-Benz stadium already under construction in downtown Atlanta. But on Friday, Goodell and the NFL dropped a bomb on Atlanta’s hopes of hosting the 2019 or 2020 Super Bowls when it said the RFRA bill would endanger the city’s bids if Deal signs it into law.
“NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said. “Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”
With the Super Bowls in doubt, questions have also been raised about the future of the 2018 National College Football Championships and the 2020 Final Four basketball tournament, both scheduled to be hosted in Atlanta.
On Monday the NCAA warned it is watching legislation that could affect any of its future host cities.
“Our commitment to the fair treatment of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, has not changed and is at the core of our NCAA values,” said a statement provided to The Daily Beast.
Mark Fisher, the vice president of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, has spoken at length with leaders in Georgia to share the lessons Indiana’s business community learned in its own RFRA fight.
The NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, strongly opposed the Indiana legislation.
“We may not know the full impact of what happened last year for another five years, based on how conventions are booked and sporting events are booked,” Fisher said. “On the positive side, because we dealt with it, our business community has now partnered with LGBT groups to proactively push statewide protections this year.”
All eyes are now on Gov. Deal, a Southern Baptist who has spent the bulk of his time as governor focusing on improving Georgia’s economy, including by bringing businesses like Porsche North America, industries like film production, and events like the Super Bowl, to Georgia.
Critics say Georgia’s RFRA bill could endanger them all.
“I think he’s probably staying up at night between the Super Bowl and the Hollywood people,” said a longtime Georgia lobbyist with close ties to Deal. “He’s staked a lot of his legacy on economic development. I think that’s going to weigh on him very heavily if these folks say they’re going to pull up stakes.”