USA Today asks: Do private schools with doctrines have a right to the NCAA brand?

If you didn't see this big-time sports story coming then you haven't been paying attention.

During a radio talk show a few months ago, I speculated that if Baylor (one of my two alma maters) had qualified for the final four in football, it was highly likely that gay-rights groups would petition the NCAA powers that be to have the Bears (and other private schools with doctrinally based lifestyle covenants) kicked out of the association.

Not yet. But the arguments are beginning, as evidenced in the new USA Today feature that ran under the headline, "When religion and the LGBT collegiate athlete collide."

Now, if you believe in old-school journalism ethics -- think "American Model" of the press -- then the goal of this story is to accurately represent the beliefs of representatives on both sides of this debate. Want to guess how that turns out?

Meanwhile, it's crucial to remember that the NCAA is not a government agency and, as a private body, is not limited by the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause. To further complicate matters, the NCAA includes both private and state schools. Thus, while there may be legal issues involved (television and conference contracts, for example) in this NCAA debate, this really shouldn't be called a religious-liberty debate. The NCAA rules.

This feature starts, of course, with a gay athlete -- swimmer Conner Griffin -- who attends Fordham University, a Catholic school that is clearly enlightened since it has chosen the spirit of the age over attempts to live out (some would say "enforce") Catholic doctrines on marriage and sex.

So right up top there is this exchange:

"People want to tell me I’m brave,” Griffin tells USA TODAY Sports. “Coming out as gay isn’t brave, or shouldn’t be. I was born this way. I didn’t choose it. People choose to enlist in the Army. That’s brave. Coming out should just be normal and not a big deal.”
Except that it is a big deal at many religiously affiliated colleges that see homosexuality as a sin -- and that have codes of conduct banning same-sex relations. Freedom of religion allows such schools to operate under their own precepts and beliefs, but gay rights advocates say that doesn’t mean the NCAA must allow membership to schools that enforce these kinds of codes.
"The association is this fascinating, complex entity that has universities and colleges that cover the political spectrum, many of which have religious affiliations,” NCAA president Mark Emmert says. “The association entrusts its board of governors, a group of mostly university presidents, to establish the core principles and values by which they want to conduct college sports.”

Now, set aside the issue of whether scientists have -- think debates about DNA in identical twins -- proven a genetic cause for the mysteries of homosexuality and, yes, bisexuality.

The question is whether journalists at USA Today actually understand the beliefs of the millions (or maybe billions) of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and others who believe that all sex outside of male-female marriage is a sin.

Thus, does this sentence accurately state their beliefs? Read it again: "Except that it is a big deal at many religiously affiliated colleges that see homosexuality as a sin -- and that have codes of conduct banning same-sex relations."

Do the leaders of these schools believe that homosexual orientation is a sin or would they say that they believe acts of gay sex are sinful (as are all sexual acts, straight or gay, outside of marriage)?

Now, activists on the other side of this argument, including lots of liberal religious believers, would say that this is a distinction without a difference. Sexual orientation equals race and that's that and everyone has a right to have sex, got it? That is a point of view that, clearly stated, MUST be included in this report, and it is.

However, right up front, the editors at USA Today have twisted the beliefs of folks on one side of the debate at the heart of this piece. That is not a good place to start. USA Today needs to run a correction.

As you would expect, the trans revolution also plays a major role in this story. Thus:

The Education Department said in 2014 that transgender students are protected by Title IX. Since, dozens of religious schools -- mostly smaller and lesser known, and none of the schools mentioned in this story -- have asked for waivers that allow them to deny admittance to transgender students. And that has turned into a flashpoint for the NCAA.
Recently more than 80 LGBT organizations wrote a letter to the NCAA urging it to divest membership of religiously affiliated schools that ask for such waivers. “These requests,” the letter said, “are directly in conflict with the NCAA’s longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion for all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Last month, the NCAA wrote a return letter noting that it plays no role in making waiver decisions or in telling schools whom they should admit. “Our diverse membership comprising over 1,100 schools all serve to educate students while also preserving institutional values,” the letter says, adding it is up to students “to evaluate multiple schools to find one that best meets their needs.”
That sounds a lot like telling transgender students just to choose other schools. Or, in the case of sexual orientation: If you’re gay, stay away.

Actually, doctrinally defined private schools -- on the left and the right -- are voluntary associations. Repeat the word "voluntary." Their leaders would be the first to say that parents and young people should take these doctrines into consideration when making decisions about which schools to attend and, here is the key part, which lifestyle and doctrinal covenants to VOLUNTARILY SIGN.

The leaders of these schools would say that gay athletes who choose to attend their schools should choose to honor the covenants -- think of them as vows -- that they made when signing on the bottom line.

If you read the whole piece, the USA Today team does allow leaders at religious schools to state what they believe about sexual ethics -- kind of, sort of. This clashes with the facts stated at the top of the report. Thus, there is a major tension in the story between what these believers are saying and what, in its summary of the facts, USA Today is saying that they are really saying.

Close to the end, the piece contrasts a small conservative school with one of the biggest names in all of sports -- Notre Dame. Read this long passage carefully:

Athletes can be dismissed from their teams for same-sex relationships at LeTourneau, according to its student-athlete handbook. Janet Ragland, director of university relations, calls the school “a Christ-centered community that does not discriminate. … All students and student-athletes voluntarily agree to abide by all campus behavioral standards … consistent with our Biblically based theological foundation.”
Gay and lesbian athletes are welcome at Notre Dame, which last year launched an inclusion campaign wrapped in the wider message of Catholicism. “We felt it was important to have the right message on this issue,” says Dennis Brown, vice president for university communications.
Much of the momentum for this came thanks to former Notre Dame tennis player Matt Dooley, who came out to teammates in 2013 and publicly in 2014. He is part of a campaign video that features athletics director Jack Swarbrick and athletes from every men’s and women’s team.
The NCAA says several religious schools, which it declined to name, have reached out in the last year to ask for guidance on their policies and codes of conduct. Wilson, the director of inclusion, says the NCAA offers examples of schools — religious and not, including Notre Dame — with supportive policies and safe environments for LGBT athletes.
“The NCAA puts out manuals and has inclusion meetings,” says Zeigler, the LGBT activist. “Yet none of these approaches stop an NCAA program from having anti-gay athletics policies.” He says it is time for the NCAA to forbid member schools from discriminating against LGBT athletes, giving such schools a choice of changing their policies or having their membership revoked.

Once again, what key elements of this debate vanished in that exchange?

Might the story clarify, perhaps for the Vatican, the precise factual details of Notre Dame's policy on sexual acts outside of marriage by its athletes, gay and straight? That's a key fact to omit from the story.

Note, again, that LGBT activist Zeigler (as is his right) is allowed to state that the right to sexual expression trumps the freedom of association in doctrinally defined schools. That is his stance and, again, it's crucial to the story. Also, the NCAA, as a private association, is free to embrace his point of view. The NCAA may do that, once ESPN ramps up its support for this campaign.

But the issue here is whether this USA Today has allowed readers to read an accurate -- forget balanced for a moment -- debate between experts on both sides of this fight.

What say ye?

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