The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and the subsequent laws that have stripped women of their bodily autonomy across more than a third of the country, run counter to the values of USA Gymnastics, its president said in August.
The federation prizes empowerment, choice and agency, Li Li Leung said. When deciding where to hold its future events, USA Gymnastics would “no question” take into account whether a state shared those values.
“For sure we want to be able to align with cities and locations that are also aligned with our value system, amongst many other considerations, as well,” Leung said ahead of the national championships. “Future-wise, going forward, that is a consideration.”
Yet late last year, when USA Gymnastics announced its premier events for 2023, the first two went to Tulsa and Louisville, cities located in states where abortion is “completely banned with very limited exceptions,” according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights and policy organization.
“As I said in August, this a complicated, highly nuanced and divisive topic,” Leung said in a statement this week to USA TODAY Sports. “Understanding that the gymnastics community itself has a wide range of beliefs and opinions on the matter, alignment with our organizational values is absolutely one of our considerations when awarding events to cities.
“(But) for any sports organization, the main consideration is whether a city has a venue that can accommodate our logistical needs and is available on our given dates,” she added.
USA Gymnastics is hardly alone. Ahead of what would have been the 50th anniversary Sunday of the Roe v Wade decision guaranteeing American women the right to abortion, USA TODAY Sports found that a state having laws hostile to women’s rights is not a barrier to it hosting sporting events.
This year alone, there will be more than two dozen NCAA championship, professional or Olympic-level sporting events in states with laws on reproductive rights that Guttmacher classifies as restrictive or worse. That includes both basketball Final Fours, which will be held in Dallas (women’s) and Houston (men’s), and U.S. Soccer’s SheBelieves Cup, which will take place next month in Orlando, Nashville and Frisco, Texas.
Already, USA Swimming (Indiana) and USA Diving (Tennessee) have announced their 2024 Olympic trials will be in states with restrictive laws. So, too, the marathon trials (Florida). Not until 2030 will the women’s Final Four be in a state that respects women’s reproductive rights.
Many of these events were announced after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturned Roe in June.
“I believe the NCAA has an obligation to consider access to reproductive health care when choosing championship cities,” said Ella Harris, a runner at Division II Colorado State-Pueblo who works with Voice In Sport, an advocacy group for young women athletes.
“In their Pregnancy and Parenting handbook, they state they do support a women’s right to choice. But we’re not seeing this in practice. We’re not seeing them condemning states that are revoking a women’s right to choice,” Harris said. “We shouldn’t, as athletes, be in a position where we have to take a stand against a state’s government just so that we feel we’re in a safe environment for competition. That is by no means fair.”
Host cities rake in economic benefits
Reproductive rights has been a polarizing issue since the Roe decision in 1973, and a September poll by The New York Times and Siena College showed 30% of Americans supported the Dobbs decision. But according to Guttmacher researchers, 1 in 4 women will have abortions by the time they’re 45.
When the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the constitution protected the right to abortion, millions of women were able to prioritize their careers and gain financial independence — including athletes and coaches. Women being allowed to decide if, and when, they wanted to have a family allowed them to focus full-time on their sport, particularly during their peak athletic years.
Billie Jean King, the 12-time Grand Slam champion who chose to have an abortion in 1971, when she was 27 and the No. 1-ranked player in the world, has said that “nothing did more to advance women’s economic status than the right to abortion that came with Roe.”
But even as states strip rights from women, they are continuing to benefit from women economically.
Awarding major events to cities creates a huge financial boon for those communities. According to Carl Bozman, a marketing professor at Gonzaga University, if 25,000 fans attend a major event and spend an average of $250 a day — a conservative estimate — for four days, a city would bring in roughly $40 million (the calculation includes factoring in a conservative economic multiplier from the federal reserve). Using those same metrics, if 100,000 people attend an event, cities rake in close to $160 million.
For perspective, total attendance at the 2021 Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City was 115,514. The last time the women’s Final Four was in Dallas, in 2017, a total of 38,620 fans attended the semifinals and final. The last SheBelieves Cup held ahead of a 2019 World Cup drew almost 78,000 across six games in Tampa, Nashville and Chester, Pennsylvania.
“I cringe at the thought of having to fly to Austin,” Molly Dreher, a runner at Saint Mary’s (California), said, referring to this year’s NCAA Division I outdoor track and field championships, which will be held in June in Austin, Texas.
“I know I’m not making money (at the national championships) and my fellow athletes aren’t making money — but the people putting it on are.”
The NCAA has been silent on the matter. It declined to comment on Indiana’s proposed total abortion ban (NCAA headquarters are based in Indianapolis). It also refused to comment for this story.
Banning events in red states not a solution
But it isn’t so easy as saying organizations with women athletes should avoid holding events in states that have limited reproductive rights.
The laws of a state reflect politicians, not necessarily the views of the people that live there, said Heather Shumaker, director of State Abortion Access for the National Women’s Law Center. Women continue to need access to reproductive health care regardless of a state’s laws, and national championships and other events can, if used as such, offer a platform to remind the public of that.
“I’ve heard time and time again from reproductive rights workers that they don’t want folks to pull out from their states. They don’t want to be in isolation,” Shumaker said.
“Using any opportunity to be vocal about the importance of abortion access” helps, Shumaker said. “Use your platform, whether that’s social media, wearing a wristband or an armband — whatever tool is in your toolbox, use that to uplift attention on abortion access.”
Shumaker pointed to the Howard men’s basketball team, which selected Black maternal health and the impact of Roe’s reversal on Black women as its social justice project for this season. On Sunday, a day before their game against Morehouse in the MLK Classic, the team put together pregnancy care kits with a local organization that provides support services to expectant Black women.
At a meet earlier this month, the Sacramento State women’s gymnastics team wore leotards honoring late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with the words “I DISSENT” on the back.
Pulling events from states that limit reproductive rights could also mean a missed opportunity to show young girls the power of sport. Multiple studies have shown girls and young women who participate in sports are more likely to do better in school, avoid drugs and alcohol, and are less likely to get pregnant.
It also potentially eliminates the opportunity to educate those young people about their rights — and those they’ve lost.
U.S. Soccer said in a statement it is “aware of the serious issues in numerous states regarding abortion laws and female reproductive health.” While there are many factors that go into choosing venues, the federation said, “we will also continue to provide our players with the platform to speak on issues that are important to them and can have a positive impact in those locations.”
“The most powerful thing we can always do is show up and not only express our supreme skill and talent and joy on the field, but to be able to have that platform,” Megan Rapinoe said on the day the Dobbs decision was announced.
Moving events a logistical nightmare
There is also the logistical reality. If organizations only held events in states that expressly support reproductive or LGBTQ rights, that would leave the Northeast, the West Coast and a handful of states in between. And not all of those states have the facilities necessary to host a major event.
For example, the USA Gymnastics Championships, which are the national championships for acrobatics, rhythmic gymnastics, and trampoline and tumbling, requires an arena with a minimum of 40-foot clear height, as well as a warmup area with a 30-foot clear height. The venue for Olympic diving trials must have a 10-meter platform. The weather in Illinois is not conducive to hosting an international soccer tournament in February.
In addition to competition requirements, there needs to be adequate hotel space, reliable transportation and food options.
“I’ve got to choose a venue that is supportive of our potential Olympic athletes,” said Lee Michaud, the president of USA Diving. “That’s really what it’s about, nothing more.”
Some events also have long, established ties to a city. The Women’s College World Series, for example, has been in Oklahoma City, home of the National Softball Hall of Fame, every year but one since 1990.
Moving the tournament has the potential to alienate people — especially those who might agree with the Dobbs decision. Instead, Reyan Tuck, a softball player at New Mexico, said she’d like to see the NCAA create something like the NBA’s Social Justice Coalition, which works with players on issues such as voting rights and policing.
“(Reproductive rights) is very important to me, but I also think we can do other things, such as wearing T-shirts with a statement on it, or getting patches,” Tuck said. “But moving an entire event for every sport, I don’t know if that’s realistic.”
NBA took a stand against discrimination
It has been done before, however.
After North Carolina passed a “bathroom bill” in March 2016 that banned transgender people from using the public restroom aligned with their gender identity, the NBA moved its 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte to New Orleans, and the NCAA and ACC pulled their basketball tournaments from the state.
One year later, in March 2017, North Carolina rescinded the law. A few months later, the NBA announced the state would host the 2019 All-Star game.
The difference then, said Hudson Taylor of Athlete Ally, which advocates for LGBTQ athletes, is that North Carolina was an outlier with its anti-LGBTQ legislation. But now, with more than 20 states rolling back reproductive freedom, discrimination bills have become much more common.
“What I wish would happen and what I feel like we have to work with are two different things,” Taylor said. “What I wish is that there would be a really clear line that sports governing bodies drew that said, ‘No we’re not going to send events to these places where they’re harming people we care about.’”
Taylor pointed out that for more than a decade, the NCAA refused to hold events in South Carolina because the confederate flag flew at the statehouse. Las Vegas was considered a no-go because sports betting is legalized in Nevada (the 2023 NCAA Men’s West Regional is slated for Sin City this March). Why do those things matter, he said, but laws stripping women and the LGBTQ community of rights don’t?
And asking athletes to boycott events isn’t realistic, said Layshia Clarendon, a WNBA veteran who led Cal to the Final Four in 2013.
“People say, ‘This is your chance to take a stand,’ but from the perspective of women and the BIPOC and queer and trans communities, why do we have to constantly be the ones protesting?” Clarendon said. “We deserve the joy and payoff of getting to play in those events.
“It’s such a scapegoat to put it on the athletes. Where are the stakeholders? We need to put more of that onus back on them for not protecting us as athletes.”