Top Charlotte business leaders spent months behind the scenes scrambling to keep the 2017 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, traveling to Raleigh and drafting letters to the league’s commissioner. But the efforts ultimately failed after lawmakers refused to make major changes to House Bill 2.
Interviews this week shed new light on the business leaders’ activities, which accelerated in late June as the legislative session raced to an end. The Charlotte Hornets president was talking daily with the NBA, and he and the Chamber chairman were shuttling back and forth to the capital.
A group of executives from some of Charlotte’s biggest companies also wrote a letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on June 24, voicing support for convening a “group to evaluate how our state can continue making progress against discrimination in any form.”
That plan never materialized – and that letter, like others from Charlotte business leaders, was never sent to the NBA. That’s because the league was making clear it wanted broader changes to the controversial law.
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Business leaders in Charlotte have long been known for their ability to get ambitious things done in the civic sphere. But winning major changes to HB2 proved insurmountable. And last week, the NBA said it was moving the 2017 event from Charlotte, adding that the game could return in 2019 if legislators change the law.
HB2, which Gov. Pat McCrory signed March 23, was a legislative response to a Charlotte ordinance that would have extended anti-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Its most controversial provision would have allowed transgender people in government buildings to use the bathroom or locker room of the gender with which they identify.
Immediately, the measure led to celebrity boycotts, and companies canceling expansion plans. But few of those reactions caused business leaders more concern than the threat to move the 2017 All-Star weekend and its projected $100 million boost to Charlotte’s economy.
Business leaders kicked off their efforts soon after the law was passed.
“It was a complete galvanized community effort to do everything we could to try and save the All-Star Game in ’17 in Charlotte and to try ... to encourage Raleigh to make some meaningful changes to a bill that we all felt needed to be changed,” Charlotte Hornets President Fred Whitfield said Thursday.
Whitfield first met with the CEO group, called the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council, in April to discuss HB2. The group, with members including Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan, Duke Energy’s Lynn Good and Wells Fargo’s David Carroll, was formed a year ago to address major public issues but keeps its activities closely guarded.
In the following months, Whitfield had multiple conversations with members of the group, he said. He also met with a sports group, composed of executives such as Carolina Panthers President Danny Morrison, three times, then spoke with them at least three days a week. Whitfield says he also was on the phone with the NBA nearly every day.
“The first thing we discussed is how can we as a group try to be active in helping influence change to HB2 ... that would assure that our city and our community certainly wouldn’t be operated in a discriminatory manner,” Whitfield told the Observer.
Real estate developer Ned Curran, chairman of the Charlotte Chamber and a member of the CEO group, said he and Whitfield also made numerous trips to Raleigh to talk to lawmakers and the governor. Keeping the All-Star Game was a “rallying point,” Curran said, but their mission was a broader effort to alter HB2.
As the legislative session neared an end in late June, a draft proposal circulated that would use federal anti-discrimination standards in determining discrimination, not the standards in HB2. That would have extended protections to sexual orientation.
But the draft would not change a key part of HB2 – the prohibition on transgender persons using the bathroom or locker room of their gender identity in government facilities.
Around this same time, Whitfield was gathering letters from the executives’ group, the Chamber, major Charlotte sports leaders, Mayor Jennifer Roberts and former mayors Richard Vinroot and Harvey Gantt.
“Our community’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is unambiguous and unwavering,” said the CEO council letter, signed by about two dozen executives. “We will support policies and practices that protect the rights of all people, including members of the LGBT community, during the All-Star Game and at all other times in the life of our great city.”
In her letter to Silver, Roberts said she was writing “to respectfully request that the NBA recognize Charlotte for its commitment to equality by following through on holding its All-Star Game here in 2017.” The Chamber also asked the NBA to keep the game in Charlotte and said it favored a “group to formally evaluate how to prevent discrimination in any form in North Carolina.”
Ultimately the legislature restored the right of workers to sue for employment discrimination using a state law, but adjourned the session on July 1 without repealing provisions that limited non-discrimination protection for LGBT people and directed which restroom transgender people can use.
McCrory told the Observer on Thursday that during the whole process, he had some “very constructive conversations” over the phone with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. There was also “some intellectual disagreement,” McCrory said.
The idea of forming a group to study discrimination was one of the issues discussed with lawmakers, Curran said.
“I think the people we dealt with – the governor, legislative leaders – all acted in very good faith,” Curran said. “But once you get to the point that you have to open it to the full membership of the General Assembly you’ve got to win the votes.”
In the end, Charlotte business leaders never sent the letters to the NBA, which had already made clear that it was not satisfied with the legislature’s actions.
In mid-July, team owners convened in Las Vegas for their annual owners meeting. Some owners supported keeping the game in Charlotte, Whitfield said, though he wouldn’t say who they were. Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts, who is openly gay, suggested that he would be uncomfortable coming to Charlotte for the game, according to sources who didn’t want to be named discussing internal deliberations.
A little more than a week later, the NBA announced it was moving the game from Charlotte.
The 15 sponsors who signed onto the 2017 All-Star Game have already said they’re interested in being part of the 2019 game, said Pete Guelli, the Hornets’ executive vice president and chief marketing officer. The sponsors had initially signed up in a week’s time to plug a $1.5 million shortfall needed to bring the game to Charlotte.
“If that doesn’t indicate the support for the game in the business community, I don’t know what does,” Guelli said.