At a gathering last week with a bunch of political, business, gay rights and sport A-listers, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared in no uncertain terms that Sunday's NBA All-Star game at the Smoothie King Center is about way more than basketball.
Given the unusual path the league took to get here, how could it not be?
Landrieu joined NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Pelicans and Saints President Dennis Lauscha and others at a Warehouse District penthouse Wednesday to not only celebrate the win for New Orleans, but also to underline the message the league sent when it pulled the event out of Charlotte in protest of a notorious anti-tolerance law passed by North Carolina's legislature and signed by its then-governor. House Bill 2, which featured but was not limited to a mandate that transgender people use public restrooms corresponding to their gender of birth, also undercut more general local anti-discrimination efforts, including in Charlotte itself.
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"It's not just another game…We are not just going to put on a great show," Landrieu said. "We're going to send a message to the rest of the world that unless we go forward together, we're not going forward."
That's a perfectly popular sentiment in liberal, gay-friendly New Orleans, but it also arrives in the middle of a big fight at the state level.
On one side is Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who has embraced acceptance and inclusion, specifically by issuing an executive order forbidding workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation by state contractors. Edwards was busy with the special legislative session and sent his regrets to party organizers, but Silver said the governor told him during their initial phone conversation that "we want to make absolutely clear that the we will embrace the LGBT community throughout these festivities."
On the other is Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who has challenged Edwards' order in court as beyond his authority, and who would have been a skunk at this particular party. Landry, who claims to be acting solely on the issue's legal merits but who has clearly picked a fight meant to resonate with his supporters, won the first round in court, but the governor is appealing.
So a big part of the weekend's message is that mainstream sentiment has shifted, and continues to shift, in Edwards' direction and away from Landry's.
Corporate America is already there. The NBA is obviously confident that its vast fan base is on board. So is one of its biggest sponsors, athletic apparel giant Nike, which has blazoned the word "equality" in giant letters on Benson Tower.
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So, apparently, are Pelicans and Saints owners Tom and Gayle Benson. Indeed, Lauscha placed the All-Star weekend's focus on inclusion in the long continuum that started when New Orleans' quest for a big league team helped spur desegregation. Being involved in these issues, he said, "has been blessing for our organization."
He wasn't the only speaker at Wednesday's party to zero in on how the event fit in with the particular politics of the region. Silver said Edwards told him he didn't know "what's gotten into North Carolina," but said he was "really proud that you're leaving one southern state for another southern state."
And Steve Perry, who heads the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, emphasized the importance of pushing the issue despite the state's deep-rooted conservatism.
Perry has been a vocal opponent of discriminatory laws, not just on moral grounds but because they risk driving business away, North Carolina style, and said in an interview that he's been disappointed in recent years that business organizations in other parts of the state haven't chimed in. It's not that they disagree, he said, but that they're happy to let the New Orleans folks do the talking.
That's often what's happened in the Legislature too. Landry claims he's acting on lawmakers' will because they never approved anti-discrimination measures such as Edwards' order, but nor have they banned them. When laws have been proposed, legislative leaders have generally quietly killed them without forcing members to take a vote. Perry said the "old monolithic discomfort" is starting to melt away, but only slowly.
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Perhaps this weekend's overt show of support will accelerate matters, in a safety-in-numbers sense. Big sports organizations generally don't go out on a limb if they think their fans won't follow.
In fact, Louisiana's lagging politicians could probably learn a thing or two from their example.