Utah governor says NBA wants to get out of ‘culture war issues,’ but advocacy for transgender rights continues

Cox says he never feared this weekend’s All-Star Game would be moved from Salt Lake City over the state’s anti-transgender legislation.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jason Collins, a community ambassador for NBA Cares, in a new STEM room at Lincoln Elementary School as part of NBA All-Star Weekend, in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

When Utah lawmakers banned transgender girls from participating in school sports that matched their gender identity, some wondered if the NBA might take action.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox was apparently not one of them.

While the basketball league pulled its All-Star Game out of Charlotte in 2017 in response to anti-transgender legislation, Cox said he never thought it would happen to Utah. Why? He said the NBA is now trying to stay away from certain hot-button political issues.

“No. That’s really changed. We’ve had those discussions with the NBA for quite a while,” Cox said Thursday when asked if he thought this weekend’s All-Star Game in Salt Lake City was ever in question. “They’re trying to get a little more out of those culture war pieces as well, so we were not fearful of that at all.”

But as the NBA comes to town for its midseason showcase, Jason Collins, who in 2013 became the first active NBA player to come out as gay, said he believes the league will continue taking political stances — and continue fighting for LGBTQ rights.

“This is obviously a sports league, but we keep our values wherever we go,” Collins, now an NBA community ambassador, said Thursday. “We keep our platform regardless of the situation and work with whoever is in the room. It is important that the NBA is in the room whenever these conversations are had so we can use our influence in what ways we have available to us.

“... We continue to speak up and speak out.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jason Collins, a community ambassador for NBA Cares, at Lincoln Elementary School as part of NBA All-Star Weekend, in South Salt Lake on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

When the Utah Legislature voted to override Cox’s veto of a transgender sports ban last March, NBA and Utah Jazz officials spoke out against the law. However, NBA commissioner Adam Silver never threatened to move the All-Star Game.

Silver said at the time the NBA took action with the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte because he believed the NBA had an opportunity to directly affect the outcome of the North Carolina bill, which sought to limit anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In Utah’s case, Silver said, the law “was already established.”

“I think [Jazz owner Ryan Smith] stood up against this bill. We’ve joined him in opposing this bill,” Silver said last March. “But we also want to be realistic, too, in terms of the impact we can have.”

A court later struck down Utah’s transgender sports ban. This year, meanwhile, Utah lawmakers have already passed Senate Bill 16, which bans most gender-affirming health care for transgender minors in Utah. Lawmakers are now considering House Bill 209, which would require all students to provide a birth certificate to be eligible to play sports. If the bill were to pass, some experts believe it would effectively ban transgender girls from playing school sports.

Collins said the NBA opposes such a ban but did say the current situation is different from what happened in North Carolina in 2017.

“There is a distinction between what happened in North Carolina legislation, in regards to the facilities being impacted,” Collins said. “But regardless, this new legislation I believe is wrong. I believe these issues are very sensitive and difficult. But they should be made within the family, in conjunction with the medical doctors.

“... It is interesting we are here in Salt Lake, and Utah, and family is such a huge thing here. I think it should remain with the families that are impacted by what is going on and with their doctors. We can leave politicians and those people who maybe aren’t experts out of it.”

Still, there are some who believe the NBA stating its opposition isn’t enough. Rosa Bandeirinha, communications director at the Utah Pride Center, said the center believes the political impact of the NBA moving the game out of Salt Lake City would have been powerful.

“We talk a lot about cancel culture,” Bandeirinha said. “We don’t think that is a beneficial thing in terms of creating dialogue and visibility. But it is also true that canceling the event would have been a really good way to show support for our trans community. We are appreciative of them coming. However, we have seen the effects of them canceling events before. And the impact of that was bigger than having the event here.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Jazz and NBA announce that Salt Lake City will host the 2023 NBA All-Star Game. Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019. From left, Larry H. Miller Group of Companies owner Gail Miller, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Utah Governor Gary Herbert, and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

Silver, though, has said the NBA won’t shy away from states simply because the league opposes legislation there.

“[We] frankly don’t want to be in a position where we’re chased from state to state around the country,” Silver said last March.

Collins, who lives in Austin, Texas, noted the growing number of states that have adopted similar anti-transgender legislation in recent years.

“Texas is also dealing with legislation like this, as well as Oklahoma,” he said. “You see these laws going through our country in different state legislatures. It is really sad that this is happening and this has become a huge issue.”

Collins and the NBA put on events at both the Utah Pride Center and an Encircle LGBTQ center in Salt Lake on Wednesday night, ahead of this weekend’s All-Star festivities.

“It was open to the community,” Bandeirinha said. “Some community members did ask why didn’t they cancel with everything that is going on. Their response was a little more logistical. It was happening at the same time they were here. We always appreciate that open dialogue.”

Even as the game remains in Salt Lake, Bandeirinha doesn’t take that as a sign the NBA is moving out of the political space. Collins, who noted he doesn’t speak for the league, echoed that statement.

“I know the commissioner and where his heart is,” Collins said, “in regards to our values and to where we stand, our issues and speaking out against this kind of legislation. ... I think wherever we go, we bring our values with us. And we speak out on where we stand. I think that is the key message. We don’t shy away from whatever is going on.”

When asked if he thinks the Jazz and the NBA has done enough in this instance in Utah, Collins said speaking out is a strong step.

“When we have our leaders and our owners of the Utah Jazz ... speaking out on these issues to denounce this legislation, it is important,” he said.