Oral Roberts University, a private evangelical university in Tulsa, Oklahoma with just under 4,000 students, made NCAA March Madness history this year by becoming the second number 15 seed ever to make it out of the opening weekend of tournament play. Propelled by star guard Max Abmas who led the country in scoring with 24.5 points a game, the Golden Eagles surmounted number two seed Ohio State and number seven seed Florida State before narrowly losing to third seeded Arkansas 70-72 in the Sweet Sixteen.
While Oral Roberts’ “Cinderella run” offered excitement and anticipation to March Madness viewers, it also illuminated the school’s controversial anti-LGBTQ history. The Oral Roberts University handbook prohibits certain behaviors that conflict with the school’s religious philosophy such as theft, lying and sexual promiscuity “including adultery, homosexual behavior, and premarital sex.” Additionally, the handbook stipulates that students must unite in marriage “between one man and one woman,” and the school allegedly mandates conversion therapy for those who violate that section of the code or identify as LGBTQ.
The University’s namesake Oral Roberts was a Christian evangelist who pioneered televangelism in the mid-twentieth century. Roberts was a controversial figure who amassed a fortune and a large following through charismatic Christian crusades across the country. In 1963, Roberts founded Oral Roberts University and imposed a set of homophobic and exclusionary rules of conduct which students are still required to consent and adhere to today. Robert’s support of conversion therapy for members of the LGBTQ community has earned him criticism and his own son notably died from suicide after being subjected to such therapy six months after coming out as gay.
Oral Roberts’ success on the court brings to light questions of Title IX regulations and the NCAA’s commitment to inclusion and equality. The university received a religious exemption from the United States Department to Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program that recieves federal money. The exemption allows the school to enforce its anti-LGBTQ doctrine under the auspices of Evangelical Christianity, while still receiving federal funding.
The NCAA states that they are committed to “promoting and supporting the five areas of inclusion: race and ethnicity, women, student-athletes with disabilities, LGBTQ and international student-athletes.” Yet many college basketball fans called the organization’s bluff in allowing Oral Roberts, with its explicitly homophobic doctrine, to participate in the March Madness tournament.
Fans have pointed out the NCAA’s hypocrisy in allowing Oral Roberts to play on courts painted with the words “Equality” and “Unity.” Some believe the NCAA should bar Oral Roberts from future participation in the national tournament to pressure the school into reform of its anti-LGBTQ policy, a proposition which has been met with hesitation by religious right-wing pundits and everyday basketball fans alike.
While rooting for the underdog is exciting, Oral Roberts’ Cinderella run and the uncovering of its homophobic foundations brings to question what role and responsibilities viewers and fans of March Madness have in blindly supporting the remarkable sporting achievements of institutions that upon further examination stand for discriminatory practices.