Two weeks after CBS and the National Football League endured criticism from women's groups and gay rights advocates for letting Focus on the Family run an advertisement during the Super Bowl while blocking an ad from a gay dating service, the controversy has extended to singe the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The national college sports group on Tuesday dropped advertisements from Focus on the Family from its championships Web site (which, unlike the association's main .org Web site, is a .com site that takes advertising and is managed by CBS College Sports). According to a spokesman for Focus on the Family, the ads had been included on several CBS-managed Web sites (including ncaa.com) as part of the conservative advocacy group's purchase of the Super Bowl ad.
The decision by the NCAA came in response to vocal protests from advocates for gay and lesbian athletes -- which quickly grew into a broader audience of critics who sent e-mails and set up what has now become the standard, a Facebook page -- who complained that the group's views that homosexuality and abortion are immoral are inconsistent with the NCAA's stated nondiscrimination policy.
"Focus on the Family did have a banner ad on NCAA.com. Today, it was decided to remove the ad from the website as a result of concerns expressed by our membership," Bob Williams, an NCAA spokesman, said via e-mail late Tuesday.
Focus on the Family created a stir in mid-January when it announced that it would run an ad during CBS's broadcast of the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, featuring the college football star Tim Tebow and his mother. Critics were upset because the decision arguably clashed with the network's longstanding policy against running political advocacy ads during the big game -- and because CBS had also rejected an ad from a dating service for gay people that sought to promote itself during the big game.
(When the Focus on the Family ad actually aired, some commentators suggested that critics had overreacted, because the conservative group soft pedaled its often strident message by featuring Tebow's mother celebrating the fact that he had made it "into this world" despite her very rough pregnancy -- before showing the former University of Florida star, an outspoken Christian, apparently tackling her.)
Some time in the last few days, advertisements from the same broad Focus on the Family campaign, called "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life," began appearing on ncaa.com, which is where the association promotes its dozens of national championships. The ad (see image at right) featured a father holding a young boy with the words, "All I want is for my son is for him to grow up knowing how to do the right thing."
That message may seem innocuous, Pat Griffin, an emerita professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in an interview Tuesday, "but if you have any awareness of what Focus on the Family is and their position on issues of family and life" -- championing traditional definitions of marriage, deeming homosexuality to be immoral, and fighting to eliminate abortion -- it's very clear what their message is.... It's very disingenuous to say, those are innocent messages, messages anyone can join in."
Griffin, who works with the NCAA on gay and lesbian issues and consults widely in college sports, took on the NCAA after she noticed the ads on the NCAA site. In a post that spread quickly in the blogosphere, Griffin wrote Monday that Focus on the Family "not only opposes a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, they also are one of the most powerful national opponents of civil rights for LGBT people. You can bet they are in the forefront of every national and state battle over LGBT rights and abortion rights.
"Now they want to impose their values on the NCAA tournament and college basketball fans and the NCAA and CBS are inviting them to. They are rolling out the red carpet and I am deeply offended by the NCAA’s complicity in this," Griffin added.
In an essay submitted for publication to Inside Higher Ed last week, Ellen Staurowsky, professor and graduate chair of the department of sport management & media at Ithaca College, cited several potential problems with the NCAA's decision to accept ads from Focus on the Family.
"First, according to the NCAA Manual, each member institution is responsible for establishing and maintaining an environment that values cultural diversity and gender equity in compliance with federal and state laws as well as promoting athletic programs that are free of discrimination based on sexual orientation. How are these principles upheld through an agreement with an organization that describes 'homosexual behavior as one of many sexual sins outside of God’s created intent and desire for us'?"
Staurowsky also differentiated between the legitimacy of entities like CBS and the NFL accepting such ads, and a nonprofit organization like the NCAA doing so. "Private corporate entities like the NFL and CBS and even Focus on the Family may do business as they wish, but in theory what puts the college in college sport are the interests of higher education and the athletes who compete under its umbrella. The obligation is to the athlete in this case, all of them, not to the corporate interests of the promoters."
Griffin argued that running ads from Focus on the Family would appear to violate the NCAA's own "Advertising and Promotional Standards" for its championships, which suggest that while advertisements from "cause-related organizations or events (e.g., National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations)" are permissible "unless the cause endorses a controversial or unacceptable viewpoint," ads that engage in "Advocacy of viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance (e.g., religious beliefs, political beliefs)" are impermissible. It is not entirely clear, from a reading of the NCAA's Web site, whether those policies are meant to apply to the association's championships Web site, or only to broadcast advertisements during the association's championships.
The NCAA's broadcasting manual makes clear, though, that the ncaa.com is largely a CBS product, as part of the association's 11-year "bundled rights agreement" for NCAA championships. "The rights include the production of the official Web site for all NCAA sports, which is http://www.ncaa.com/.... CBS has named CBS College Sports as the official producer of NCAA.com. CBS College Sports staffs and administrates all content on the Web site.... The NCAA works in conjunction with the CBS College Sports staff responsible for NCAA.com in supplying contact information, as well as overall direction in producing the Web site."
Williams, the NCAA spokesman, said "we regularly review ad content and make adjustments as appropriate. The NCAA works closely with our broadcast partner, CBS, on ad approval and scheduling." He said that the "decision was related to member concerns regarding the organization ... not the specific ad content."
Gary Schneeberger, Focus on the Family's vice president for media relations, said the organization's contract with CBS for broadcast of its high-visibility Super Bowl ad included provisions that called for CBS to place ads for the group on Web sites it runs, "though it wasn't specified which sites it would be."
Schneeberger said he had not been told by officials at CBS or the NCAA about the status of its ads, but that if they had been pulled, he'd want to know why.
Griffin said she was relieved that the ad had been pulled from the NCAA site. But she asserted on her blog that "[n]o decisions have been made about future ads" -- leaving open the prospect, as Staurowsky speculated in her essay for Inside Higher Ed, "that the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Final Fours will become vehicles for the message of Focus on the Family as the Super Bowl was a few weeks ago."
"So maybe we need to make sure the NCAA gets it," Griffin wrote in her blog post, "that ANY ads from FOTF associated with the NCAA in any way are unacceptable."
(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)