It's not just a patch: NBA selling out its LGBTQ referees with puzzling sponsorship deal

There are few leagues historically better than the NBA and WNBA at including and respecting the LGBTQ community. Both leagues have seen trailblazing players and game officials. About 20% of WNBA rosters are openly LGBTQ, Outsports reported two years ago. Both leagues are extraordinary on this issue.

Which makes something the NBA has done so especially puzzling.

NBA referees must now wear multiple patches on their uniforms supporting Emirates. The NBA and the airline reached a deal in February for Emirates to serve as the official global airline of the NBA and WNBA.

On the surface, it's a standard deal leagues make all the time. But as Outsports recently reported this one is extremely different. That's because Emirates is owned by the government of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates. Dubai just might be the most anti-LGBTQ place on the face of the planet. Being gay is outlawed in Dubai and the UAE.

Two of the refs who have to wear the patches? One is Bill Kennedy, who came out as gay ten years ago as a way to combat anti-gay sentiment in the league. The other is Che Flores, who is transgender, and publicly told their story recently.

Referee Che Flores came out publicly last year as transgender and non-binary.
Referee Che Flores came out publicly last year as transgender and non-binary.

So, to summarize, the NBA has reached this deal with a government whose policies are hostile to large swaths of its membership.

This issue speaks to the complexities of a league, like the NBA, which is trying to expand the game, but in doing so will go to places where the game is welcome but not all of its people are.

"The NBA’s mission is to inspire and connect people everywhere through basketball, and we believe the best way to effect change through sports is through engagement," Mike Bass, an NBA spokesman, told USA TODAY Sports. "We have an unwavering commitment to supporting LGBTQ+ rights."

In almost every way, this is accurate. This is what the NBA and WNBA mostly have been. But that doesn't change a simple fact: the NBA is in business with a hardcore anti-LGBTQ entity and forcing its LGBTQ members to wear and promote that entity with their bodies.

So what should the NBA do? For one, it could have carved out exceptions for game officials who didn't want to wear the patches. If that wasn't agreeable to Emirates, then the NBA should have told all the parties involved to kick rocks.

Overall, the NBA and WNBA have to take a much deeper look at the thorniness of issues like this one. I truly believe those leagues care about the players. This isn't the NFL that if the devil offered a billion dollars to play in hell, would tell its players to put on asbestos uniforms and go.

The NFL isn't a moral league. The NBA and WNBA, though far from perfect, try to be. They are more advanced and progressive than professional football, but this is still a dilemma. The leagues want to make money, and the players will benefit financially from these types of agreements, but some of these deals can come with a steep moral price.

Referee Bill Kennedy, wearing an "Emirates" patch, came out as gay a decade ago to combat homophobia in the NBA.
Referee Bill Kennedy, wearing an "Emirates" patch, came out as gay a decade ago to combat homophobia in the NBA.

Should the NBA refuse to expand to places where this, and other kinds of hatred, exist? The answer is of course, yes. The answer is also not that simple.

Evil people and governments exist everywhere. Look at the United States. Should the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury relocate their franchises because that state's supreme court enacted a near total abortion ban that, if it stays in place, could lead to harm and even death for women?

The NAACP has issued a travel warning for the state of Florida, writing in part: "Please be advised that Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. Before traveling to Florida, please understand that the State of Florida devalues and marginalizes the contributions of and the challenges faced by African Americans and other minorities." Should the Miami Heat leave the state?

A ruling from the Supreme Court has allowed Idaho to ban gender-affirming care for minors. This didn't happen in the Middle East. It happened here.

The NBA is trying to navigate all of this while also trying to make money. But in pursuit of it, the league has to watch that it's not betraying its values.

Betraying the very people who make up its league.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: It's not just a patch. How NBA, WNBA have betrayed LGBTQ referees