Indy’s shining moment has dimmed

This should be our shining moment.

You know, that time when TV cameras break from NCAA Final Four games to pan the Indianapolis skyline as announcers gush about the hospitality of our Hoosier state.

That’s not going to happen. Not now. Not after the state became a political lightning rod about what it means to elevate bigotry to legislatively protected status.

Save me the political debate. I’ve heard it all week from those trying to justify judging others while following a leader who preached to “judge not.”

This is not about Matthew 7:1; nor is it about whether selected passages from Exodus and Timothy are to be taken literally to the exclusion of all else. You can have that debate elsewhere.

No, this is about wiping out four decades of building an image as the nation’s most vibrant and welcoming sports destination. With one stroke of the pen, Gov. Mike Pence did just that. A legislative fix announced Thursday may stem the tide, but it cannot completely fix the damage.

However calculated this political stealth may have been, it certainly did not factor in the enormous damage that would be done to the state’s most shining success story — its nine-figure annual sports tourism industry.

Now, after the governor backpedal and legislators tried to claim that the law could not do precisely what its supporters boast that it does, we are left to assess the damage.

Just how far we’ve fallen hit me when a news release arrived from NASCAR, that bastion of good ole boy cronyism. “NASCAR is disappointed by the recent legislation passed in Indiana,” the organization tweeted Tuesday. “We will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance.”

Wow, dissed by NASCAR. That follows the NBA, WNBA, a handful of conventions and the NCAA. There seems to be a pattern here, which tone deaf politicians did not hear.

As the Final Four descends on Indianapolis, city planners are trying to put on a good face. Mayor Greg Ballard didn’t just distance himself from the governor, he all but disowned him, as did every other living former mayor.

What else can they do? You don’t roll out the welcome mat with a threat to pull it from your visitors’ feet if they don’t look right to you. Politics aside, this is a marketing disaster.

“Indianapolis Welcomes the World to Our Doorstep,” was the tagline for the 2012 Super Bowl. We now must put an asterisk behind that phrase. (It is important to note here that the city has a strong anti-discrimination ordinance that is pre-empted by the state law.)

Indiana has become a punching bag on the national stage. Much of the criticism may not be deserved, but the indecisive, inarticulate response of our not-ready-for-prime-time leaders has stirred the pot even more.

There are those who early in the week demanded that the NCAA Tournament be moved out of Indiana. It was a symbolic gesture, for sure, but one that had many nodding in agreement. With each waffling statement and evasive answer, those nods grow.

This year we are safe, but NCAA chief Mark Emmert has made clear that future events are open for reconsideration, as is the future of the NCAA headquarters in downtown Indy.

Of course, the fervor will diminish over time. The politics already has changed, and a resolution proposed.

The damage, though, is done. The effect will be felt for years. A legislative fix is welcome, but also hollow in terms of national perception.

That second Super Bowl? Forget about it. Future Final Fours and maybe even Big Ten tournaments? Not for a long time. Conventions that support the downtown infrastructure that makes Indy a great destination? Some will leave.

In every convention sales pitch going forward, that will be the first hurdle that city event planners will be forced to clear. You can be sure competing venues, which, ironically, have spent decades trying to catch Indy, will highlight how they are not like our state.

You can say that doesn’t matter, but the cold economic reality tells a different story. The NCAA Final Four alone will bring at least $71 million. That is not just a number, it is a catalyst that supports downtown development and the thousands of jobs that it sustains.

While Downtown Indy officials are doing everything they can to cast the state as a welcome environment, it is an uphill climb. It will take more than crocheted scarves and zip lines to restore the luster, if it can be done at all.

You may love the new RFRA law; you may despise it. And none of us knows what the outcome will be in terms of religious freedom versus discrimination. Thursday’s legislative action at least attempts to provide assurance.

When it comes to Indy’s vibrant sports scene, though, the verdict is already in.

Our shining moment is not shining anymore.

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Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.