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(Reuters) - The National Collegiate Athletic Association on Tuesday formally reversed course and scheduled championship games in North Carolina, returning to the state after previously stripping it of events to protest a law on transgender use of public bathrooms.
Transgender advocates immediately criticized the decision, saying although the bathroom law was repealed last month, North Carolina still discriminated against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and did not deserve to be rewarded.
The controversy started with the March 2016 approval of House Bill 2, which required transgender people to use bathrooms matching the sex on their birth certificate rather than their gender identity. In response, the NCAA disqualified North Carolina from hosting neutral-site championship events for the 2016-17 academic year.
Similar boycotts by other sports organizations, companies and entertainers cost North Carolina hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business. In a basketball-crazed state, losing events such as the NBA all-star game and big NCAA tournament games was also a blow to residents' pride.
Seeking to win back business, state lawmakers repealed the law on March 30, but they also approved a new measure banning cities from passing their own anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people until 2020, drawing outrage from civil rights advocates.
Still, the repeal of the bathroom law was enough to win over the NCAA, which announced on April 4 its board of governors would consider returning to the state. At the time the NCAA said its board would have preferred an unconditional repeal of House Bill 2 and that a majority of the board "reluctantly" decided to return to North Carolina.
On Tuesday, the NCAA selected more than 600 host sites for events to be held from the 2017-18 through 2021-22 seasons, including placing events such as men's basketball games in North Carolina.
For example, the first- and second-round men's basketball games in 2020 will be held in Greensboro.
Greensboro will also host regional women's basketball games in the championship tournament in 2019.
Rights groups criticized the NCAA for returning to North Carolina while its cities were still banned from passing anti-discrimination laws.
"By rewarding North Carolina with championship games, the NCAA has undermined its credibility and is sending a dangerous message to lawmakers across the country who are targeting LGBTQ people with discriminatory state legislation," JoDee Winterhof, a senior official with the Human Rights campaign, said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the decision a "shame" and the anti-discrimination group Athlete Ally said it was "deeply concerning."
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frances Kerry