Southern Miss will lose a home baseball series – and an undetermined amount of revenue – because of fallout from House Bill 1523, known as the “religious freedom bill.”

Stony Brook, a public university in New York, cancelled a three-game visit to Hattiesburg scheduled for Feb. 23-25 because of New York’s state ban on non-essential travel to Mississippi and North Carolina, a story first reported by The Sun Herald in Biloxi.

“I just hate that politics has entered into college baseball,” USM coach Scott Berry told Mississippi Today. “I mostly hate it for our fans. Our fans love their home games. We tried everything we could to play at home. We’re just fortunate Stephen F. Austin let us in their tournament.”

House Bill 1523, approved by the 2016 Legislature, allows business and government workers to deny services based on sincerely held religious beliefs. The law protects these three beliefs: that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that sex should only take place in such a marriage and that a person’s gender, determined at birth, cannot be altered.

The controversial law has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not yet indicated whether or not it will consider the appeal.

USM athletic director Jon Gilbert said there is no way to put an exact figure on how what losing the home baseball series will cost financially. Attendance – and therefore revenue – would be affected by weather. But USM would have made money at Pete Taylor Park and it will cost money to make the 400-mile trip to Nagodoches, Texas.

“We really tried to replace it with a home series,” Gilbert said. “We couldn’t find a Division I team with the dates available. We considered playing lower division teams but after talking to people on the NCAA baseball committee, we decided that wasn’t in our best interest. They told us victories over lower division teams would not count but losing even one game would severely hurt our post-season chances.”

Stony Brook, one of the most consistent northeastern baseball programs, had originally been scheduled to play in Hattiesburg in 2014, but a heavy snowstorm in New York prevented the team from making the trip to Mississippi. The schools agreed to make up the date at a later date, which turned out to be 2018 – until it didn’t.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned all non-essential state travel to Mississippi on April 5, 2016, the day Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed HB 1523 into law. Stony Brook athletic officials apparently were unaware of the ban when they agreed last year to the 2018 dates.

USM not only loses a home series; it loses a quality opponent. In 2012, Stony Brook defeated LSU in a NCAA Super Regional at Baton Rouge and became the first team from the American East Conference to compete in the College World Series.

“They are a quality program for sure,” Berry said. “I hate it didn’t work out.”

USM, which won 50 games and the Conference USA championship last season, will open the 2018 season Feb. 16-18 with a three-game home series against Mississippi State.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.