When Atlanta hosts the 53rd Super Bowl today, it will showcase not only NFL championship football, but also the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta’s global sports ambitions.

Since before the 1996 Summer Olympics, Georgia has sought and won the right to host major sporting events. These events allow Georgia to court multinational businesses and spotlight Atlanta’s “city too busy to hate” ethos. But if the legislature continues to attempt to pass a law permitting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people for services or adoption or foster care in the guise of “religious freedom,” it will set back Georgia’s boosterism efforts — and may ultimately cost Atlanta the chance to be a host city  for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. 

Rainbow flags symbolizing LGBT rights.

© 2017 Reuters

Mega-events like the World Cup can bring tourism dollars and business to benefit the local economy. The Super Bowl is frequently the most-watched television broadcast of the year in the U.S.  But the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) reports more than half the world’s population ages 4 and over tuned in to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup. 

Last June, the US, Canada and Mexico jointly submitted their successful “United 2026” bid to host the 2026 World Cup in soccer, bringing the world’s most popular event to 10 U.S. cities (six cities in Canada and Mexico are already chosen as hosts).  Seventeen U.S. cities are competing for those 10 host city spots.

During the 2026 bidding process, FIFA required bidding nations to disclose their human rights risks and a plan of action for addressing them.

That means that Atlanta could be tossed out of the World Cup competition if it passes a discriminatory law.

In 2017, FIFA adopted a landmark Human Rights Policy, pledging to “go beyond its responsibility to respect human rights” by taking “measures to promote the protection of human rights and positively contribute to their enjoyment.” The policy also states that “FIFA strives to create a discrimination-free environment within its organisation and throughout all of its activities” and that “Article 4 of the FIFA Statutes prohibits discrimination of any kind” — including on the basis of sexual orientation.  

The new rules for 2026 include due diligence about existing human rights conditions and a requirement for hosts to submit a human rights strategy for the 48-team tournament. The 2026 process is the first time bidding cities are required to disclose human rights risks and what they will do to address them. 

Human Rights Watch worked with FIFA during the 2026 bidding process to ensure that bidding nations disclosed their human rights risks and presented a meaningful plan of action for addressing them. 

The state of Georgia’s risks on LGBT rights are considerable. Hardliners have moved laws to discriminate against LGBT people and families in the last five legislative sessions. In 2016, a Republican governor vetoed one such law for business reasons, including that Disney and other companies threatened to take their business elsewhere. Yet lawmakers are likely to press ahead with anti-LGBT legislation again this year.

That would put Atlanta at a disadvantage. According to Georgia Equality, Georgia is one of only five states that has no hate crimes law. Additionally, it would strengthen Georgia's commitment to human rights — and Atlanta’s viability as a host city — if the state enacted protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  

Atlanta’s competition for the 10 US city spots includes New York, Miami, San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles. All are in states with non-discrimination laws. Four municipanities explicitly protect members of the LGBT community.

United 2026’s Human Rights Strategy says that it intends to raise the bar by ranking U.S. candidate cities on the basis of human rights: “Working with FIFA, we propose to develop a rubric or ‘scorecard’ for cities to use to assess progress against measures to address human rights risks set forth in this strategy.”

Simply put, any effort by Georgia legislators to pass anti-LGBT legislation will put Atlanta’s hopes for making the cut to host the 2026 World Cup at risk.  Competing cities will see to that, if FIFA doesn’t.  

In the month we celebrate the life and work of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia should recognize that reforms to protect LGBT people and vulnerable populations are its best hope to go on the offensive. By rejecting state-sanctioned discrimination under the guise of religious freedom legislation, Georgia will win by living up to the best of its human rights history — not its worst.

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MINKY WORDEN is the director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch.