***Editor’s note: This article was written before NCAA president Mark Emmert’s State of the NCAA news conference.***
On Thursday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium, Mark Emmert will hold his annual State of the NCAA news conference as part of Final Four weekend. Given that Emmert is president of a widely reviled organization — and given that many hold a negative opinion of Emmert himself — the event has become an object of mockery recently. Two years ago, he taunted a national reporter who’d called for his firing in a column. Last year, Emmert, perhaps chastened by previous performances, ceded the stage for much of the hour to a panel of university presidents.
This year’s, though, could and should take on a much different tone. While college athletics has not magically solved its ills over the past 12 months, Emmert should be lauded this week for the role he’s played in helping right a much farther-reaching wrong than anything under his own purview.
The NCAA president was one of the very first prominent public figures to speak out last week against Indiana governor Mike Pence’s approval of the state’s indefensible Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The timing of the bill, coming just a week before the Indianapolis-based NCAA was to stage its signature event in that same town, could have morphed into a nightmare. Emmert and the NCAA could have punted on the issue and issued a "no comment at this time," as the all-powerful NFL did, or mimicked the hands-off approach of the College Football Playoff, whose executive director, Bill Hancock, said, "’I think they need to fix this. But my focus is on sports."
Instead, Emmert seized the opportunity not only to take a strong stance on behalf of his membership in its commitment to inclusiveness, but in fact helped shape the larger national conversation that’s followed.
First, the NCAA issued a statement last Thursday in which Emmert said, "We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees" and pledged to "examine … how it might affect future events as well as our workforce." He then went a step further in a pair of interviews early this week, all but threatening to relocate future Indianapolis events like next year’s Women’s Final Four if the law isn’t changed.
"We hold lots and lots of events here, we’re going to have our national convention here, our offices are here," Emmert told ESPN’s Andy Katz. "We have to say, ‘What do we do if this law goes into effect in July, and what’s our relationship with the state of Indiana going to be?’"
When Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel pressed Emmert on whether the NCAA would go so far as to relocate its headquarters, Emmert said, "Indianapolis has been great for us, and we hope it continues to be. But we have to do what we have to do."
On Thursday morning, Indiana lawmakers responded to widespread backlash by announcing an amendment to the bill that specifically prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. City leaders, activists and the NCAA itself hailed the change.
To be clear, there still would have been outrage over this ill-conceived law — which afforded cover for businesses to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples under the guise of religious nobility — regardless of what the president of the NCAA had to say about it. But given the bill’s timing and its location, Emmert found himself speaking from an undeniably powerful pulpit.
The nation is transfixed right now by March Madness, thus shining more attention on the NCAA than if the bill had been passed in, say, June. Moreover, were the Final Four being played in San Antonio this year, maybe the issue wouldn’t carry the same urgency there. As it is, tens of thousands of visiting fans, media, coaches and sponsors are currently descending on the state at a time when its own residents are mortified by the bill’s unwanted stigma.
For comparison’s sake, note that Arkansas’ state legislature recently passed an almost identical measure with far less outcry. (Its governor, Asa Hutchinson, asked lawmakers Wednesday to recall or amend it.) Meanwhile, Indiana — whose governor, Pence, continues to live in denial at the crisis he’s created — has seen everyone from New York governor Andrew Cuomo to a national women’s conference either pull or threaten to pull business out of the state.
Many in college athletics followed Emmert’s lead. MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher told ESPN his conference would not schedule meetings or championships in Indiana until "this current matter is brought to a sensible and appropriate conclusion." USC AD Pat Haden, whose son is gay, is skipping a meeting there this week in protest, and UConn’s coaches are boycotting the Final Four.
While it’s possible all would have taken the same action regardless of Emmert’s comments, it seems an unlikely coincidence that so many in the college athletics sphere have taken such bold public stances over an issue in someone else’s backyard.
Frankly, it’s more decisiveness than the NCAA typically exhibits in response to its own issues.
While RFRA may be the first topic to come up in Emmert’s Q&A Thursday, he’ll likely get asked about plenty of other developments from the past year — many of them unflattering. Last summer, a federal judge ruled against the NCAA in the landmark Ed O’Bannon antitrust case, a blunt repudiation of the college amateurism model. Last month, an appellate court heard arguments by the NCAA to reverse the decision.
Last fall, the NCAA had to do an embarrassing about-face on its heavy-handed 2012 sanctions against Penn State. Depositions in a lawsuit revealed that Emmert either exaggerated or misrepresented the possibility of a death penalty when negotiating the consent decree school president Rodney Erickson eventually signed.
Meanwhile, prominent critics, and even comedians, continue to spew venom against the organization because … well, everybody’s doing it. A recent VICE.com story carried the look-at-me headline: "How the NCAA Scams Taxpayers for Welfare Money."
Whoever shouts loudest wins the debate?
Without question, the current model is littered with warts. But Emmert will presumably use Thursday’s stage to tout several progressive, albeit overdue, measures the NCAA pushed through over the past year, from cost-of-attendance scholarships to guaranteed scholarships to reimbursing families’ travel to January’s CFP championship game and to this Final Four.
Perhaps the most telling sign of how much the climate around the NCAA has changed is the calls for Emmert’s head — quite prevalent two years ago — have largely subsided. Grumbling amongst the Power 5 commissioners and their ADs dissipated once autonomy went through. And many were encouraged when Emmert recently hired respected West Virginia AD Oliver Luck as one of his new lieutenants.
He’s not completely in the clear. Part of the job description for NCAA president is to serve as a public piñata over a new gripe every month, whether it’s the basketball committee underseeding Dayton or questionable actions by infractions committee members during their 2010 USC deliberations.
But for this week at least, Emmert deserves some commendation. It’s still fair to question his ability to effect change in athletics. But his strong leadership this past week in response to RFRA made an unquestionable impact on a state and a society.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.