No actual plans revealed in NCAA president’s press conference

Mark Emmert has served as NCAA president since 2010. AP photo.

Today, one day after the WBCA sent a letter to him asking for an independent review on gender inequity in college sports, NCAA president Mark Emmert met with the media to answer questions.

In the 27-minute session, Emmert addressed the inequities in this year’s women’s and men’s NCAA Tournaments, apologized for them, discussed COVID protocols, promised to talk to coaches, and answered questions about the differences in court logos. He did not lay out any concrete plans for how and when inequities in gender and sport would be corrected. In the second question he answered, Emmert seemed to push back the responsibility for deciding which issues to tackle first to women’s basketball stakeholders.

A few hours after the press conference, Emmert met with WBCA executive director Danielle Donehew, chair of the WBCA executive committee and Toledo coach Tricia Cullop, former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, UConn coach Geno Auriemma, Louisville coach Jeff Walz, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley and Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner in a closed session.

This is the transcript of the media press conference:

I guess the WBCA sent a letter to you about all the things that’s going on. They want their own independent review of everything. I know you’re meeting with a bunch of the coaches later this morning. Just what are your thoughts on their letter and what do you hope comes out of this meeting later this morning with the WBCA Division I coaches?

They did send a letter. And they communicated it really clearly, I think. And I think there’s a couple of important points here, Doug. First and foremost, WBCA is a critical partner. They’re the experts on women’s basketball. They have more knowledge and understanding of the game and what’s been going on for a long time than anybody else. So they have to be an essential part of understanding all of this.

I look forward to talking to them. As you’ve said, I’ve got a meeting with all of them, all of them that want to participate a little later this morning.

I’m anxious to hear from them and to hear their thoughts and views. I understand their interest in being a part of that and together we can figure out a structure that, I think, we can all feel very comfortable with.

I guess the second point is that while the gender equity review that we need to do has to begin and focus on women’s basketball, it’s not going to be only about women’s basketball. Women’s basketball, like men’s basketball, those are the two marquee sports for NCAA championships. If you don’t get those right you’re not going to get anything right. So we’ve got to get those things right. And our commitment — my commitment to that is unequivocal.

But we also need to make sure if we’re dropping the ball in basketball that we’re not doing it in lacrosse or golf or tennis or any other sport that we have men’s and women’s tournaments in. It’s got to be gender equity across the board. So, the WCBA will be front and center in helping us sort out what we need to do here and I look forward to working with them.

I went back and read a lot of the white paper that was prepared by Val Ackerman and it has many of the systemic issues that we are still talking about today. So my question is why has it taken the NCAA so long to have this type of review and more of these conversations?

As you well know, the NCAA is governed by the member institutions. And the critical decisions that are made are made by those schools through our governance structure and Val’s white paper and other work that’s been done. In fact there was a strategic plan done just a year and a half ago, two years ago now for moving forward on women’s ball. Those are really, have been and continue to be really heavily discussed. I think they’ve led to positive changes around women’s basketball. But clearly too little has been done and not enough has been executed on them.

The women’s basketball community, first and foremost, also has to be determine which parts of those recommendations like in Val’s or anybody’s white paper that they want to pick up and run with. And there’s no excuse other than we need to do better, and we need to get the commitment of all of our governance structure to get on with it. That’s what we’re doing now. That’s why we’re doing the review and that’s why I want to work with the coach’s association and others to resolve these problems.

Looking at these two Final Fours, if there’s a positive COVID test among the teams where a team would be affected rather than an individual player, does the NCAA have a contingency plan to delay or postpone the games until the teams can get to full health and play as a full team?

The protocol that has been established with both championships, and all of our championships – we’ve already run about 15 national championships up to this point; they don’t get the media attention that these two do, of course – but the protocols that we’ve established for all of the championships – we’ll do 65 of them this year; normally it’s 90 but only 65 this year – have been established with a national advisory body of medical experts and public health experts, and then in concert with the local public health authorities of that location where the championship is being run.

So in Indianapolis or here, protocols are slightly different because the county health authorities have slightly different approaches to them. But in terms of the timelines for the Final Fours, there’s not a contingency to slide the tournaments back.

If the team or if an individual or a team were sadly had to move out of the location because the local health authorities – not the NCAA; it’s not our determination, it’s theirs – determined that they couldn’t participate, then they would have to forfeit a game and we would move on. And that would be tragic, obviously.

That’s why we’ve worked so hard to get protocols in place to avoid that circumstance. We’re at a place now where teams have been testing daily for – for a lot of these athletes, forever. And they’ve been incredibly good about following all the protocols. It’s been really, really impressive to see how hard they’re working to maintain public safety. And we’re very hopeful that we don’t have to confront that issue.

Looking back over the last couple of weeks when the photos and videos were pointed out from the athletes and coaches, is there anything you wish you personally would have done differently to respond?

I think there always is, obviously. I wish that there had been, both from me and from everybody, greater attention to exactly what was going on on both platforms, the men’s side and women’s side, so we didn’t have these issues – whether it was the weight room issue or the food differentials. Those things just shouldn’t happen. And we could have and should have avoided them and we didn’t.

And that’s a miss on my part. That’s a miss on everybody’s part that we were really focused on making sure we could get through this during the pandemic. And we weren’t as focused on that kind of equity that we needed to be.

So the thing I’m most regretful for is we didn’t catch it up front. During that time period, we’ve been scrambling. My teams at both locations have been working incredibly hard. One of the biggest frustrations is that the team that’s down here in San Antonio – the women’s committee, my staff that works on women’s basketball, all the volunteers around the community – they’ve been working unbelievably hard. It’s just been really, really hard for everybody.

And then to have this incredible event marred by these incidents is just wrenching. And anything that we could have done to avoid that I would have happily done and obviously wish we had. These athletes deserve that. They earned it. They deserve it. And we let them down. And that shouldn’t have occurred.

I wanted to go back to something you mentioned at the very beginning of this press conference about the case that’s going to go before the Supreme Court today about college athlete compensation. It’s part of this larger dialogue about whether in the future we should be paying college athletes. If I could ask your personal opinion, what effect do you think that would have on college sports?

Well, first of all, I’m glad you asked the question because there’s a lot of confusion about the case, which the pleadings began at the top of the hour, so it’s imminent. The case is not about pay for play. There’s a lot of belief that it is. The case is not about name, image and likeness, which a lot of people think it is. The case is about an antitrust issue that really focuses on who has the authority and the ability to make decisions around college sports in general.

And so this question, regardless of what the Supreme Court does or doesn’t decide, won’t resolve whether or not student-athletes should be, in quotes, paid.

My opinion, and more importantly the opinions of the universities, the 1,100 schools that participate in college sports, is that student-athletes need to be students, not employees of the universities, that the relationship between a university and a college athlete needs to be one of university and student, not employer and employee.

Everybody wants to provide, and indeed I think we’re doing a very good job around providing students with support for their educational needs. There’s doubtlessly more that can be done and should be done. And I don’t think that’s a question or doubt either.

The issue of NIL isn’t about whether student-athletes should be paid or not by the universities; it’s whether or not they should have an opportunity to generate revenue from monetizing their own name, image and likeness. And I believe they absolutely should and have been clear about that and so have the schools.

And so that’s why we’re in the midst of working with Congress to try and create a single rule for the entire country, rather than 50 individual state rules that will allow students to have that opportunity.

And some of them will generate a lot of revenue off of that. And that’s great. I think that’s terrific and want that to happen. But we need to have the pleadings and the court case occur today. Then we’ll know where the court is probably in June or thereabouts, and we’ll move from there.

I’m wondering, when you look at the fact that the men’s tournament is such a money-maker, and I know that’s not the stated goal, if you will, of the NCAA for its championships to make money, but the enormous amount of money that the men’s tournament makes and what a cultural phenomenon it is, versus the women’s tournament. What ways can the women become more profitable? How can they be better marketed so that has a similar resonance, if you will, to the men’s tournament?

I think the profitability question complicates a lot of the fundamental issues. The issue of gender equity needs to, in my opinion, sit aside from the profitability component.

The reality is that the men’s basketball tournament generates around – in 2019, the last year for which we have hard data, its net revenue was about $861 million, and it’s wildly profitable, if you want to use that term. But those dollars are used to support all the other championships. They are distributed, 600 million of those dollars are distributed out to the schools. We use the money to run the other championships.

And so that revenue is essential to making the college sports enterprise work. So we want it to be successful obviously for all of those reasons.

I don’t know that the goal for women’s basketball that it should be profitable or any of our championships. There’s only a few that are run cash-flow positive, if you will, or have net revenues.

The goal is to improve and develop the game and move towards gender equity. To do that, we need to promote the games more effectively through our media partners and through our corporate sponsors and through the campuses themselves and through everything that’s around the women’s game. One of the things I’m looking forward to coming out of the work we’re doing in this review is to understand more effectively what the realistic opportunities are to promote and grow this game.

It’s been great fun. We watched some wonderful basketball the past few days. And it’s incredibly compelling. When people watch, they tend to watch again. And we need to have more of those.

A number of high-profile coaches, Olympic coaches of the women’s team over the past couple of years made compelling statements about inequalities in the women’s tournament. Have you spoken to any of them listened to their concerns? And how did those conversations go, if you could tell us anything about them?

Yeah, I have talked to coaches. And I’m going to do a lot more of that going forward. I’ve been particularly interested in those that have been involved in this tournament. And of course I don’t want to interfere with their work while they’re involved in the games.

And part of our review that we’re conducting and that the Kaplan Firm is conducting for us is to also reach out to those coaches through the WBCA and individually, so coaches can provide an unvarnished and even anonymous voice to this process so they don’t have to just tell me; they can tell an independent body that’s going to report it directly because that’s going to be really important so you don’t have to mince words in any fashion. You can be forthright.

Everybody recognizes, everybody I’ve talked to recognizes — and I listen closely to what they have to say because it’s very important – they recognize that the issues are not just what happened here in San Antonio.

Candidly, the issues that are here in San Antonio are things that can be fixed and fixed relatively easily. That’s not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is that 60-year head start I was talking about – that we have for a long time had systemic disparities that have been a problem for gender equity. It’s not just in basketball; it’s across all sports. Indeed it’s in many things that go on in our society.

And we need to focus on those things we control, our tournaments, and use them as exemplars, listen to what those coaches are saying about the issues that have been out there for a long, longtime. They’re extant not just in our tournaments but throughout the sports system, from youth sports all the way up.

Again, we’re going to focus on what we can control and work with those coaches to make sure that we’ve eliminated those issues for the NCAA’s championships. And then we’re going to try and make sure that it drives itself, that comparison drives itself down into sports.

You’ve spoken about the things that can be done relatively easily. And so I’d like to highlight two and just ask you both the decision-making process that led to them and whether you can commit to changing them. One has to do with something as simple as the logo. The logo for the women’s Final Four reads “Women’s Final Four.” The one for men’s reads “Final Four.” And the other is — it’s something I’ve heard from a lot of stakeholders as something that has bothered them for a long time. The other is, as was reported in the Wall Street Journal, the fact that March Madness was something the women’s side had asked for the rights to be able to use for marketing purposes and was denied by the NCAA, which obviously impacts the investment on the front end, which also impacts ultimately how profitable the tournament turns out to be. So if you could take me through why the NCAA made those two decisions and whether you’re prepared to commit to changing those two things here today.

I’ll answer them in reverse order. There’s no reason at all why those two logos can’t be whatever the women’s side wants. So the women’s staff are part of the NCAA. They’re part of my national office. We all work and live in the same building. This is not somebody against the NCAA; it’s part of the NCAA.

The March Madness logo can, and if the women’s committee and the women’s community wants it used, there’s no reason why they can’t use it similarly. “Final Four” is used by both, and whether or not one wants to use the logo with a gender identifier is up to the committee and they can certainly do whatever they’d like to do with those things. So, yes, I’m fully committed to doing that.

The details of how and why those decisions were made, we’re going to get to through our review. And that’s something that I want to make sure we all understand unequivocally. As you heard earlier, there’s been a lot of studies around how to promote the women’s game, and there’s always a debate and discussion around how distinct it should be in the way it’s promoted versus how similarly it should be promoted.

Those are debates for marketing people and those who want to promote the game. But I’m committed to making sure that we use the marks of the NCAA as effectively as we can in promoting women’s basketball.

Right now, as a girl who wants to play Division I basketball, seeing all the inequities between the men’s and women’s tournament is frustrating. But where does the NCAA want to be in 10 years in terms of eliminating the disparities between men’s and women’s basketball?

Well, I don’t know where we want to be in 10 years. I can tell you where I want to be in one year. And I want a young woman or anybody who cares to look at our tournaments to see that the women athletes, these incredible women athletes that are here in San Antonio, are being treated with the same respect, the same level of support, the same level of energy and marketing and clout that goes into these games as the men.

It doesn’t mean they’re identical, because they shouldn’t be necessarily identical. They’re very distinct in many ways. But gender equity between these tournaments is something that can and should be and must be addressed and in short order.

There’s no reason for this to go on for another 10 years while we debate and discuss it. And I want the girls and women you’re talking about to know that and to see it.