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Opinion: Mark Emmert vows changes in private call with women's coaches. Will he deliver?

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

The last gasp of NCAA president Mark Emmert’s apology tour started Wednesday morning in a news conference before the women’s Final Four and ended on a Zoom call with Division I women’s basketball coaches that was supposed to be private. 

In the 70-minute meeting hosted by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, which USA TODAY Sports was granted access to listen in on, Emmert said all the right things.

From allocating more financial resources to staffing to intellectual property, he’s more committed than ever to ensuring gender equity at all levels and all sports under the NCAA umbrella. He’ll raise ideas and issues with the Board of Governors that could potentially help grow the women’s game. And, of course, Emmert along with NCAA vice presidents Dan Gavitt and Lynn Holzman who oversee men’s and women’s basketball, respectively, were profoundly sorry for the fiasco in San Antonio that revealed inequities in certain areas of the tournament management like weight rooms, player gifts, meals and branding.

“Clearly we have an opportunity and that’s really the pivot I’ve taken and had to take after the first 24 to 48 hours of the emotion and heartbreak and disappointment about some of the things we didn’t deliver the way we should have in San Antonio,” Holzman told the coaches. "But it’s time for us to do more and we will seize that.”

Women's basketball coaches questioned NCAA president Mark Emmert on Wednesday on addressing equity issues, including using March Madness branding for the women's tournament.

They better, because it’s clear women’s basketball coaches aren’t going to stand for anything less. Empowered by the public outcry that social media posts by players in the tournament generated, some of the most prominent names in the sport grilled Emmert on Wednesday in a session that at times was contentious. 

They also made it clear that the time for apologies was over.

“It appears you have violated your own gender equity guidelines,” former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw told Emmert. “However, it's not just San Antonio. It’s way deeper than that.”

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley cross-examined Emmert on whether the NCAA commissioning New York-based Kaplan Hecker & Fink law firm to do an independent review was going to truly be independent. 

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“You know whoever is paying the piper more than likely, they’re going to give you what you want to hear,” Staley said. “Is there any way that there is a possibility that we can get somebody that is independent of us or you to look into what’s happening here?”

Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner railed against the fact that the courts used during the men’s tournament in Indianapolis were “eye candy” with fancy March Madness branding and logos while a television viewer might look at the courts used for the women’s tournament that lacked NCAA Tournament branding and think it was a high school game.

“We’re a huge potential revenue stream,” Fortner said. “Our numbers bear that out on TV and they’ve done that without a lot of help other than just our coming along by ourselves, growing our own product within our institutions. I think we’re going to miss a huge window if we don’t change things now, if we don step up to the plate at the NCAA as a whole to really water this sport to give it the attention it deserves in how we have shown we are a viable product for the public.”

Now that the mea culpas are done, it’s time for the important and more difficult part: Turning the attention and passion into action once the tournaments end. And given Emmert’s decade-long history of talking a big game while accomplishing little – what exactly is his signature accomplishment as NCAA president? – there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical. 

But some interesting topics emerged during the call with coaches that could pave the way for changes within the NCAA to enhance the women’s tournament in relatively short order. 

One of them occurred when UCLA coach Cori Close asked Gavitt how many full-time staff were devoted to putting on of the tournaments. 

“I believe it’s 12 on the men’s staff and six on the women’s staff, thereabouts,” Gavitt said, which certainly could provide an explanation for how basic things were missed.

“When I look back on the planning and execution of this championship I wish I’d realized Lynn needed a lot more bodies to pull this off,” he continued. 

Another question related to whether the NCAA was restricted by its contracts with CBS and Turner Sports, who have the broadcast rights to men’s tournament, from using March Madness branding on the women’s tournament, which is televised on ABC and ESPN. Emmert said the NCAA has already reviewed those contracts and sees no reason why that problem can’t be resolved easily depending on what the women’s basketball community wants to do. 

“You've got my commitment we’re going to make sure we deploy our intellectual property, all of our marks, whatever it is as effectively as possible,” he said. "There’s always been internal debates about where and how to deploy those marks and I want to make sure I understand that clearly and that’s part of what our review is about is how those decisions get made, but there’s no restraints there.”

One clarifying piece of information on the court designs came from Holzman, who explained that the women’s tournament has historically needed fewer courts because in previous years the first- and second-round sites have been played on the campuses of the top 16 seeds whereas the men’s first weekend is played at eight neutral sites. 

To ensure quality control and consistency, the NCAA has courts stored in its warehouse ready to re-brand and lay down when they take over a facility to get it ready for tournament play. This year, Holzman said the question was asked “in passing” if the women could have tournament branded courts for use at some of the facilities used in the early rounds but that the company the NCAA uses couldn’t produce them in a shortened time frame. 

“That’s an important thing looking forward, and if there’s a decision to keep those first and second rounds as we have them, that’s an important discussion around that,” she said. 

In a pointed exchange with McGraw about why Holzman reports to Gavitt rather than the president directly, Emmert acknowledged it was “a question we need to look at.” And when he was asked why the NCAA doesn’t have a financial formula to distribute revenue “units” to conferences based on advancement in the women’s tournament like it does for the men, Emmert pledged to raise that topic with the university presidents on the NCAA’s Finance and Audit committee who would be in position to make that change. 

“I think it’s an intriguing idea,” Emmert said. “Whenever you talk about distribution of money, the politics go way up and there's no reason to believe they wouldn’t in this case, but we also know money is an indicator of what you value. So if there’s a way to do that, it’s an important conversation to have. We immediately run into other sports saying OK, but what about us whether it’s baseball or softball and that answers the complexity of it. But it’s a good time to have that conversation.” 

At the very least, it seems to have finally sunk in at the top level of NCAA leadership that the issue is not just public relations or perception. There’s a substantive problem here, and the coaches who live it every day are not in the mood to let things slide. 

“I want to use this moment to become that point in time where we say, yeah we made some progress,” Emmert told the coaches. "How do we, after all these years, stop and say now we have enough momentum and sense of urgency and attention to this and enough embarrassment about what went wrong to say, it’s time to make a really consequential shift. I think we can do a lot of that, I really do, and you've got my commitment. The things we have control over, we can do.” 

Now that the apologies are over, Emmert must be judged on the follow through. We’ll see if he’s up to the task.