All you need to know about how broken the NCAA is as an organization, how disconnected it is from the people it is supposed to serve and how aloof its leadership has become is that its response Thursday to the weeklong public relations crisis over equity issues between the men’s and women’s basketball tournament was … more billable hours?
Apparently, the NCAA has never met a problem it couldn’t spend money on expensive lawyers to solve — even one that is pretty simple to understand and even simpler to fix.
With all that brainpower in NCAA headquarters — contrary to the caricature of the place, most of the people who work there are bright and care deeply about doing their jobs well — you wouldn’t think it necessary to hire New York law firm Kaplan Hecker to commission an expensive report about whether your championship tournaments have gender equity gaps after issues were made public by women’s basketball players and coaches last week.
Unless, of course, this is less about gender equity and more about NCAA President Mark Emmert covering his backside, an event he’s won championships in many times over.
You want a real investigation, Mark? Maybe pick up the phone and talk to your constituents on the ground, not your fellow college presidents who keep you around mostly as a $2.7 million a year pin cushion so that they don’t have to feel the sting when things go sideways and the media or the courts or Congress need someone to blame.
Unfortunately, that’s what the academics have decided they want the NCAA president to be. They don’t want a leader or a problem solver or a visionary for the future. They want someone who does the job exactly the way Emmert does: Risk nothing, accomplish little, build a maze of committees and subcommittees and hand off the hard work in a crisis to a boutique law firm that will advise them to do obvious things they should have been doing in the first place.
“While many of the operational issues identified have been resolved, we must continue to make sure we are doing all we can to support gender equity in sports,” Emmert wrote in a press release. “As part of this effort, we are evaluating the current and previous resource allocation to each championship, so we have a clear understanding of costs, spend and revenue. Furthermore, we are examining all championships in all three divisions to identify any other gaps that need to be addressed, both qualitatively and quantitatively, to achieve gender equity.”
As usual, the NCAA is focusing on the wrong solution. When your car’s windshield wipers stop working, you don’t need to look in the fuel tank. You don’t go to the dentist when your shoulder hurts.
The NCAA’s problem that led to the debacle at the women’s tournament is right in front of them, an outgrowth of poor leadership at the top, a process-heavy culture that too often results in a lack of common sense in simple decisions and an utter disconnect with what’s actually happening on campuses.
When you talk to athletic directors, particularly over the past year during the COVID-19 crisis, the disdain for Emmert and frustration over the NCAA’s struggle to manage its own affairs has never been higher. The people who actually have to run these operations day to day not only have lost confidence in Emmert’s ability to lead, they don’t feel listened to or well-served by an organization whose big-picture focus over the past couple of years has been almost completely consumed by fighting court cases and leading from behind on the inevitability of college athletes profiting off their name, image and likeness.
That the NCAA couldn’t solve that issue by itself, instead going to Congress hat in hand to ask for a federal law and an antitrust exemption, is going to end up as the defining failure of Emmert’s tenure, even if this flap over the tournament amenities generates the kind of culture war friction that embarrasses him more personally.
Now, of course, the NCAA is going to shell out more hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers — money that would have been much better spent on the front end had a few people with emotional intelligence looked at the amenity budgets between the two tournaments and realized that in 2021 you can’t have a difference between the men and the women.
It’s fairly remarkable that the NCAA — arguably the greatest driver of gender equity in sports there has ever been — finds itself in this position. I’ve spent much of the week talking to former and current administrators, including some who have a long history in women’s basketball, and none of them view this as a classic sexism issue.
This is about people not having enough common sense to realize that even though you lose money on women’s basketball, you don’t cut corners on food or on swag bags or making a workout facility available or branding the floors so it actually looks like the NCAA Tournament. You just do it right, and you don’t think twice because you’re smart enough to know that if you don’t, it’s going to end up on social media and the cycle of outrage is going to be pointed right at your throat.
This isn’t the kind of problem you solve with a 10-point plan. You solve it with a leader who isn’t afraid to ask questions, who seeks direct feedback from constituents and who makes it clear that the priority for your signature events is ensuring that the men and women who participate have equally great experiences.
This is only a difficult concept if you’re somebody like Emmert, who does not have many relationships with athletic directors, coaches or athletes because they’re not the ones who determine whether his contract gets extended.
By hiring a fancy law firm, Emmert will get to preen around the NCAA women’s tournament this week and look like he’s serious about solving a problem. But you don’t need an expensive investigation to figure out what you need to do. You just need to do your job.