Mark Emmert is still standing. At this Final Four, he's looking like a leader, too.
The NCAA president, who famously ended his debacle of a Final Four news conference two years ago with, "I'm still standing. I know you're disappointed," has been striking a much different tone this year.
He was among the first and most vocal critics of an Indiana law that detractors said was designed to protect businesses and individuals who did not want to serve gays and lesbians. Emmert's willingness to take a stand—along with pressure from business, civic and advocacy groups—led to a rewriting of the law that was passed and signed Thursday evening, about 48 hours before tipoff of the NCAA's biggest event.
"We were very concerned with Mr. Emmert's comments. He was one of the first phone calls I made last week," said Brian Bosma, the Republican Speaker of the House in Indiana.
After years of moving slowly, playing defense and letting events control them, NCAA leaders didn't hesitate to recognize the moment for what it was.
"The NCAA has appropriately, in the past, been critiqued for being slow to respond to things," said Kirk Schulz, the president at Kansas State and chairman of the NCAA board of governors. "This is one of those times where I believe the rapid, quick, decisive communication now from the NCAA office, by Mark and our staff, was exactly where we needed to be."
Even with the topic still fluid on Thursday afternoon—being hashed out a few blocks away at the Capitol—Emmert didn't shy away from using his bully pulpit to talk about what might and might not happen. As important as Indianapolis is as an event host for the NCAA—with the women's Final Four set here for next year, the men coming back in 2021 and a number of other events in between—it's even more important because it is home for the association.
"If I believed we couldn't conduct our affairs in any place in a fashion that didn't prohibit discrimination against people for any number of reasons, then I would surely recommend that we move," he said. "I hope we don't find ourselves in that place."
Thanks in large part to his proactive lobbying, they don't.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of tricky, contentious and downright ugly issues still facing the NCAA, a few of which revolve around money and how much of it should go to players who deliver the entertainment that pays the bills for college sports. The current 14-year TV contract for March Madness is worth $10.8 billion.
A small sampling:
—In what's best known as the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, the NCAA is appealing a court decision that calls for players to be paid at least $5,000 a year for rights to their names, images and likenesses. There are other, similar lawsuits, as well.
—Academic fraud cases at North Carolina and elsewhere. The enforcement division has ongoing investigations at 20 schools.
—A system that allows drug-testing programs to vary widely from school to school.
—The possibility of players being allowed to unionize. It felt all-too-real this time last year, when, in the wake of a favorable ruling for Northwestern players on the issue, Emmert turned prickly at his news conference and called the whole idea "grossly inappropriate." That case remains unresolved.
—The vast difference between the needs of schools in the five biggest conferences and the rest, much of which is centered around how much money players should receive, and in what form.
A recently passed change to give those five biggest conferences "autonomy" to make rules for themselves has eased some of that tension. A decision to give money to players' families to attend the Final Four is a recent example of the sort of NCAA-led change that can benefit players.
"It's not the last step we're going to take," said South Carolina president Harris Pastides, another member of the NCAA board. "I would also say that a lot of critics out there … haven't quite fully digested the steps we've taken."
But there was plenty of credit to go around during Thursday's hour-long Q&A session, headlined by Emmert's coaxing of the change in the Indiana law.
"I'm tired of playing defense," Schulz said when asked about the NCAA's longstanding reputation as slow and reactive.
He listed off some of the NCAA's recent successes and feel-good stories, plus one oft-overlooked fact: For all the handwringing about one-and-dones that comes up whenever Kentucky is having a good season, as is the case this year, an average of only around 10 players out of the 5,500 who play in Division I leave after one season.
"There are a lot of good things happening," Schulz said, "that we don't necessarily always convey in a good way."