Mark Emmert deserves credit for the change he helped bring to Indiana

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NCAA president Mark Emmert called for changes to Indiana’s religious freedom law. (USATSI)

INDIANAPOLIS — Toward the end of NCAA president Mark Emmert’s annual press conference here at the Final Four, a woman identified herself as a Statehouse reporter, at which point Emmert smiled and asked her a question before she could ask one to him.

“Do you have some news for us?” Emmert said.

“They’re working on it,” the woman responded into a microphone.

So there was no news to deliver … yet. But just a few hours later, literally just a few hours later, Mike Pence, Indiana’s embattled governor, signed an amended version of his state’s controversial religious freedom law, meaning Indiana’s embarrassingly bad week is over, and it’s hard to deny Emmert, on some level, played a role in bringing about change.

So good job, Dr. Emmert.

And how often has that sentence been written in recent years?

“We came out fairly early in this process, and we were hopeful that we could instigate some change,” Emmert said. “While we don’t want to overplay the role we had in it, we were pleased the legislative bodies and the governor and others have responded appropriately.”

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Mark Emmert spends his time making millions of dollars while mostly serving as a metaphorical punching bag for critics of the NCAA because, you know, he’s the president of the NCAA. That makes him the face of an organization rooted in an idea of amateurism most folks believe is, at best, outdated and, at worst, morally wrong. So the bullets fly.

But not this week.

Not after Emmert showed real leadership in standing against RFRA.

He was among the first, if not the first, public figure to speak out against the bill, signed into law last week, that theoretically opened a window for Indiana businesses to discriminate and deny service to gay and lesbian customers, and he did so strongly. There was nothing mealy-mouthed about it. Emmert said the NCAA would move events — like the 2021 Final Four, for instance — out of the state if the bill wasn’t fixed, and, on Thursday, in the clearest possible terms, Emmert said he’d recommend the NCAA move its headquarters out of Indianapolis if the organization couldn’t conduct its affairs “in any place in a fashion that didn’t prohibit discrimination against people for any number of reasons.”

“I hope we don’t find ourselves in that place,” Emmert added.

A few hours later it became official: the NCAA will not find itself in that place.

Ultimately, Pence and other conservative Republicans realized the price of a law viewed by the overwhelming majority of Americans as anti-gay was a price too harsh to pay, and Indiana’s reputation was taking a beating. So they reversed course. And now Indiana is a better state today than it was yesterday. And Mark Emmert deserves some credit for, if nothing else, getting a conversation started last week that escalated by the hour.

He could’ve declined to comment on hypotheticals.

He could’ve insisted now is not the time to assume the worst.

He could’ve done a lot of things to keep from putting himself out there.

Instead, Mark Emmert spoke clearly and loudly and essentially threatened to move events that generate hundreds of millions of dollars for Indiana’s economy. He then threatened to move the entire NCAA and its 500 employees. He took whatever power he has and swung it on the right side of history, and, a week after he first did that, Indiana made history.

So good job, Dr. Emmert.

Your critics still want to know why student-athletes don’t get a bigger piece of the so-called pie that’s filled with billions of dollars, and they’ll never stop asking about North Carolina’s academic scandal. So they’ll be banging on you again soon, I’m certain.

But you did nice work over the past week.

That’s the point.

And now your office can remain in inclusive Indianapolis.

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