NCAA president 'very pleased' with revisions to Indiana law
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) NCAA President Mark Emmert made it clear the association wouldn't tolerate discrimination and was willing to take its business out of Indiana if the state's religious objections law wasn't fixed to his satisfaction.
Whether he and the NCAA's leaders can take that stand in other states with similar laws is less clear - and its leaders acknowledge wading into social debates and state law is new and tricky territory for college sports' governing body.
Emmert's annual state of the NCAA address on Thursday came as the Indiana lawmakers were revising the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that has, in some ways, overshadowed the start of one of college sports' biggest events.
''Are we happy that this debate is occurring during the middle of Final Four week? Of course not,'' Emmert said. ''It would have been a lot easier to have the debate some other day.''
Critics of the law feared it would lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians. Emmert said the law ''absolutely, positively'' needed to change. About an hour after his news conference at Lucas Oil Stadium, state lawmakers passed a fix that clarified discrimination wouldn't be tolerated.
Still, there are 20 other states that have similar religious objection laws on the books, and the NCAA has held events in some of those states. The impacts of the laws vary because of language and other civil rights protections in those states, but now the NCAA will have to ''look deeper and harder'' at where it takes its events, Emmert said.
That raises several questions for the organization, and Emmert fielded them Thursday. Would it be willing to take its business out of a state that prohibits gay marriage, for example? Or will it be willing to pull major events out of any state with a religious objection law?
''I think it's something that we will once again have to talk about among the membership when our boards get together to discuss these issues and decide at what level should we become involved in civil debates inside these communities,'' Emmert said.
The NCAA, based in Indianapolis since 1999, was among the first organizations to express concern about the Indiana law when it was passed last week. Emmert also spoke with legislative leadership and the state's governor, Republican Mike Pence, and said he became concerned when no one could confirm that the law wouldn't bar discrimination.
In the case of Indiana's law, NCAA leaders said they had to move quickly not just to protect athletes at events, but also because it was a workplace issue. The NCAA has 500 employees at their Indianapolis headquarters and Emmert said it had to protect the ability to recruit a diverse workforce.
Emmert and other NCAA leaders said they will review lawmakers' revisions and discuss the issue further at a meeting next month.
''I will say I think the NCAA has appropriately in the past been critiqued for being slow to respond to things,'' said Kansas State President Kirk Schulz, chairman of the NCAA board of governors, who joined Emmert at the news conference. ''This one of those times where I believe the rapid, quick, decisive communication from the NCAA office, by Mark and our staff, was exactly where we needed to be.''
The threat of pulling events from Indiana was a big one for Emmert and the NCAA. Indianapolis prides itself as a hub for sports events, and the organization has put down deep roots in the city since relocating from Kansas in 1999.
The women's Final Four is set to take place in the city next year, and the men's Final Four returns in 2021.
Emmert said NCAA officials had not gotten so far as actively searching for alternative sites for events nor had they looked into what it might cost to relocate.
If they had decided to go, they would have been leaving a city that rolled out the welcome mat - and perks - when they arrived. Indiana Sports Corp., a private entity, agreed to a ''memorandum of understanding'' that allows the governing body to pay $1 rent on its 324,000-square foot facility in White River State Park. As part of the deal, the NCAA was able to help design Lucas Oil Stadium so it could host NCAA Tournament games.
In return, the NCAA agreed to hold a men's Final Four, a women's Final Four, the NCAA's annual convention and men's and women's basketball preliminary or regional round games in every five-year cycle through the end of the deal, 2060, as well as holding many of their meetings and other events in Indianapolis. The value of that over the next 45 years would reach into the billions.
Changing that would violate the deal and give ISC the right to terminate the agreement within 30 days.
But after examining the legal document Thursday, Jim Nehf, a law professor at Indiana University's McKinney School of Law, said he believes the language protects the NCAA from paying out large compensatory damages for breach of contract if it had to leave.
''I think most courts would look at that (agreement) and say terminating the contract provides the remedy,'' Nehf said. ''What I'd like to see is what the lease says.''
While the stakes are higher for the NCAA in Indiana, the question of associating with states with such laws on the books won't have an easy answer.
''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,'' Emmert said. ''I hope that we don't find ourselves in that place.''
AP Sports Writer Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.