NCAA president Mark Emmert admits inequality but wants women's basketball leaders to push progress

NCAA president Mark Emmert on Wednesday continued to apologize for the inequities between the men's and women's basketball tournaments that were exposed earlier this month, conceding, "we let them down," but he added that the women's basketball community has to determine specific improvements it wants to "pick up and run with" as the sport moves forward.

A recent point of debate has been branding differences, as the March Madness slogan isn't used in conjunction with the women's tournament and the Final Fours are differentiated by the use of "Women's" preceding the Final Four logo.

While Emmert said he is committed to "making sure that we use the marks of the NCAA as effectively as we can in promoting women's basketball," he added that "those are debates for marketing people and those who want to promote the game."

"There's no reason at all why those two logos can't be whatever the women's side wants," Emmert said. "The women's staff are a part of the NCAA. They're part of my national office. We all work and live in the same building. This is not somebody against the NCAA. It's part of the NCAA. The March Madness logo can -- if the women's committee and the women's community wants it used -- there's no reason they can't use it.

"Similarly, 'Final Four' is used by both, and whether or not one wants to use the logo with a gender identifier is up to the committee, and they can certainly do whatever they'd like to do with those things. So, yes, I'm fully committed to doing that."

Emmert addressed the media for about 30 minutes Wednesday ahead of the women's Final Four in San Antonio. While he spoke about a variety of topics, the focus continued to be on gender-equity issues, which were again pushed to the forefront after images surfaced on social media showing stark differences between the men's and women's weight rooms, their meals and the so-called "swag bags."

Most of those issues have been resolved, but the bigger-picture topics -- which have been bubbling within the women's game for decades -- have prompted the NCAA to hire a New York-based law firm to conduct an external review into gender equity for all of the NCAA-sponsored championships.

"When you lay the men's and women's championships side by side, as has been made clear over the past weeks, it is pretty self-evident that we dropped the ball in supporting our women's athletes, and we can't do that," Emmert said. "That's a failure that should not exist."

Emmert said the NCAA needs to use what happened in San Antonio "as a pivot point, an inflection point to say: What do we need to do better? How do we make up for those shortcomings from this day going on and create the kind of gender equity that we all talk about ... to make sure it's a reality, not just language?"

The NCAA has to make sure its 90 championships -- 45 of which are women's events -- are "the pinnacle, the exemplar of how we treat men and women in those championships," Emmert said.

"That is not what we did here," he said. "We are -- I am -- sorry for that. That is something that we should never have allowed to happen. I get that. So does everyone now."

Asked why it has taken so long to address many of the same issues that were raised in a 2013 report prepared for the NCAA by current Big East commissioner Val Ackerman, Emmert pointed to another NCAA study done about two years ago but ultimately said "there's no excuse."

"Those have been and continue to be really heavily discussed," Emmert said. "I think they've led to positive changes around women's basketball, but clearly too little has been done and not enough has been executed on them. The women's basketball community first and foremost also has to determine which parts of those recommendations, like in Val's or anybody else's white paper, that they want to pick up and run with.

"There's no excuse other than we need to do better and we need to get the commitment of all of our governance structure to get on with it. That's what we're doing now. That's why we're doing our review, and that's why I want to work with the coaches' association and others to resolve those problems."

The Women's Basketball Coaches Association on Tuesday sent a letter to Emmert saying that the NCAA's external review was "insufficient to meet the needs of the WBCA's member coaches."

"When you lay the men's and women's championships side by side, as has been made clear over the past weeks, it is pretty self-evident that we dropped the ball in supporting our women's athletes, and we can't do that. That's a failure that should not exist." NCAA president Mark Emmert

In the letter, which was obtained by ESPN, the WBCA instead asked for an independent "commission on gender inequity in college sports" to be led by individuals chosen by the WBCA and NCAA.

"WBCA is a critical partner," Emmert said. "They're the experts on women's basketball. They have more knowledge and understanding of the game and what's been going on for a long time than anybody else. They have to be an essential part of understanding all of this."

Emmert, NCAA vice president for basketball Dan Gavitt and vice president for women's basketball Lynn Holzman were on a Zoom call with WBCA members shortly after Emmert spoke with the media, with South Carolina's Dawn Staley, UCLA's Cori Close, Georgia Tech's Nell Fortner, UConn's Geno Auriemma and former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw asking questions about what happened with the inequities with this year's tournament and with the sport in general.

Asked by Close about the size of the main staffs who work on the championships, Gavitt said it was 12 for the men and six for the women. He said in retrospect that he didn't give enough weight to the fact that the men are used to a tournament in which the NCAA manages neutral-site venues for all rounds, whereas the women normally rely on the 16 host schools to manage the early rounds. With the coronavirus pandemic forcing the entire women's tournament to the San Antonio area, there was more for the NCAA to manage this year.

"I wish I'd realized earlier on that Lynn needed a lot more bodies to pull this off," Gavitt said, while acknowledging that Holzman had requested additional staff. "This is a very different format for both championships, but even more for the women's championship."

Fortner, who noted the women's tournament's growth over the years, questioned why the signage, logos and courts for the women's tournament didn't use the "March Madness" moniker or tap into the ways the men's tournament is branded as an iconic sports event.

Holzman said they didn't have special courts at early-round women's sites at Texas, Texas State, UTSA and Saint Mary's because such courts weren't previously produced or prioritized. The coaches pointed out that it made those games appear on television to be average games rather than NCAA tournament games.

"I do believe that there needs to be this bigger branding strategy discussion," Holzman said. "There clearly the last few years have been some other conversations that we need to be having together, from the outset, with men's basketball about what is right for the game of basketball in college. I expect we're going to see some pretty substantive changes here in order to elevate the championship where it needs to be at."

Asked in the media session whether there was anything he wishes he would have done differently in his response to the tournament differences, Emmert replied, "There always is.

"Those things just shouldn't happen. We could have and should have avoided them, and we didn't. That's a miss on my part. That's a miss on everybody's part. We were really focused on making sure we could get through this during the pandemic, and we weren't as focused on the kind of equity that we needed. The thing I'm most regretful for is that we didn't catch it up front.

"To have this incredible event marred by these incidences is just wrenching. Anything we could have done to avoid that I would have happily done and obviously wish we had. These athletes deserve that. They've earned it, they deserve it. We let them down, and that shouldn't have occurred."

ESPN's Mechelle Voepel contributed to this report.