NCAA President Mark Emmert has announced a new commission to study how its handling of fouls called in men’s basketball can help state governments determine the proper balance between religious freedom and civil rights:
The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to creating an even playing field, especially in men’s basketball, which is our most popular sport. After the Final Four in Indianapolis this year, it became obvious to us that the State of Indiana desperately needs our skills in properly enforcing the rules that promote religious freedom. At first, we were going to study the laws of every state to see if there was any discrimination out there that would prohibit us from playing games in those states. We were committed to not doing anything to contribute to discrimination of any kind, as we publicly stated on several occasions. Then we realized how difficult that task would be. So we decided instead to focus on what we do best: training officials to determine when one person has violated the personal space of someone else. By letting others learn from us, we feel like we can make a big impact on how the rest of America can live up to our high standards.
Emmert explained that the idea of the new commission originated in part as a response to the generosity of Indiana. The NCAA has a nearly fifty year lease on its headquarters in Indianapolis for $1 per year. “This is the least we can do for Indiana. We will give back to this great city our skills as experts in mediating conflict. After all, that is what refereeing is about. And to be quite frank about it, how hard could it be to solve fundamental constitutional issues compared to figuring out what constitutes a blocking call?”
“We work diligently,” he continued, “to make sure that no team is discriminated against in the NCAA basketball tournament. Sure, some schools have bigger budgets than others, but look at the way in which we don’t let individual players profit from our proceeds. We make almost one billion dollars a year, but we do not discriminate in how we use those funds, almost none of which go to the players who are the beneficiaries of our great success.”
“I’ll give you two examples of our expertise in fairness,” he continued. “Look at how we let players spend one year with us and then leave. If that is not inclusive, then I don’t know what is. And look at how we’ve been willing to dismantle boys’ sports like wrestling in order to make sure that schools have an even number of girls and boys athletes. Trust us, we know how to balance competing interests.”
When asked for examples from the training of referees, he pointed to the Duke–Wisconsin championship game. “There’s much that Indiana and constitutional experts can learn from that game,” Emmert said. “We live in a new world, and everyone has to adapt. When a guard drives to the basket and initiates contact, even when he has to go out of his way to make that contact, you have to call that as a foul. You can’t reward defenders for being innocent bystanders. And take the Tyus Jones flop. That kind of thing just has to be rewarded. It’s the same as when someone files a law suit claiming to be so offended by something that doesn’t affect them at all. People can be harmed by stuff that just happens in their imagination. But it’s still a real harm and deserves rectification.”
Several reporters asked Emmert about the perception that the referees began calling the game differently in the second half. “Rules are meant to be changed,” Emmert noted. “And that should go for the constitution too. Even Coach K’s haranguing of the officials during half time is just a part of the game, like the media jumping on the Indiana legislature after it passed the religious freedom law. You have to let influential people intervene to change the rules of how any game is played. If important people aren’t allowed to determine the rules, then who will?”
Emmert concluded the press conference on a philosophical note. “Our society is becoming more aggressive, and college basketball should lead the way. If you can’t stick your hip out on a screen, or ride somebody’s back with your chest, you don’t deserve to win the game. Shot selection is out. Bullying is in. Duke understood that and Wisconsin didn’t, and Duke won. Maybe that’s the most important lesson we can teach Mike Pence and the conservatives who believe in religious freedom.”
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.