Lawyers Leading Review of NCAA Championships Vowed to be Independent

The lawyer overseeing an inquiry into gender inequities at N.C.A.A. championship events insisted Monday that she would act independently of the college sports executives who hired her last month.

The lawyer, Roberta A. Kaplan, has a reputation for pathbreaking legal work — she, for instance, litigated a seminal case against a federal law that excluded same-sex couples in its definition of marriage. But some of women’s basketball’s leading figures have voiced misgivings about her appointment by the N.C.A.A., which has spent the last few weeks responding to a public furor over disparities between its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

“We have a reputation for calling them as we see them,” Kaplan said in an interview on Monday, when she described her firm’s inquiry as “completely independent.”

Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, said last week that neither he nor the association had any prior history with Kaplan or her firm, Kaplan Hecker & Fink. But he has so far resisted calls, most notably from the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, for a review led by a commission or a lawyer selected by someone outside of N.C.A.A. leadership.

“I’ve got my lawyer in my back pocket, and I know he’s going to do what he needs to do to make me look good,” Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s women’s basketball coach, told Emmert during a videoconference last week. “And I’m not saying that is the case, but whoever is paying the piper, more than likely they’re going to give you what you want to hear.”

Emmert replied that he had confidence in Kaplan’s firm, but that he understood that there was “a perceptional issue.” He did not announce specific steps to try to ease those concerns.

In Monday’s interview, Kaplan declined to detail her financial arrangement with the N.C.A.A., but she said that the association, which has spent tens of millions of dollars on lawyers in recent years, had not capped her firm’s fees. She said the firm is early in its fact-finding stage, and she urged current and former athletes and coaches to contact investigators, who she said would be conducting interviews and town hall meetings in the coming weeks. She said some former coaches had already spoken to people involved in the review.

“The N.C.A.A. itself admits there clearly was a screw-up,” Kaplan said. But, she added, she wanted to review whether the disparities at the basketball tournaments were “just a symptom of a broader problem, which may not even be intentional.”

“It may,” she said, “just be decades-old assumptions about how things operate.”

Kaplan said that she expected her inquiry would be effectively conducted in two phases: the first, which has already begun, will focus on women’s basketball, while the second will examine other championships in other N.C.A.A.-sanctioned sports. She said that she expected the review to conclude by the end of the summer, but she left open the possibility that her inquiry into other sports could take longer.

Her findings and recommendations are expected to be made public.

The N.C.A.A. repeatedly apologized for shortcomings at its women’s tournament in Texas, like a weight room that was lightly stocked in comparison to workout facilities that were made available for the men’s competition. But women’s basketball officials said that the troubles of the last few weeks were part of a sustained history of men’s basketball, which is the N.C.A.A.’s financial lifeblood, being favored over their sport.

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