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When speaking about the NCAA, the word “fair” isn’t necessarily the word that comes to mind. In fact, one could go so far as to describe the National Collegiate Athletic Association as inequitable — and that’s putting it mildly. During a time of social reckoning and a burgeoning fight for equality, the governing body of collegiate sports chose to display its misogyny front row and center on college basketball’s biggest stage. To be honest, everyone knew that COVID-19 protocols would significantly impact March Madness a year after the virus caused abrupt cancellation of the tournaments as a whole. However, no one expected the blatant disrespect that slapped the women’s tournament participants in their faces as soon as they entered the “bubble” in San Antonio.
The match was lit when photos appeared on social media showing the disparities between the men’s and women’s weight rooms at their respective tournament sites. Ali Kershner, the associate Olympic sports performance coach for the Stanford basketball team, made the Instagram post with the following caption:
“Not usually one for this type of post but this deserves attention. This is the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament vs. Women’s Basketball tournament bubble set up. @ncaawbb @ncaa @marchmadness this needs to be addressed. These women want and deserve to be given the same opportunities. Not only that — 3 weeks in a bubble and no access to DBs above 30’s until the sweet 16? In a year defined by a fight for equality this is a chance to have a conversation and get better.”
The photos showed a men’s weight room was equipped much like the gyms we are used to going to while the ladies’ weight room consisted of six pairs of dumbbells and a single stack of yoga mats. As the pics went viral, the NCAA released a statement making a meek attempt at blaming the issue on the “controlled environment” caused by COVID-19 and lack of space in the women’s bubble.
Lynn Holzman, the association’s VP of Women’s Basketball, claimed that the initial plan was to expand the workout area when more space became available later in the tournament as teams were eliminated. However, the “lack of space” claim was quickly refuted when Oregon forward Sedona Prince posted a video showing more than enough space for workout equipment. Even more egregious, the official March Madness Instagram account posted a time lapsed video of the men’s weight room being set up.
Let me put it on Twitter too cause this needs the attention pic.twitter.com/t0DWKL2YHR— Sedona Prince (@sedonaprince_) March 19, 2021
Outraged, athletes all over the nation, including Steph Curry, A’ja Wilson, and Dawn Staley used their platforms to speak out against the sexist treatment. Two days later, the weight room was updated and Prince took to Twitter to show off the new equipment, and to thank social media and the NCAA. But, that’s not enough. Other photos surfaced in the meantime showing variance in food offerings and swag bags. While the men enjoyed a buffet of options, the female athletes had to settle for what looked like pre-packaged microwaveable meals.
Here are the differences in amenities/provisions between the Women’s & Men’s NCAA Tournament I’ve seen so far— AJ McCord (@AJ_McCord) March 19, 2021
- Weight room/equipment
- Swag Bags
Photos from: @Cpav15, @sedonaprince_, @danhenry3, @alikershner pic.twitter.com/2YfCeXaJNn
When it came to the blatant disregard for women, even the swag bags weren’t safe. South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston stated, “The bags, I’m glad we got a body wash, but they got a whole store.” That was not an exaggeration. The ladies only received a single body wash, one towel, one t-shirt, two water bottles, a very small set of toiletries, a hat, an umbrella, a puzzle, one scrunchie, and — get this — one measly tampon.
The men received three times as many items, including several towels, t-shirts, hats, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, books written by legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson, and Lysol wipes. There was even a difference in the puzzles included in the bags. The women’s puzzles had 150 pieces while the men’s puzzles had 500 pieces — as if bubble boredom discriminates based on gender. When the issue went viral, there was yet another excuse made by the NCAA. This time, they blamed it on the weather. Holzman claimed that the difference in bags was because the weather was different in San Antonio than in Indianapolis where the men are playing.
Additionally, the women’s items were emblazoned with “NCAA Women’s Basketball” or “#ncaaw” while the men’s items bore the infamous nicknames for the tournament: “March Madness” and “The Big Dance.” Both tournaments follow the same format and crown the year’s national champion. It is an accomplishment to make the field of 68, no matter the gender. So, why the difference?
While the visual components of this issue are what’s being talked about the most, Staley insists this issue is deeper and not confined to this season. Never one to shy away from speaking her mind, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and current coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks issued a statement condemning the chauvinistic practices of the NCAA and calling out Mark Emmert, the association’s president. It read:
“The issue here looms larger. Let’s start with the NCAA @marchmadness official verified Twitter account. The lag line leaves no run for misinterpretation — ‘The Official NCAA March Madness destination for all things Division I/NCAA Men’s Basketball.’ Those words mean one thing—March Madness is ONLY about men’s basketball.
“How can an organization that claims to care about ALL member institutions’ student athlete experiences have a copyrighted term that only ‘represents’ one gender.”
“They did not think or do not think that women’s players deserve the amenities of the men,” Staley continued. “We cannot as leaders of young women allow Mark Emmert and his team to use and our student athletes at their convenience.”
A quick glance at the official March Madness social media accounts validate Staley’s point of view. The Twitter bio literally reads, “The official NCAA March Madness destination for all things Division 1 NCAA Men’s Basketball.” The Instagram bio reads the same. In addition to being missing from swag bag contents, the slogan is also missing from tournament and court signage on the women’s side. Their court merely reads “Women’s Basketball” as if we needed a reminder of the gender of athletes competing on it. Chris Daily, acting as head coach for UConn in the absence of Geno Auriemma, stated, “I think it looks a little embarrassing on the court when you see ‘Women’s Basketball’ and nothing connected to March Madness. There are women playing, so clearly it’s women’s basketball. I think everyone can get that. So, I think that certainly it’s something that needs to be discussed.”
Wall Street Journal reported that the NCAA’s trademark registration for “March Madness” allows for use for both tournaments. The association’s decision not to use it for both seems to be rooted in broadcast dollars. When approached with this concern, college sports governing body responded with a statement relaying that it would continue listening to the expectations of members and women’s basketball leadership while considering relations with “valued broadcast partners.”
While the visibility of social media is certainly bolstering awareness, there are things unpictured that are even more horrendous. As the nation continues to struggle with COVID-19, there are testing discrepancies within the bubbles, as well. The men are receiving daily PCR tests while the women have to settle for daily antigen testing. It is yet another inconsistency that the NCAA is blaming on location differences. Apparently, their COVID-19 advisory group recommended that testing follow the protocol of the provider and local health officials. Coaches and players alike are outraged and on March 19, the NCAA’s committee on women’s athletics sent a letter to Emmert demanding an independent investigation into the disparities at the basketball tournaments.
The investigation is a step in the right direction. But, to be honest, there isn’t a great deal of optimism that the “non-profit organization” will be held accountable. After all, we’re talking about an entity that makes roughly $1 billion in annual revenue off the talents and likenesses of student athletes. Using “amateurism,” the association has been able to prohibit those same athletes from receiving any form of payment despite the outrage year in and year out. In a complete slap in the face of equality, the NCAA’s despicable treatment of women competing in the tournament is not a Title IX violation.
Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. While the 1,268 member association receives fees from its institutions — that may or may not be federally funded — it is not bound by the regulation. In other words, the institutions are individually required to provide equitable access and resources to male and female athletes. But, the association as a whole is not. It is loopholes like this that contribute to the NCAA’s Teflon Don reputation when it comes to court proceedings. After all, it takes sheer audacity to subject these young ladies and programs to substandard accommodations when a mere scroll down Twitter or Instagram shows their male counterparts getting the red carpet treatment as they “dance.”
To add insult to injury, it’s Women’s History Month. Forget about March Madness in terms of basketball. We’re just mad at this point.