NCAA March Madness drops the ball for women’s basketball with sexism outrage

Aliyah Boston (South Carolina), Paige Bueckers (Connecticut), Dana Evans (Louisville) and Rhyne Howard (Kentucky) arrived at the NCAA’s women’s March Madness tournament “bubble” in San Antonio this month as part of the NCAA’s next generation of stars. These women have earned their chance to dance on the biggest stage in college basketball, with all the pomp and circumstance that come with it.

But there to greet the top women’s college basketball players in the country were amenities and accommodations — all provided under the auspices of the NCAA — that were grossly unequal when compared to those offered to their male counterparts at the men’s tournament bubble in Indianapolis.

The “weight room” for these Division I athletes consisted of an embarrassing single stack of six pairs of weights and a handful of yoga mats piled on a folding table. The men’s side, by comparison, more closely resembles the floor of Planet Fitness.

As images of the weight facilities went viral on social media, other disturbing tidbits slowly came to light. In contrast to the option-rich buffets served in the men’s bubble, the women were receiving small pre-packaged meals. The women’s teams were also receiving less reliable Covid-19 antigen tests, while the men’s teams were receiving the gold standard PCR tests. Even the women’s “swag bags” were less impressive. Rather than facilitate full access to the media in a year when coverage has already been stymied by the pandemic, the NCAA further cut costs by opting not to staff the women’s tournament with any photographers for the first two rounds. Yet it managed to round up enough photographers to publish thousands of photos of the opening games in the men’s tournament.

Unable to refute the clear discrepancy in amenities, the NCAA initially hid behind a statement blaming the “controlled environment” of the pandemic and claiming that the discrepancy in the weight facilities was due to a lack of space in the women’s bubble. But that was quickly debunked by a video posted by Oregon sophomore Sedona Prince. She put it succinctly: “if you aren’t upset about this problem, then you’re a part of it.”

The NCAA has long been part of the problem. That’s because the protections provided by Title IX to shield student-athletes from this sort of disparate treatment do not apply to the NCAA.

You read that right. Over two decades ago, in NCAA v. Smith, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the NCAA is not required to abide by Title IX’s rules because it is a nonprofit comprising member colleges and universities, and while most of those institutions receive federal funding, the NCAA does not. The Supreme Court left open the possibility of an instance in which Title IX might apply to the NCAA, but a case has never come along in which a court has ruled as such.

The protections provided by Title IX to shield student-athletes from this sort of disparate treatment do not apply to the NCAA.

In the immediate aftermath of NCAA v. Smith, the NCAA publicly stated its commitment to voluntarily comply with Title IX’s mandates, even though it is not legally required to do so. Today, the NCAA proclaims on its website that it strives to establish “an environment that is free of gender bias.” But its words do not consistently translate to meaningful action, and the NCAA has exploited this legal loophole for years.

In fact, the NCAA initially met Title IX with great resistance. In the 1970s, the NCAA lobbied hard to restrict the application of Title IX to college athletics, ironically fearing that it would be a hardship on men’s teams. In 1976, the NCAA filed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the legality of Title IX, claiming that it should never apply to athletic programs.

Although the NCAA has supported women’s sports as they have grown in popularity, there is no dispute that the NCAA has never given the women’s side the same support it extends to the men. One needs to look no further than the court itself to see that the NCAA has failed to use its most powerful branding tool to promote the women’s tournament: the trademark “March Madness” logo, which graces center court for the men’s games. Even though no trademark restrictions prohibit the NCAA from using the March Madness branding to promote both the men’s and women’s tournaments, it has inexplicably decided to use it in the men’s tournament only.

Most glaringly, the NCAA has deemed women’s basketball consistently unworthy of its biggest financial prize: bonuses paid out to conferences for wins by their teams in the NCAA Tournament, which, in turn, trickle down to the universities and colleges. From 1997 to 2018, the NCAA dished out over a billion dollars to the top five men’s conferences (the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12, the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12). By comparison, the NCAA has not contributed a penny for a single win in the women’s tournament since its inception in 1982.

The likely justification offered by the NCAA for this different treatment? That the women’s basketball tournament does not bring in enough revenue. But the NCAA also has failed to disclose what the revenues and costs are for the women’s tournament, let alone how they measure up against the men’s. Even if the numbers showed that the NCAA cannot economically justify the same level of bonuses for the women’s tournament, it has never provided a good-faith reason it could not reward wins in a more limited fashion. Doing so would at least give women some piece of the revenue pie. The NCAA, however, recently confirmed that it is not pushing for any changes in the bonus structure.

As others have argued, the NCAA’s refusal to reward the victories of teams in the women’s tournament sends the message that it views women’s teams as less worthy, at least financially. That message has always been unacceptable. The message sent as a result of the debacle in San Antonio is even more disturbing.

As the NCAA recognizes in its own Title IX guidance document, gender equity is not just about money; it is about benefits and opportunities. This includes benefits for player health, safety and well-being, particularly given that the NCAA decided to move forward with March Madness against the backdrop of a pandemic.

There is nothing remotely equitable about using the most powerful branding to market the men’s tournament but not the women’s. There is nothing remotely equitable about a handful of free weights versus a full-service fitness center. There is nothing remotely equitable about providing top-tier testing to ensure the health and safety of male student-athletes but relegating the women to the less reliable option (especially given the NCAA’s choice to hold the women’s tournament in a state that recently threw Covid-19 safety to the wind).

Unsurprisingly, the inequalities in the men’s and women’s bubbles have been met with significant backlash from players, coaches, fans and the media. The sponsors and investors have also pushed back. Dick’s Sporting Goods announced its willingness to bring “truckloads of fitness equipment” to the rescue in San Antonio. Orange Theory Fitness similarly offered to open its studios for private sessions and to deliver floor and weight equipment.

These companies understand what the NCAA apparently remains ignorant of: Women’s sports have value, especially in the commercial marketplace, and that value increases with investment, opportunity and support. The numbers and increasing viewership of the women’s game substantiate this conclusion. In 2019, ticket sales surged across the country during the regular season. A sellout crowd and 3.6 million viewers watched the 2019 women’s championship game, driving ESPN to broadcast every women’s game this season for the first time.

In response to its public shaming, the NCAA remedied the weight room problem by finding the resources it lacked previously — seemingly overnight. But a Band-Aid is not a true fix. To remedy a systemic problem, the NCAA needs to undergo systemic changes. For that to happen, this momentum for change cannot fizzle out.

For years, the NCAA appears to have been operating under the assumption that it can escape unscathed when it treats women’s basketball as less than. That can no longer be the case. If the NCAA cannot be held legally accountable, it must be held socially accountable. Leading the charge should be its member institutions, which owe their student-athletes a legal duty under Title IX. It should not be lost on anyone that Prince, the Oregon player, got something done when the institutions and the NCAA failed her. Title IX, however, places the burden to ensure equal opportunity on the institutions. The players should never be forced to carry that burden.

Sponsors and investors should also make supporting the women’s tournament a regular practice, not a sporadic one-off when the public is paying attention and the marketing moment is convenient.

Finally, the NCAA itself needs to follow through in effecting real, sustained change. Its conduct in San Antonio is an outrage and an embarrassment. This should be the last time the value of the NCAA’s elite female athletes is so flagrantly denigrated. Until it is, the NCAA’s commitment as a purported guarantor of Title IX’s protections will remain devastatingly superficial.