By Connie Wardman, SDLT, (She/Her)

Ten years ago I wrote an extensive three-part article on Title IX asking whether it was making gender inequities in scholastic sports better or worse. I finally came to the conclusion that while it was very clear that it had made it better for women as the underrepresented gender, it was also very clear that an exclusive answer of “better” or “worse” couldn’t then, nor can it now adequately reflect the complexity of the situation.

And the 2021 NCAA weight room fiasco is an example of a legal loophole that for years has allowed the NCAA to perpetrate an illusion of gender equity in its treatment of the men’s and women’s March basketball tournaments. – a real life example of a line from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, “HMS Pinafore,” Things are seldom what they seem, Skim milk masquerades as cream.”

For many women who finally had equal access to scholastic sports when Title IX was passed in 1971, like softball legend Dorothy “Dot” Richardson, it absolutely changed their lives. A three-time All-American at UCLA and NCAA Player of the Decade for the 1980s, Richardson brought home gold medals from four Pan-American Games, gold medals from the 1996 Summer Olympics and the 2000 Sydney Games plus other honors and awards.

Richardson, 11-years-old when Title IX passed, recounted how she played every sport she could in junior high school. And by ninth grade she was named the school’s Most Outstanding Athlete, the first time a girl had ever been considered for such an award. However, she says that the moms “all freaked” since they felt that only boys should be competitive.

Herein lies a big problem that Title IX can’t change – societal beliefs and public perceptions of what is and isn’t proper – those gnarly negative ones that only tend to change generationally. But surely you’d think ideas from the 1970s and 80s about which gender should really be competitive would have changed by now.

So let’s revisit the NCAA’s 2021 March Madness weight room debacle we shared in Compete’s last issue. After Oregon forward Sedona Prince posted that now infamous TikTok video on Twitter exposing the blatant inequities between the men’s and women’s weight rooms, the viral outcry forced the NCAA to address it publicly by commissioning an external report led by New York law firm Kaplan Heckler & Fink LLP.

This year the women’s NCAA teams have more than just equal equipment, food and other amenities thanks to that critical 113-page external report, now known as the Kaplan Report. It found “systemic gender inequity issues” at the NCAA and stated that, “With respect to women’s basketball, the NCAA has not lived up to its stated commitment to ‘diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators.”

On March 4 the following NCAA officials addressed the media to outline some of the upcoming changes in this year’s tournaments: vice president of women’s basketball Lynn Holzman, women’s committee chair Nina King and NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt.

The easy fixes? According to Holzman, this year the women’s basketball tournament has been expanded to 68 teams and is finally permitted to use the cherished “March Madness” branding in all the women’s games starting with the regional rounds that are played at neutral sites after earlier rounds are hosted by higher seeds. Rather than “Women’s Basketball” logos on the courts, there will be “March Madness” logos on the courts. The Final Four logos will also be gender specific.

It’s been the equity area of TV rights and revenue disbursement that have proved more challenging. Gavitt says they’ve used the zero-based budgeting exercise from the Kaplan Report and taken every budget line for men’s and women’s basketball championships and compared and contrasted them. They’ve had “significant discussions,” he said about the equity standpoint where there are discrepancies, and in many cases they’ve been adjusted “to the tune of millions of dollars.” Other changes they’ve listed include:

  • Gifts for each team that will be the same. In previous years, while they were said to be comparable in value, they were” packaged and presented differently”
  • Creating identical on-site lounge areas for the male and female players
  • Fan events at the Women’s Final Four have been expanded to be more similar to the men, including an open practice the day before the championship game
  • Adding more signage and other promotional items to create a better atmosphere at game sites
  • Increasing cross-promotion between the men’s and women’s tournaments
  • Officials are now being paid the same at both tournaments

While all this appears to be a big win for the women players in the NCAA tournaments this year and beyond, the ugly fact remains that without the visual evidence of such stark disparity between the men’s and women’s weight rooms going viral last year, nothing would have been different this year. The Kaplan Report noted that with the growing television audiences for the women’s games and the women players’ “huge following on social media,” the NCAA could negotiate fees that are much higher for coverage of the women’s games.

In defense of the current NCAA administrators, the broadcast rights to the women’s tournament were sold in a bundle with 23 other NCAA championships to ESPN for $500 million in a 2011 deal that doesn’t end until August 2024. However, while Gavitt spoke about being “optimistic and hopeful” about greater media rights fees and “possibly” selling those rights individually, the Division I women’s basketball being at the top of the list, his comments about ESPN being “anxious to continue in business with us” seems to reflect either a lack of business acumen when it comes to media rights and negotiations or simply not grasping the urgency of the situation. It certainly wasn’t a ringing endorsement of the Kaplan Report’s assessment of the situation and its recommendation.

And on February 18 the NCAA announced that it wouldn’t be following the Kaplan Report’s recommendation to have both the men’s and women’s Final Four tournaments in the same city at the same time. “We talked to women’s basketball coaches, student-athletes, governance groups,” said King, athletic director at Duke. “We really just felt we wanted to see how these upcoming enhancements are going to impact the growth of the game and the championship. We didn’t feel we wanted at this point to implement a change in the format to the Final Four.”

According to ESPN, Democratic Representatives Carolyn Maloney of New York, Jackie Speier of California and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey said the NCAA was “violating the spirit of gender equity as codified in Title IX” in a letter they sent to NCAA president Mark Emmert just days before the tournament began.

Blaming Emmert for his failure to implement some of the key recommendations of the Kaplan Report, they said the NCAA “failed to create or commit to creating a chief business officer role to oversee NCAA’s media partner relationships with CBS/Turner and ESPN, the Corporate Partner Program, and branding and marketing for all championships.”

The lawmakers also criticized Emmert’s lack of progress in changing the leadership structure that would have had NCAA vice president of women’s basketball Lynn Holzman report directly to him rather than going through Dan Gavitt, the NCAA senior vice president of basketball.

Also noted were internal NCAA emails highlighting the food disparities at last year’s tournaments. Staff had declined offers from sponsors and non-sponsors to donate food or food gift cards when women players complained their food wasn’t equal to that given to the men. LA Sparks player and former Stanford star, Chiney Ogwumike, offered to donate $500 DoorDash cards to each of the 64 teams but was turned down because Uber Eats was an NCAA corporate sponsor.

The NCAA sent a response email to the lawmakers about the progress they’ve made this year, the overall feeling coming from it as well as comments from NCAA officials, appears to be one of self-satisfaction with its measured improvement on its own timeline. The email response said in part, “Although our work is not done, we are focused on the many improvements made since then that provide students across all our championships with a lifelong memorable experience.”

The Kaplan Report began by calling Prince’s video post “the contemporary equivalent of ‘the shot heard round the world,'” yet the NCAA doesn’t appear to recognize the report as its 21st century wakeup call.

So here we are in 2022, the 50th anniversary of Title IX, discovering that in 2021 the NCAA mindset and its tournament setup was stuck in the 20th century for women like Dot Richardson; this despite the caliber of the women’s play and their growing social media following and despite the NCAA’s “stated commitment to ‘diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators.’” Discovering that nothing would have changed in 2022 had it not been for that TikTok video is a hard pill to swallow without discovering how and why it happened.

Read Part 2 of this story, HERE!

Photo via Wikimedia Commons