Why can’t the NCAA get women’s basketball right?

What began as outrage over the difference between weight rooms, logos and looks of playing floors at this year’s NCAA women’s and men’s basketball tournaments is ballooning into a full-scale questioning of association leadership’s attitude toward its most prominent women’s sport.

Examples of inequalities that have been hiding in plain sight for years are suddenly having flood lights pointed at them. Motives and budgets have become sources of suspicion. And longstanding issues about how to steer the sport’s quest for greater public acceptance, attention and revenue have been stirred again.

Asked about the attention now being given to the men’s Final Four logo saying simply “Final Four” and the women’s Final Four logo incorporating the players’ gender, Arizona women’s coach Adia Barnes said: “I’d never noticed before. I assumed they were taking care of us and treating us fairly.”

How women’s college basketball – the players, coaches and the game itself – is treated continues to be a major tournament talking point as the men and women resume play with the Sweet 16 on Saturday. USA TODAY Sports interviewed 21 people associated with college basketball or the NCAA to take a closer look at concerns raised in the past week and in the past decade, and the root cause of them.

Several requested anonymity so they could speak freely without fear of backlash.

“I've been at this for 32 years,” said Big East Conference commissioner Val Ackerman, who has played a variety of roles in women’s and men’s basketball, including compiling an in-depth study of the women’s college game for the NCAA eight years ago. “Some days I'm heartened because I think women in sports have made tremendous strides. And other times, it feels like 1988, when I started out at the NBA. I was the first woman lawyer hired and there was nobody for me to look up to and there was no WNBA and women's college basketball wasn't on anybody's radar screen yet.”

Val Ackerman, Big East Conference commissioner
I think this is an awakening that probably needed to happen. I think it will jump start more change.

Women’s college basketball is on many radar screens now – and not just for the controversy. Saturday’s Connecticut-Iowa game will be televised on ABC and feature the matchup of Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark, freshman guards who have received considerable national attention this season.

The NCAA has worked to show its commitment to women’s sports in ways ranging from adding a national championship in beach volleyball in 2016, to having awards and ad campaigns specific to female athletes, to moving its top diversity and inclusion officer into a position among President Mark Emmert’s top tier of advisers.

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Emmert initially expressed contrition late last week over the women not having access to an adequate weight room in San Antonio. He then made remarks at the beginning of this week that were perceived as him attempting to wave off the matter as something that had been taken out of context, then blown out of proportion. And then on Friday, he apologized to the women's basketball players.

“We failed to deliver the things they earned and deserved,” Emmert told The Associated Press. “Beg them to understand that’s not a reflection of how they are valued and how much we care about their success as athletes and young women."

In between his comments this week, the NCAA hired a law firm to assist in what Emmert announced as an examination of all championships in all three of its competitive divisions to evaluate financial matters and identify “any other gaps that need to be addressed, both qualitatively and quantitively, to achieve gender equity.”

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference commissioner Rich Ensor, another longtime participant in women’s basketball matters, was not impressed.

“I feel like they're trying to really broaden the discussion — you know, it's all sports and all women's championships,” Ensor said. “No, no, no, Mark. We're talking about women's basketball here this week and how it compares to men's basketball.”

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SportsPulse, USA TODAY

‘Two different games’

All of this is resulting from a confluence of events that, it would seem, NCAA officials should have been able to piece together entering this year’s postseason.

There is the changing set of societal norms brought about by #MeToo, LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter activism. Social media and college students’ facility and obsession with it put in play everything they do. The ongoing battle over college athletes’ rights is reaching a crescendo in Washington, with the Supreme Court and Congress involved. In addition, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the men’s and women’s tournaments are occurring as single-state events, rather than nationally. That makes their staging easy to compare.

Which is exactly what Oregon redshirt sophomore forward Sedona Prince did when she saw a single rack of small weights in the so-called weight room at a women’s tournament site and fired up the video presentation heard around the sports world. (Prince, it should be noted, is one of the named plaintiffs in an antitrust lawsuit launched against the NCAA this past June.)

“The issue is that this is going to be talked about and debated for a long time because once something like this happens, it doesn’t seem you can have it just be overlooked,” said Jim Livengood, a former athletics director for three schools who has chaired the Division I men’s basketball committee, served on an NCAA gender-equity task force and more recently has lobbied the NCAA to make the women’s round-of-16 and round-of-eight games a single-site event in Las Vegas. “We’re in a society now, good and bad, that somebody has to be at fault. How did this happen? Where did it happen? Why is a real critical question.”

So is this, which Livengood asked rhetorically: “Would (the weight-room inequity) happened had it been back to normal where the sites are separate? I don’t know.”

Christine Plonsky, Texas executive senior associate athletics director
We have a game for college men’s basketball that doesn’t match every other aspect of our game including women. We need to go to one game.

But now here we are, and many administrators who have been involved in women's sports see the weight-room issue as symbolic of the divergence in the management of the two sports that has been simmering under the surface for years. Something as obvious as the difference in player amenities has become an ideal vehicle for many people to express those deep-rooted concerns publicly.

“It's so dumb we're running two different games right now,” Texas executive senior associate athletics director Christine Plonsky said. “We have a game for college men’s basketball that doesn’t match every other aspect of our game including women. We need to go to one game, but there’s this stubbornness about we need to keep it this way, so we end up with two three-point lines on the floor, all this stuff. ... You make it harder on our campuses when you make decisions at the national office level that doesn't say whatever we’re doing here, we’re doing there.”

Oregon's Sedona Prince called attention to the lack of adequate weights and exercise materials for women's basketball players at the tournament in San Antonio.

Oregon's Sedona Prince called attention to the lack of adequate weights and exercise materials for women's basketball players at the tournament in San Antonio.
Carmen Mandato, Getty Images

The 2012 White Paper

In November 2012, the NCAA hired Ackerman as a consultant to perform a study concerning the state of women’s basketball. In addition to having been an NBA central-office executive, Ackerman came to the task having worked as the WNBA’s first president and the president of USA Basketball, the sport’s national governing body. Over an eight-month span, she put together what became known as the Division I Women’s Basketball White Paper.

In discussing interviews that allowed hundreds of people connected with women’s basketball to have input, Ackerman wrote: “My principal observation from the interviews is that there is a tremendous appetite for change in the way Division I women’s basketball is played, marketed and managed. In many cases, the comments I received were tinged with frustration, as it was noted that some of the ideas now being discussed have been ‘kicking around for years,’ demonstrating the difficulty of making change within the NCAA system. No one I spoke with advocated a laissez fair or ‘wait and see’ approach to women’s basketball; the overriding sentiment was that changes of some kind were clearly in order and that the time for action is now.”

Does this sound familiar?

Asked about it on Friday, Ackerman said: “I had put the report on my shelf and re-read it in the wake of everything that's happened. And I will say I think there's still a lot of relevancy in there.”

In 2019, the association unveiled another initiative that was the product of a year-long information-gathering process: The NCAA Women’s Basketball 2019-24 Strategic Plan, which includes as one of its 17 objectives, “Optimize the student-athlete experience at NCAA championships.”

For all of this work surrounding the women’s game, a person who works on the business side of women’s basketball said some coaches still sense an imbalance in attitudes and actions toward their sport.

“From my perspective, I really do get it,” the person said. “Women’s coaches and all Olympic sports get paid because of football and men’s basketball. That’s just the finances of the business. I understand that. But I think that there is a narrative and evidence over time that there is a focus and emphasis on providing men’s basketball the resources that they need and sometimes women’s programs are kind of left to feel lucky that they have an opportunity to play.”

As evidence from recent years, West Coast Conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez said: “It’s not just event management. The tournament has quite a few visual issues, but at a bigger level we have 68 teams on men’s side, 64 on women’s. The NCAA owns and operates the NIT for the men, pays for travel and distributes revenue. The WNIT is privately owned and teams have to pay their own travel. That’s 32 additional postseason opportunities for the men’s, not the women’s.

“On the men’s side there's a summer recruiting academy for hundreds of high school boys and we know why that happened – all the right reasons to get their arms around recruiting – but there’s no equivalent academy for girls, and it’s all paid for by the NCAA, travel, chaperones, a lot there to make attendance possible.”

Ensor has served on the NCAA Women’s Basketball Committee and is currently a member of both the NCAA Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s executive committee.

He questions why the NCAA doesn’t have a revenue distribution based on teams’ success in the women’s tournament the way it does for team success in the men’s tournament.

“Take the pot of money that's generated by basketball revenue – men's and women's – and distribute it on a similar basis for the men and the women,” he said. “The reason that's important is because it provides recognition on a campus, and within a conference, that the women's game is an important element of our annual operations. It's a measure of worth. It also allows coaches to get more resources directed on campus to their operations when they can show some return, through the revenue distribution, of the funds that are invested” in their teams.

Ensor has a quick retort for those who would object because the men’s tournament generates exponentially more revenue than the women’s event. “That's not really the point. The point is it comes into the NCAA, and how we, as an association, want to distribute it, is up to us.”

The women's tournament is being played in San Antonio this year because of COVID-19 precautions.

The women's tournament is being played in San Antonio this year because of COVID-19 precautions.
Carmen Mandato, Getty Images

'Dysfunctionality on display'

The question of who, exactly, is “us,” however, remains a vexing one for all of college sports.

At the most basic level, the NCAA is the schools and conferences, whose employees populate the myriad committees that determine rules and policies on sport-by-sport and/or issue-by-issue basis.

“The NCAA, as I've learned, is a complex bureaucracy – and who makes decisions on what is not intuitive,” Ackerman said. “It can be very confusing to people on the outside, and it's certainly confusing to people on the inside at times – who is in charge ... where decision-making authority lies. ... And sometimes the dysfunctionality of that is on display.”

The bureaucratic and process-driven way those decisions often get made at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis stands in contrast to the way some basic gender equity issues within sports are handled on campus, Plonsky said, where administrators who work with men’s and women’s athletes every day tend to have a better intuitive sense of how they interact with each other. 

“Everything that touches the young people, you really have to be sensitized to that,” she said. “They talk about everything and they compare.” 

So whereas the NCAA might create totally separate manuals for the men’s and women’s tournaments without input from campuses where things can fall through the cracks, it’s built into the ethos of an athletics department like Texas to make sure the amenities of like sports are the same. 

“I mean, it’s side by side — what are we doing for men, what are we doing for women?” Plonsky said. “They can have their artwork changes or whatever in the facilities, but God help us all in this Title IX environment (if there were substantive differences). That’s just the way campuses work. It would be unthinkable to say we’re going to make the women’s locker room half the size of the men. You just don’t do that.”

Nevarez and the person on the business side of women’s basketball pointed out that when the NCAA announced in mid-November that the men’s tournament would be held in one geographic area and talks were underway with Indiana and Indianapolis officials, it said no decision had been made about the women’s tournament.

While Nevarez said “there’s probably all good reasons why” decisions about the women’s tournament were made later, the person on the business side said that among some coaches, “I think that set the precedent that for this feeling in the sport that they were second-class citizens and being treated as such.”

Releases from the NCAA concerning the tournaments said decisions about sites were being made, respectively, by the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee and the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee.

Said the person on the business side: “It’s more important to whoever is running the men’s tournament specifically that the men have the best experience that they can have, given the circumstances, and there just isn’t that initiative on whoever is on the side planning the women’s tournament.” 

Ackerman predicted that will now change.

“I think this is an awakening that probably needed to happen,” she said. “I think it will jump start more change. I think people should not underestimate the power of women to get some things done now because of this. Maybe it'll turn out to be a blessing. I mean, I can certainly pledge for myself and colleagues of mine in the business, including male colleagues, people won't let this be unaddressed. There are a lot of energized male commissioners, as well, about the need to do more and do better and do it fast.”

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