In the world of sports, the month of March is perhaps best known for the annual NCAA Division I Basketball Tournaments, commonly referred to as March Madness. After the tournaments were canceled last year due to the emergence of Covid-19, excitement for this year’s March Madness has been incredibly high. Difficulties were to be expected given the unprecedented nature of having to plan two massive tournaments (both the women’s and the men’s) in the middle of a global pandemic. While Covid-19 has presented challenges for certain games — such as when the vigorous daily testing protocol forced the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) men’s team to forfeit their first-round game after receiving a number of positive tests — the spotlight has recently been focused on the NCAA’s failure to provide equitable training conditions for female athletes relative to their male counterparts.
A TikTok posted by Oregon women’s basketball player Sedona Prince went viral on March 19, a day before the tournament even began. The video showed shocking disparities between the weight rooms prepared for the men’s teams in Indianapolis and the women’s teams in San Antonio. While the men were provided with an enormous space complete with enough squat racks for every member of a team to have his own, the women were expected to make do with just a measly set of dumbbells and a stack of yoga mats — albeit not even enough for each player.
The video sparked swift reactions from male and female athletes alike. NBA stars Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry joined forces with WNBA players Sue Bird, Skyler Diggins-Smith and Brianna Turner, all expressing their displeasure with the NCAA and demanding change via Twitter. The outcry prompted statements from NCAA President of Basketball Dan Gavitt, NCAA Vice President of Women’s Basketball Lynn Holtzman and NCAA Basketball Committee Chair Nina King in an effort to quell the outrage. NCAA President Mark Emmert did not make a statement until later in the day.
Emmert’s eventual response was inadequate at best and showed a supreme lack of accountability and a failure of leadership. While he stated that the inequity between the two tournaments was “inexcusable,” Emmert insisted that he didn’t know the planning details before the incident occurred and blamed a communication breakdown between the planning committees for the men’s and women’s tournaments due in large part to working remotely. The weight rooms were eventually upgraded by the NCAA, who accepted several offers of equipment made over social media by companies, but the change only came as a result of the pressure exerted by the players and coaches.
Though it has been the most visible, the contrast in weight rooms is not the only disparity between the two tournaments. The women have brought numerous other inequalities to attention. While the men dined on steak filets and lobster mac and cheese, the women had to make do with meager boxed meals and delayed delivery services. Gift bags were presented to all the athletes at both tournaments, though the women’s bags seemed to be about one-third of the size of the men’s. The NCAA has stated they have addressed the poor food quality and have claimed the two different gift bags are of equal value, but again these measures only came as a response to the outcry from the NCAA athletes.
There is also a stark difference in the marketing efforts taken by the NCAA to promote the two tournaments. The men’s championship has grown into a highly profitable asset with a $1 billion per year television deal from Turner Sports just to air the event. Meanwhile, strategies to expand the women’s tournament do not garner nearly the same promotional effort. In fact, the moniker “March Madness” has only been applied to the men’s tournament. In all advertising material, the women’s tournament is simply referred to as the NCAA Women’s Tournament, while the phrase “March Madness” can be found on nearly every advertisement promoting the men’s game. For example, the men’s games sport massive “March Madness” logos at center court, while the women’s courts simply have small “NCAA Women’s Basketball” logos on the edges of the court. This appears to be a conscious effort by the NCAA to separate the term “March Madness” from women’s college basketball. The internationally recognizable brand of March Madness could be a valuable asset in expanding the women’s tournament, which has been naturally growing in popularity due to a higher level of competition in recent years. Instead, the NCAA has kept the women’s tournament detached from the lucrative brand even though the trademark registration of the phrase allows for use by both tournaments. The March Madness Twitter and Instagram accounts, which only feature content from the men’s tournament, have a combined 2.5 million followers, whereas the accounts for the women’s tournament, which have the uninspired handle “ncaawbb” (NCAA women’s basketball), have only 695,000 combined followers.
Most shocking of all have to be the disparities in the two sites’ Covid-19 testing protocols. Each tournament is contained in a strictly isolated bubble, and players receive daily Covid tests. However, the men’s bubble in Indianapolis administers PCR tests to all participants, whereas the women’s bubble in San Antonio uses antigen tests, which are far less accurate than the PCR tests. The women receive a PCR test only to confirm the positive result of an antigen test. The NCAA claims that both methods of testing are “equally effective models” and chalked up the differences to the different testing services available in the respective locations. Even so, with an issue as crucial as player safety, it is shocking that the two tournaments do not apply the same caliber of safety measures to ensure the health of their participants.
Coaches, players and administrators participating in the tournament have voiced their disappointment with the NCAA. In a joint statement, Stanford Women’s Basketball Coach Tara VanDerveer and Director of Women’s Basketball Setsuko Ishiyama called the actions by the NCAA “purposeful and hurtful” and claimed that it is “evidence of blatant sexism.” They continued: “women athletes and coaches are done waiting, not just for upgrades of a weight room, but for equity in every facet of life.” Legendary UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, who has won the most NCAA championships among both men’s and women’s coaches, and who was also the first to break the news regarding the differences in Covid tests between the two tournaments, characterized the inequities as a “lifelong issue.” Senior UCLA women’s basketball player Michaela Onyenwere echoed both statements, remarking that “this is just the reality” of being a female athlete. Both the players and the public are seeking answers. 36 members of Congress, led by U.S. Representative Mikie Sherrill, called on Emmert and the NCAA to honor Title IX and rectify the numerous inequalities. They demanded a response by April 2. On March 25, the NCAA announced that it is hiring a law firm to conduct an independent review of its basketball tournaments in all three divisions.
It is extremely disheartening that an event that is supposed to celebrate the accomplishments of all the athletes involved has been largely overshadowed by the NCAA’s disregard for gender equality. The issue isn’t just about the differences between the weight rooms, but rather what this and the numerous other inequities signify: a total lack of attention to the importance of equality in men and women’s college athletics. Because of the NCAA’s failures, the coverage of the women’s tournament has been shifted from the games, which so far have featured exciting play from a highly competitive field of teams, to focusing on the NCAA’s incapacity to provide equitable experiences for its male and female athletes. The women’s tournament has certainly lived up to the madness the NCAA ascribes solely to the men’s tournament, but it has been for all the wrong reasons.