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Investment, not an investigation, can solve the NCAA’s gender equity issues

In response to the resource disparities in the women’s and men’s NCAA basketball tournament bubbles, the NCAA has hired an outside law firm to investigate issues of gender inequity across all NCAA championships. However, an investigation cannot “solve” the NCAA’s gender problems. The NCAA’s unequal consideration of women athletes is a symptom of deeper cultural attitudes.

Texas v UCLA
When it comes to gender equity in college basketball, the NCAA consistently has dropped the ball.
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

After the exposure of the resource disparities in the women’s and men’s NCAA basketball tournament bubbles, NCAA president Mark Emmert distributed a letter to staff that stated:

I have directed our leadership team and appropriate staff to assess all the services, resources, and facilities provided to both the men’s and women’s teams so that we have a completely clear comparison. Further, I will be determining exactly how we found ourselves in this situation. This will be discussed with our applicable boards, committees and membership when the tournament is over and the review is complete.

Last Thursday, the NCAA hired a law firm, Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, to “evaluate our practices and policies and provide recommendations on steps we can take to get better” in regard to potential issues of gender inequity at all NCAA championships.

Investment, not an investigation

Retaining an elite law firm that, according to the NCAA’s announcement, “has significant experience in Title IX and gender equity issues” suggests that the NCAA is taking seriously its gender-based problems.

However, it shouldn’t take a fancy law firm to figure out how the NCAA “found” themselves in “this situation” in the women’s basketball tournament bubble. Emmert and company might as well as hire Scooby Doo and the gang to solve this “mystery.” And when they find the perpetrator and pull off their mask — “Jinkies! It’s Mark Emmert!”

Emmert, of course, is not individually or solely responsible. But he is the current face of the institution that, despite Title IX, has condoned, and never been interested in correcting, gendered inequities. As Dawn Staley wrote in her public letter:

There is no answer that the NCAA executive leadership led by Mark Emmert can give to explain the disparities. Mark Emmert and his team point black chose to create them! The real issue is not the weights or the “swag” bags; it’s that they did not think or do not think that the women’s players “deserve” the same amenities of the men.

This is a “situation” that can not be solved (and subsequently forgotten) by high-dollar lawyers and their investigation. It is a problem long embedded in the culture of the NCAA — women’s sports are understood as secondary. Changing this culture will require an attitudinal shift, one where the NCAA, to borrow two words from Staley’s letter, chooses to “recognize” and “invest” in women’s sports.

Investment, not an investigation, should be the first step for the NCAA.

What soccer superstar (and Sue Bird’s fiancée) Megan Rapinoe emphasized in regard to the US women’s national soccer team’s ongoing fight for equal pay also applies to women’s college basketball:

With the lack of proper investment, we don’t know the real potential of women’s sports. What we know is how successful women’s sports have been in the face of discrimination, in the face of a lack of investment in every level in comparison to men.

And “investment” does not just mean money and resources. The NCAA’s investment in women’s college basketball, and all women’s college sports, must also be cultural.

The NCAA’s gender inequity accomplice

Emmert and the NCAA have had an accomplice in this gender inequity caper — sports media.

In her letter, Staley also notes that the NCAA, through their social media channels and other promotional materials, has made it clear that, “March Madness is ONLY about men’s basketball.”

The NCAA’s designation communicates that the men’s basketball tournament is what should inspire excitement and intrigue. Sports media willingly has reinforced this sentiment, always going the extra mile to cultivate interest in and emphasize the importance of the men’s tournament. The women’s tournament, in contrast, mostly has received perfunctory, obligatory coverage (although, as will be discussed below, this has improved significantly in recent years).

The most glaring example of how the tone of women’s college basketball coverage encourages disinterest in the game is the conversation that surrounded the UConn Huskies when they were at their most dominant — their 111-game winning streak (2014-2017).

Instead of inspiring hype, the streaking Husky squad, which featured a certified superstar in Breanna Stewart, often elicited exaggerated concern (or concern trolling) — was their dominance “bad” for women’s college basketball?

For male athletes and men’s sports, dominance is revered, epitomized by how Michael Jordan’s sparkling 6-0 record in the NBA Finals is seen as securing his GOAT status. However, the Huskies’ dominance was made dull, even detrimental, as it was understood as evidence of women’s college basketball’s inadequacy rather than the excellence of women college athletes.

The mindset of modern sports culture has allowed the NCAA to quietly condone gender-based inequities, as women athletes and women’s sports have been normalized and naturalized as secondary and insufficient.

A shifted sports media landscape could drive cultural change

Shifting media coverage, as much as any supposedly serious investigation, can do more to encourage the NCAA, as well as other institutions and organizations, to “recognize” and “invest” in women’s college basketball and other women’s sports.

The hype surrounding the Sweet 16 freshman phenom showdown between Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark is proof that women’s college hoops can spark the excitement worthy of the “March Madness” moniker. There’s also the swagger of NaLyssa Smith, the infectiousness of Aari MacDonald, the awesomeness of Aliyah Boston and more.

A sports media that chooses to see these young women as the amazing athletes they are can begin to alter the cultural terrain, creating an American sports landscape where the NCAA’s equity issues are impossible, not intrinsic.

ESPN’s high-quality coverage of this year’s tournament, featuring familiar faces in Maria Taylor, Ryan Rucco and Holly Rowe who frequently provide coverage for “premium” men’s sports (college football for Taylor and Rowe; NBA for Taylor and Rucco), communicates the “importance” of women’s college basketball to viewers, as well as stakeholders like the NCAA. However, the World Wide Leader in (men’s) sports still fails to provide anything approaching equal coverage for women’s sports on SportsCenter, social media and its other platforms and shows.

In short, there’s a long way to go.

On Saturday, the NCAA Board of Governors gave president Mark Emmert a vote of confidence. This essentially is a vote of confidence in the status quo, reinforcing that a singular investigation will not fix what ails the NCAA — and American society — when it comes to taking seriously, and seriously addressing, issues of gender equity.