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When it comes to gender equity, the NCAA is under the March Madness microscope

After the NCAA suffered through a self-inflicted gender equity snafu during last year’s college basketball tournaments, the organization should expect heavy scrutiny.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 11 Big 12 Women’s Tournament - Baylor Bears vs Oklahoma State Cowgirls
After the many documented issues of gender inequity at last year’s NCAA basketball tournaments, the NCAA should expect intense scrutiny throughout this year’s tourneys.
Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the women’s NCAA tournament approaches, there is much to anticipate.

Will Aliyah Boston and her dominant double-doubles lead South Carolina to a championship? Can Caitlin Clark’s logo launches carry Iowa on a deep run? If Paige Bueckers gets back to her best, will UConn salvage its season with another national championship? How will Haley Jones, or “T-Jones,” headline Stanford’s bid for back-to-back titles?

Yet, the biggest, most anticipated question involves what will happen off the court.

Will the NCAA women’s and men’s tournament experiences actually be equal?

Last season, what became a spectacular women’s NCAA tournament was at first overshadowed by the NCAA’s apparent ineptitude, with attention diverted away from hardwood heroics and instead on the numerous inequities women athletes encountered in their tourney bubble. There was the insufficient swag, the less-than-appetizing looking meals, the inferior Covid tests, and, as famously exposed by Oregon’s Sedona Prince, the sham, slapdash “weight room.”

As this year’s tournament begins, eyes will be on the always-savvy social media feeds of women college hoopers, ready to evaluate any examples of the inequality that the NCAA has promised to extinguish.

When it comes to equity between women’s and men’s college basketball, resources are merely the starting point

In an effort to redress last March’s fiasco, the NCAA hired an independent law firm to conduct an investigation. Their report recommended a number of strategies, including extending the “March Madness” moniker to the women’s tournament.

The NCAA surely knows it will be under a microscope, with critics ready to pounce on any scintilla of evidence that suggests that the organization still has failed to provide equitable support for the women’s NCAA tournament and the athletes participating in it.

Yet, the reason the NCAA is in this situation is about more than resources. It is about a mindset and mentality.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said it best last March:

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.

Does the NCAA now see women athletes as equal to men athletes? Do they believe them equally deserving of the support, hype, sponsorship, swag and more?

The conduct of this year’s NCAA tournaments will not provide an affirmative answer. Instead, we need to see repeated, consistent action and investment by the NCAA in women’s basketball and women athletes. Getting it right this year is merely the starting point.

Although NCAA powerbrokers might not be inclined to understand women and men athletes as equal, the pressure to provide equitable resources could produce outcomes that begin to alter their attitudes.

Other institutions, as much, if not more than, the NCAA itself, also have the power to shift perspectives.

Attention, visibility are key to encouraging equity

In a recent interview with USA Today, Candace Parker, a two-time NCAA champion at Tennessee, emphasized the importance of “attention,” “visibility,” and “opportunity” when it comes to greater equality between women’s and men’s college basketball.

As I have previously discussed, the NCAA is not the only institution that bears the equity burden in college basketball. ESPN, because it is the network that broadcasts the women’s NCAA tournament, should also be under pressure.

The network deserves high commendation for its dedicated women’s college basketball coverage, as on-air personalities, headlined by Ryan Rucco, Rebecca Lobo and Holly Rowe, offer passionate, knowledgable commentary and analysis.

Yet, beyond specific women’s basketball broadcasts, ESPN falls severely short, with obsessive overreactions to the day-to-day dramas of men’s sports consistently featured over on-court highlights or off-court profiles of women athletes.

Because of the vigorous conversation about gender equity issues, it can be expected that ESPN will devote more attention to women’s March Madness on SportsCenter and the network’s various social media feeds. However, it is important that these distribution channels do not contribute to a perception that women’s college basketball is all about UConn (and more UConn!), Caitlin Clark’s Steph Curry-esque shotmaking and a sprinkling of South Carolina and Stanford.

The coverage must cover the spectrum of the sport, showing observers, including the NCAA, the broader population of excellent, unique and exciting women college hoopers who are deserving of equitable treatment.

This attention and awareness, more than requiring fair resources, can steadily spur the changed attitudes needed to make equity an instinctual reality, not just a policy.

Bet on women’s college basketball?

As analyst Debbie Antonelli consistently has argued, expanding the opportunity to bet on women’s sports, including women’s college basketball, also can accelerate interest and engagement, and, in turn, adjust attitudes.

Although placing bets on women’s college basketball might not be the smartest investment strategy for individuals, Antonelli is right to suggest that providing gambling opportunities is a smart investment strategy for the sport.

Baylor head coach Nicki Collen expressed her enthusiastic agreement.

The amount of money wagered on women’s college hoops could be most impactful in changing mindsets about gender equality. For all its obtuseness, we know the NCAA understands the language of dollars and cents. Money talks!

Sportsbooks, like ESPN, thus stand as a powerful player in encouraging greater gender equality in college sports.

So, the March Madness microscope must extend beyond the NCAA, also examining how these other institutions can contribute to more equitable attitudes about women and men athletes.