The NCAA screwed up the Women's NCAA Tournament. But the problems aren't just in Indianapolis
Mark Emmert is an easy punching bag whenever things go wrong. But the big questions about women's athletic equality should be asked locally, not just to the suits in Indy.
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By now, you’ve certainly seen the tweets. The NCAA failed to create anything resembling an equal experience for the NCAA Women’s Tournament. The weight room for the women looked worse than what you might find at a budget hotel or apartment complex gym. Pictures of the food situation made high school cafeteria food look like a Michelin star restaurant. The men’s swag bags had more stuff than the women's. Even their puzzles were worse.
All of that pales in comparison to the most significant difference. Athletes at the Men’s Tournament were given different kinds of COVID tests than athletes at the Women’s Tournament, with the men getting more expensive, and reportedly more accurate, tests.
These are not insignificant mistakes. These are really big mistakes. Disparities in food, training equipment and medical testing don’t just impact the on-court product, but the immediate health and safety of the athletes, and those in the bubble, er, controlled environment, with them. These are mistakes made by NCAA administrators. They’ve earned their criticism, and the organization needs to demonstrate quickly and clearly how they plan to make sure this never happens again.
But writing a column ripping into the NCAA’s central leadership is easy. Like catching fish in a barrel of jello with dynamite easy. It’s playing FCS Southeast on Junior Varsity after benching their best player easy. It’s pulling a Dikembe Mutombo when my two-year-old tries to drive to the Fisher-Price basketball hoop easy.
There’s more going on here than just the screw-ups of Indianapolis bureaucrats
Let us consider another critical failure ahead of the tournament…maternity care. Via Chantel Jennings of The Athletic:
The WNBA had laid a roadmap for what it looked like to be a bubble inclusive of families. So when it came to women’s college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, which begins with first-round games Sunday, the NCAA had a layup.
Instead, it dropped the ball.
From the start of conversations about the bubble tournament in the San Antonio area, multiple coaches told The Athletic that children weren’t a priority. Even into February, some head coaches wondered if children would be allowed in at all or if they would need to send assistants in their place so they could stay home with their kids.
And when the NCAA did announce its protocols, more roadblocks emerged. Children would be allowed into the bubble, but all children — regardless of age — would count against the 34-member travel party.
On the surface, this looks like another completely justifiable broadside against the NCAA, right? We know how to accommodate small children in a bubble-like setting for women’s basketball. The WNBA not only pulled it off but made the presence of children a feature, rather than an obstacle needing to be surmounted.
Let’s be clear: that rule sucks. Coaches shouldn’t have to choose between, say, bringing in another athletic support employee, or their newborn that they are currently breastfeeding.
But consider the following:
There are coaches who had to decide whether to advocate for themselves within their own athletic departments. There are those with less leverage who potentially never spoke up, fearing what it might mean for their job. There are coaches who, if they did bring a child, maybe didn’t bring a caretaker because there wasn’t “room” in the travel party. And now that coach will balance, in the room they’re not allowed to leave often, their team’s success with their child’s care.
“Maybe there’s a full travel party, maybe your head coach doesn’t support you, or maybe you’re afraid to ask,” said Arizona coach and mother of two Adia Barnes. “I think there’s so many different factors that make it a lot harder for an assistant. I think some probably won’t ask, and others I think that they won’t ask because they know they’re going to get a ‘no.’ And I think some assistants are afraid to ask because I think some of the answers they might get, they might not want to hear. The coach might prefer if they stay home.”
I’ve been thinking about this passage all weekend. When I read this, I don’t think of mission failure at the NCAA central offices, but about culture at individual institutions. Are individual schools promoting an atmosphere that would allow young mothers to feel comfortable enough to advocate for themselves? Are individual schools promoting a culture that makes it clear that women’s sports and women employees matter, and that they do not need a requisite amount of political juice to ask for support?
If not, why should we be surprised if NCAA policies don’t demonstrate those values? Where do you think they got that from?
It’s important to remember that the NCAA does not exist in a vacuum. It exists because of the schools.
Mark Emmert is an easy punching bag, just like the commissioner of every professional sports league. But all that stuff you don’t like about him isn’t unique to Mark Emmert.
The massive NCAA rulebook? Confusing waiver policies? Lack of direction surrounding COVID or player safety protocols? This isn’t because of the personal opinions of Emmert, or any other single administrator.
We have these things because NCAA membership wants those things. The NCAA, as we know it, is a collection of university presidents, athletic directors, faculty athletic advisors and various other school-based personnel, who all get together and vote.
Your athletic director didn’t tell the NCAA to give women’s basketball players a puzzle designed for eight-year-olds or to let Days Inn design the gyms. But your athletic director and your athletic director’s peers decide what is actually a priority, and what they tell the press is a priority.
And there’s good reason for NCAA administrators to think that women’s sports just aren’t as important to school
After all, plenty of individual schools are playing fast and loose with all sorts of generalized Title IX compliance. Iowa, East Carolina, and William & Mary have all been forced to restore previously cut sports once lawyers pointed out they’d be out of compliance with the law, and other schools could join them. Other institutions are almost certainly lawsuits waiting to happen.
Title IX attorney and Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar has sounded this alarm for a while, and I think she’s right. Hogshead-Makar told USA TODAY that she believes there isn’t a single P5 school that is totally compliant with Title IX. Her website, titleixschools.com, lays out how many NCAA D-1 institutions are failing to provide equal access to scholarship dollars, recruiting resources and more.
If schools aren’t treating women’s sports as equals in the scholarship department, in the marketing department, or in any other department, why should we be surprised that the NCAA doesn’t either?
The smartest observers realize that this Tournament is an extension of more systemic issues. We should treat it that way.
Here’s former Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, for example:
and here’s South Carolina’s Dawn Staley:
And from Stanford’s women’s basketball staff:
All of these statements point to the idea that specific failures surrounding this tournament were born out of larger, systemic patterns of neglect from the NCAA. It’s not a problem that can automatically be fixed by firing two or three people or banishing a vendor.
I’d posit if individual schools were more aggressive about setting this tone, then you’d see the cultural problems clear up at the NCAA as well. McGraw noted that what really bothered her was that “no one on the NCAA’s leadership team even noticed.” I don’t think such a thing would ever be possible when a mass of member institutions so strongly model behavior that demonstrates women’s sports are important.
I think every AD and school president ought to ask themselves some important questions this week
Is my sports program compliant with Title IX? Does the school offer enough athletic scholarships across enough sports to really be considered compliant? Do we provide those sports with the financial, academic and structural resources needed to be really successful? What would prospective athletes think if they shared tweets of the resources our high-profile men’s programs got compared to what we offer to women?
Does our program relentlessly advocate for women’s sports in our conference? With the NCAA? With our peers? Do we market those programs the same way? Are we, without intending to, sending subtle messages about what programs we think are really important, and which ones we don’t?
Does our program foster a culture that not only keeps our women athletes and staff members safe and healthy, but gives them the tools to really grow? Are we compliant in how we handle Title IX complaints? Do we offer family leave? Do we have locations in our department where a breastfeeding staffer or coach can pump? Are we flexible with child care concerns?
Those are tough questions!
There’s talking the talk, and there’s walking the walk. Failure to really address the issues that won’t attract national media attention eventually creates a culture that does attract national media attention.
McGraw is right. This generation of women expects better.
They deserve better.
And without getting better at the institutional level, the national organization is likely to simply lurch from one crisis to another.
Change clearly needs to happen in Indianapolis. But it needs to happen locally too.
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