The NCAA Tournament — or March Madness — is officially underway in the greater Indianapolis region, as is the Women’s NCAA Tournament in the greater San Antonio region. Those are the names the NCAA prefers to use for both events: The “real” tournament and the women’s tournament.
“We strive to strike this delicate balance between being all the same and yet having some independence so that there’s a unique nature of these championships and to the sports,” Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior president of basketball said. “We also have somewhat of a challenge and that we have different, equally valued, greatly valued broadcast partners: ESPN for the women’s championship and CBS and Turner for the men’s championship. So branding around broadcasts is an issue for those partners as well as for the two championships.
“I’m not sure I have deep concerns there.”
The issue goes deeper than names. What Gavitt seems to be misunderstanding is that the difference between the NCAA Tournament and the Women’s NCAA Tournament has nothing to do with branding or sponsorships. It’s symbolic of the massive inequity between the two events — something that has been laid bare on social media over the last two days.
It started with the weight room. On Thursday, the NCAA posted a time-lapse of the construction of the weight room in Indianapolis for the men’s tournament, an impressive setup but one that’s up to the standards of a Division I team.
On Thursday, Stanford’s sports performance coach Ali Kershner tweeted a photo of the “weight room” in San Antonio for the women’s basketball teams. It included a single dumbbell rack and yoga mats — and not even enough for an entire team at once.
Women’s @NCAA bubble weight room vs Men’s weight room... thought this was a joke. WTF is this?!?— Sabrina Ionescu (@sabrina_i20) March 18, 2021
To all the women playing in the @marchmadness tournament, keep grinding! pic.twitter.com/K04KTv6s46
The NCAA claimed the difference between the men’s and women’s tournaments’ gyms was mostly due to a lack of space in San Antonio, something they planned to rectify as the field got smaller.
That claim appears to have been quickly disproven. Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a video that showed plenty of space around the “weight room,” which seems to contradict the NCAA’s statement.
The NCAA tried again in a conference call on Friday.
“(When) we don’t meet the expectations of that support, that’s on me and for that, I apologize to the women’s basketball student-athletes, to the coaches, to the women’s basketball committee for dropping the ball, frankly, on the weight room issue in San Antonio,” Gavitt said Friday on a Zoom call with reporters. “We will get it fixed as soon as possible.”
UConn’s Christyn Williams spoke out against the NCAA in a Zoom call with reporters, calling the weight room fiasco “ridiculous.”
“I’m calling out the NCAA,” she said. “There’s no excuse for that. It’s unacceptable and they need to do better. I mean, what are we going to do with five-pound dumbbells?”
The disparity between the men’s tournament in Indianapolis and the women’s tournament in San Antonio didn’t stop at just the weight room, either.
The two tournaments also have different types of testing: PCR and antigen. While PCR is considered more reliable and is what’s being used for the men’s tournament, the women’s tournament is using antigen. If any issues arise with that, PCR is available as a backup.
“From the beginning, I saw that we were going to be using two different kinds of testing systems (and) that the testing system on the women’s side was a little bit different than on the men’s side,” Geno Auriemma said. “I don’t know why there’s a difference. I don’t know why one is one way, one is the other.”
According to The Athletic, NCAA president Mark Emmert claimed the difference is because of the provider hired to do the testing. There’s one small problem with that reasoning: San Antonio has a lab specifically built to process PCR tests in a quick and inexpensive manner, per Texas Monthly’s Dan Solomon.
While Auriemma said all UConn’s Tier I personnel in San Antonio have tested negative since they arrived, Overtime’s Chloe Pavlech reported that multiple players in the tournament have already dealt with false-positive tests — an issue that would be avoided with PCR testing.
The Athletic also exposed the NCAA’s complete lack of support for mothers in the bubble.
The NCAA isn't offering support for childcare and breastfeeding children count against the 34-person traveling party limit, putting women coaches in an impossible spot. Cool, cool. https://t.co/iY6LKDi4uz pic.twitter.com/2F0FVyz8nK— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) March 19, 2021
All the student-athletes also received a “swag bag” as a gift for participating but the men received far more than the women.
From what I have been shown it appears the swag bags that the Men receive from the @NCAA are much more substantial than the Women as well. @ncaawbb @marchmadness. C'mon NCAA do better. Be better! pic.twitter.com/tDRjI9e5UJ— Dan Henry (@danhenry3) March 18, 2021
Among the other obvious discrepancies, the men received a 500-piece puzzle while the women only received a 150-piece puzzle. While not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, at the same time... HOW?
Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball, called these “minor differences” and said that any of those differences were due to the location of the event.
“We have done a side-by-side comparison of some of the... swag bag,” she said. “There are some different some minor differences to that and those are because of things we identified that were more differences relative to the location that we were. An example is a difference between an umbrella and a blanket.”
This inequity goes beyond the Division I level as well. The Division II NCAA Men’s Tournament is being held in an 11,000-seat area while the women’s is located in a ballroom.
this photo was just sent to me re: the DII @NCAA tourney. men are playing in the ford center in evansville (11k capacity) w/ tickets on sale (left), women are playing in an event center ballroom with 36 guest passes per team (right). the disparity is present here too. pic.twitter.com/L6opOPZw9Y— Emily Caron (@_emcaron) March 19, 2021
While Auriemma isn’t in San Antonio after testing positive for COVID on Sunday, he’s aware of concerns from both bubbles. In addition to the obvious problems, he feels the inadequate amenities are a disservice to the athletes.
“It’s disappointing to hear that because the NCAA Tournament is supposed to be the culmination of a player’s season and sometimes their career,” he said. “For some kids, this is their first NCAA tournament ever and it may be their last year that they get a chance. They might not make it next year, they may not be back next year. Who knows? So it’s disappointing to hear and to see the reaction.”
Auriemma pointed out that these aren’t isolated issues. Instead, they’re symptoms of a larger problem — women’s sports are routinely treated as second class.
“What’s happening at the NCAA level, that’s a small sample of what occurs every single day on every college campus pretty much throughout this country,” Auriemma said.
While the NCAA vowed to fix the immediate problems (such as improving the weight room), they need to be aware of the larger problem to fix it. Gavitt danced around saying anything meaningful or offering anything close to accountability with his generic answers and platitudes.
“I think it’s a question that we need to have really good dialogue and discussion with the membership overall,” he said.
Anything the NCAA does to improve the women’s tournament from here on out is in response to public pressure, not any genuine effort to support gender equality. If the NCAA truly supported that, it would’ve made the men’s and women’s tournaments equal to begin with. It chose not to.