Inside NCAA basketball’s gender inequities and how they were exposed in 2021

·15 min read

On the eve of the reckoning that rocked the NCAA, all was calm — except, that is, for Ali Kershner's group chat.

It buzzed, at first, with excitement for the 2021 women's basketball tournament. Then with confusion, profanity and pictures of an expansive weight room in Indianapolis, designed meticulously for the men's tournament; and of a single dumbbell tree and yoga mats at the women's tourney in San Antonio.

That contrast ultimately sparked a nationwide outcry, months-long investigations and a scathing 118-page report that detailed the NCAA's second-class treatment of women's hoops. But on March 17, 2021, it remained unexposed. The photos lived exclusively in text messages between performance coaches at top women's programs. They'd arrived in San Antonio, and laid eyes on the inadequate equipment, and asked one another, incredulously: "Dude, can you believe this?"

"That's f***ed up," one told another. "You should tweet that."

At least two of them posted comparisons on social media, hinting at their frustration. According to one of the two and Kershner, then the performance coach at top-ranked Stanford, both were told by higher-ups at their universities to delete the posts.

"Their school administrators wanted to exude an air of positivity, and gratitude for being at the tournament," Kershner told Yahoo Sports.

The message, one of the two told Yahoo Sports, was essentially: "Do you want a viral tweet, or do you want your job?”

Among their fellow strength coaches, outrage brewed. Profane group texts began to fly. Kershner, after seeing the skimpy weight rack for herself, thought to herself: "This is actually ludicrous."

Then, standing beside a Stanford player who was "equally as livid," she realized: "What the hell am I doing? I have a platform. Why can't I use it?"

So, on that Thursday morning, she pulled up Instagram.

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She felt scared, but emboldened by a Stanford assistant coach, who found the censorship of other strength coaches "absurd," and told Kershner: "Stanford would be fine with whatever you posted."

She worried about being a distraction, about exuding negativity, but she realized: Those worries are two of many reasons that gender inequities in sports persist.

So, after fusing photos of the men's and women's setups into one image, she hit send.

"This needs to be addressed," she told the NCAA — on Instagram and behind the scenes. "These women want and deserve to be given the same opportunities."

Late that night, with Kershner's image spreading and headlines multiplying, Oregon's Sedona Prince crafted her masterful video, and turned a major story into an inescapable one. By then, white-faced NCAA staffers were already scrambling for answers. Urgent video conferences had already been called. Prominent coaches and Kershner met virtually with NCAA officials, then sent the message that framed the reckoning: These were acute deficiencies that exposed broader disparities between men's and women's basketball that the NCAA, year after year, had not only neglected but perpetuated.

"It is time," South Carolina's Dawn Staley said the following day, "for the NCAA leadership to re-evaluate how they value women."

How did it happen?

Coaches were disheartened by the blatant inequities, and devastated that they'd once again marred a premier event, but not surprised. For years, the most powerful voices in women's basketball had been pleading with college sports officials for reform. In 2013, longtime executive Val Ackerman interviewed dozens of them and found, underneath frustration, "a tremendous appetite for change in the way Division I women's basketball is played, marketed and managed."

Yet the NCAA — its central staff, and the hundreds of college administrators who comprise its membership — largely ignored those voices. It prioritized men's basketball, its chief moneymaker and continued to view the less-developed women's game as one of many so-called "non-revenue sports" as a cause rather than an asset, as an expense rather than the income stream that independent experts believe it can be.

So as NCAA officials gradually realized that the 2021 basketball tournaments would require bubbles, they prioritized the men. They knew, after cancellations in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, that the 2021 men's tourney absolutely had to happen. Their financial well-being depended on it. Organizers received green lights to spend whatever resources necessary to pull it off and announced on Nov. 16 that they'd bring the entire men's tournament to a single location.

When the NCAA women's basketball staff members informed Dan Gavitt, the senior vice president of basketball, that they were ready to make a similar announcement, they were told to wait.

Gavitt and other NCAA executives required women's basketball leaders to submit their plans for a financial review that men's basketball's never underwent. After extensive meetings and analysis, an NCAA finance committee approved a proposed budget on Dec. 7. The women's basketball committee approved plans on Dec. 10 and the announcement came on Dec. 14.

The process left the six-person women's staff, which was half the size of the men's staff, scrambling to catch up. The NCAA announced on Jan. 4 that the men's tournament would take place in Indiana. The women's staffers first visited San Antonio, their eventual destination, three weeks later, and made their analogous announcement on Feb. 5.

Arizona's Cate Reese and Stanford's Cameron Brink tip off for the start of the NCAA women's championship game on April 4, 2021. (Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Arizona's Cate Reese and Stanford's Cameron Brink tip off for the start of the NCAA women's championship game on April 4, 2021. (Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

By late February, the men's staff had established plans for a grand weight room. They detailed those plans in a Feb. 26 PowerPoint, and eventually in "participant manuals" and forwarded them to the women's staff. The women's staff, shorthanded and overwhelmed by dozens of logistical hurdles, didn't scrutinize the men's manual side by side with their own. "We didn't have time to do this," one staff member later told investigators. "We just tried to get our information into the manual as soon as possible."

One staffer told investigators that March 13, two days before Selection Monday, was the first time she learned that the men would have a full weight room for the entire tournament. She emailed a screenshot of the men's manual to a colleague, and said it was "a good start for review."

In their final manual, distributed two days later, the women's staff outlined plans for access to a workout facility beginning in the Sweet 16. They acknowledged that, throughout the first two rounds, they'd provide only a stationary bike and weight pyramid. Kershner says that NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline, on a March 18 phone call, "was not under the impression that female athletes would even want a full weight room."

When Kershner's image circulated, NCAA officials initially cited a lack of space as the primary reason. Prince's video busted that myth. A third-party investigation led by the law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink essentially pinned the blame on the disjointed, delayed and understaffed planning process — undermined the entire way by structural inequities that prioritized the men.

Early in the process, Gavitt later admitted, vice president of women's basketball Lynn Holzman had asked him for additional staff. "I wish I had realized earlier on that Lynn needed a lot more bodies to pull this off," he said.

Not just a weight room

The weight rooms were a powerful visual indicator of those inequities, but not the only example. On the first of many crisis video calls, coaches told Holzman, Look, it's not just the weight room.

Another primary concern was food. In Indianapolis, the men had self-serve buffets. In San Antonio, the women got pre-packaged boxed meals from hotels. And as one player later told investigators: "They gave us little portions. It wasn't warm and wasn't good." Some players cringed at it. Some programs began ordering delivery via apps like Doordash. Other than breakfast, "we did not eat a single meal that the hotel provided," Kershner says.

There were also discrepancies in outdoor spaces — the men had access to yard games in the outfield of a minor league baseball stadium, the women had nothing of the sort.

As for COVID-19 testing, the men got PCRs daily, while the women got antigen tests. That difference materially affected the women's tournament. According to investigators, there were 226 positive antigen tests inside the women's bubble, but no evidence of significant transmission. Many were false positives.

"Every day there were at least two or three people who had to stay back because of a false positive, or the test was inconclusive," one player said. At the Final Four, Arizona bristled at its exclusion from a hype video, interpreting it as disrespect. Investigators later explained that the Wildcats had been excluded "in part because a false positive antigen test prevented the individuals responsible for putting together the video from attending and photographing the Arizona practice."

Some of the inequities were products of the understaffed scramble. "This all was complicated and hampered by the fact that we were having to figure this all out on the fly, and having to do it in really short term, especially on the women's side," NCAA president Mark Emmert later told a group of coaches on a videoconference. "And that contributed to us dropping the ball in key places."

NCAA president Mark Emmert speaks to the media ahead of the men's Final Four in 2019. (Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images )
NCAA president Mark Emmert speaks to the media ahead of the men's Final Four in 2019. (Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images )

Others were products of budget imbalances. Photos of differences in "swag bag" gifts made social media rounds because the NCAA had spent $125.55 per player on an initial round of gifts at the men's tournament, and $60.42 per player at the women's tournament. It spent over $70,000 on personal hygiene kits distributed to men's teams, but not to the women.

On March 26, the NCAA acknowledged a gulf in budgets on a fact sheet prepared for journalists. It said that in 2019, that gulf had been $13.5 million — $28 million for the men, $14.5 million for the women — but omitted many details. Kaplan's report pegged the actual "difference in spending" at $35.3 million.

In Indianapolis and San Antonio, coaches and administrators immediately noticed these differences upon arrival. The NCAA had put roughly $88,000 toward airport signage and street-pole banners in Indy, but just $8,700 toward similar tourney garb in Texas. On signage at basketball venues — in locker rooms, hallways and arena "inner bowls" — the outlay was roughly $645,000 for the men and $111,900 for the women. There were similar discrepancies on buses, at hotels and elsewhere. There were, as there always had been, disparities in plans for everything from Final Four concerts to athlete lounges.

The NCAA had explained away some disparities by pointing to structural differences between the tournaments. But "the differences," Kaplan investigators wrote, "do not fully account for the differences in spending."

'It was a bunch of cheap s***'

As Kershner's photo and Prince's TikTok went viral, NCAA leaders moved to save face. Weight rooms were their immediate priority. Hainline, the NCAA's chief medical officer, called Kershner that night. It was "a frustrating call," Kershner said, because "there was just a lack of understanding of what female athletes would want or need." By the end of it, Hainline tasked Kershner with writing out a weight-room wish list. She huddled with a few colleagues from other schools, and sent the list off to a handful of NCAA staffers. Their response, she says, was basically, "'Thank you for your input.' … Then it was radio silence."

Kershner's Instagram DMs, meanwhile, were flooded with superstar athletes and equipment manufacturers offering to help. Prominent retailers said they had weights and racks on trucks ready to ship. Kershner forwarded their offers to her new NCAA contacts.

The NCAA, though, had scrambled to find its own contractor, and essentially offered a blank check. On March 19, the day after the outcry, the contractor sent back an initial estimate for instantaneous weight-room construction: $400,000-$500,000. "While mindful of budget," an NCAA official responded, "first priority is to make it happen."

A day later, the makeshift weight room opened at a cost of $370,139. Staffers also beefed up the equipment available adjacent to practice courts, then turned their attention to righting other wrongs. They called all seven hotels to ask for larger portions at meals. They rejected some spontaneous food deliveries because the brands clashed with NCAA corporate sponsorship contracts, but eventually worked with H-E-B, a San Antonio-based supermarket chain, to deliver gift baskets later in the tournament.

They engaged with local officials to secure outdoor spaces for much-needed fresh air. They added a $35.75 hooded blanket to Sweet 16 swag bags, and worked with men's staff, who chose not to distribute $32 March Madness robes and $15.25 beach towels that had already been produced. After reporters revealed that an online media hub was stocked with hundreds of photos from men's first-round games and none from women's openers, they hustled to send NCAA photographers to Texas.

All disappointments couldn't be cured, nor the sense among some stakeholders that the NCAA's response, at its core, was primarily a public relations ploy. The fresh weight room, Kershner says, was framed as a "huge win," but "the equipment they did provide for us was just substandard." Another strength coach confirmed to Yahoo Sports: "It was a bunch of cheap s***."

Several days later, Kershner says she got another call from Hainline. He wanted to meet in person. The following morning, Kershner and a performance coach from another school ambled down to a hotel lobby at 8 to find Hainline and … Emmert. They were shocked.

They sat at four different tables, each 6 feet apart. And frankly, Kershner says, "I don't know what the intention of that meeting was, other than to make us feel like we had a voice, and that we were being heard." Emmert was "apologetic," she says — "there was definitely remorse," and Emmert and Hainline said "the right things." But it seemed like that's all they wanted to do. "It just seemed," Kershner says, "like it was a lot of platitudes."

Stanford's Anna Wilson controls the ball against Utah Valley in the first round game of the 2021 NCAA women's basketball tournament on March 21, 2021. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Stanford's Anna Wilson controls the ball against Utah Valley in the first round game of the 2021 NCAA women's basketball tournament on March 21, 2021. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Embarrassment creates opportunity

By the time the public's focus returned to on-court basketball, as the Final Four approached, the coaches who'd battled these inequities for years sensed opportunity. They joined Emmert, Gavitt and Holzman on a video conference call, and probed issues broader than the ones that surfaced in San Antonio.

Why, former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw asked, does Holzman, the VP of women's basketball, report to Gavitt, who runs the men's tournament and reports to Emmert?

And why, Georgia Tech's Nell Fortner asked, can't we use the March Madness moniker?

The NCAA had reserved the uber-popular brand for the men's tournament. When asked why, it initially told the Wall Street Journal that women's basketball leadership "chose to pursue their own brand identity," but soon admitted that was inaccurate. NCAA staffers later told investigators that they'd "repeatedly asked to use the March Madness branding, but were repeatedly rebuffed." Some even said they were reprimanded for using March Madness logos at the women's tournament, and told that the mark was "off limits."

The coaches noticed that it wasn't on their courts. They described flipping through channels, and pausing to admire the "eye candy" of the men's tournament. "Beautiful floors," Fortner said. On the other hand, she continued, "if you were flipping through the TV to find the women's tournament, you would not have stayed on the game, because you might have thought it was a high school game." Even at the Alamodome, the tournament's central site, she pointed out, "it just says 'Women's Basketball.'"

Others highlighted systemic inequities. UCLA's Cori Close mentioned the NCAA's revenue distribution scheme, which in 2019 awarded $168.5 million to conferences and schools based on performance in the men's tournament, and $0 based on performance in the women's tournament. She mentioned the men's NIT, which is owned by the NCAA, and the women's NIT, which isn't — and for which schools have to pay if they wish to participate.

They brought up issues that, months later, Kaplan exposed in its 118-page report. On the video conference call that day last March, Emmert apologized, then pledged to address the NCAA's failings. The side-by-side bubbles, he said, had served as a "naturalistic experiment." The results had provided "embarrassment," but also "momentum," and "attention," and "enough sense of urgency … to make a really consequential shift."

"You got my commitment, my personal commitment, to spend an enormous amount of time and energy on this problem, and making sure that we don't lose the chance," he told the assembled coaches. "Because it's been a long time, and these athletes deserve it. You all deserve it."

This was Part 1 of a two-part series on the story and impact of the NCAA's gender inequity reckoning. In Part 2: What's changed since?