About time: The NCAA could have fixed tournament discrepancies by putting employees on equal footing

·7 min read

"We didn't have the time to do this." 

It's one simple line that's felt throughout the entirety of a 118-page gender equity review of the NCAA's approach to the men's and women's basketball championships. It's used 19 pages in to explain the weight room controversy that led the organization here in the first place and is felt often in the report released Tuesday by Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP. 

The Division I Women's Basketball Committee didn't have time to compare PowerPoint presentations of evolving plans for the men's basketball tournament to the ones they were developing for the women's. Nor did anyone have time to look at the manuals side-by-side to catch disparities. The women's committee was already a month behind the men's committee on planning a tournament during the pandemic because of NCAA obstacles, the report details. And all of this, in the NCAA's organization structure and unspoken guidelines, fell on the women's committee instead of the men's. Because of course it did. 

When the much-anticipated report was released, the main takeaway was what everyone around women's sports has realized for decades: there are "underlying gender, systemic equality issues" in how the NCAA treats its two Division I basketball tournaments. That mention of a lack of time, though, is another aspect those working in and around women's sports are all well aware of. 

To work on the women's side of sports is to do it with fewer people, lesser assets and a shortened time frame to finish it all. They always have to do more with less, and fight every step of the way to do it. Yet still, look at what the tournament and women's sports have been able to accomplish in the past four decades. There are more fans, more viewers, more interest, more talent. It is trending on the same growth chart as the men's game and tournament — which is twice as old — and that's all without the proper support, including time commitments by those involved. 

That women's basketball "effectively reports up through men's basketball" is a significant problem, as the report outlines. It's also major that there are more employable hours being given to the men's side, with an equivalent of 21.86 full-time employees to 13.92 for the women. Those women have to shoulder more responsibility with their attention being drawn in dozens of different directions daily. As one example, an employee on the women's side has "approximately 20 other responsibilities" in addition to her job in charge of mementos and gifts. Her male counterpart had seven other responsibilities. And so the comparison goes down the line. 

That matters. Things big and small are more likely to fall through the cracks. Each aspect of the game is given less time and attention, resulting in years of inequalities that grow larger by the season. It's as if a head coach was also in charge of physical therapy. It's unfair to everyone involved. Not only does it make it look as if the men's game is more important, it keeps the women's game from growing at a faster rate. For the NCAA, all that means is more money. 

As one of its recommendations, the report advises "equity in staffing for Division I men's and women's basketball," which would go a long way in beginning to address these time issues. One option proposed is putting one person in charge of swag for both tournaments, ensuring it is equitable but also making the process more efficient. It would also emphasize the team aspect — and after all, we are talking about sports.

There are dozens of recommendations that should all be seriously considered by the NCAA and president Mark Emmert. The Board of Governors released a statement urging Emmert to address organizational issues, but as the report alludes, it has been decades of all talk and no action.  

Adia Barnes
Arizona head coach Adia Barnes, who spoke out about her team inexplicably being left out of a hype video, arrives the the Alamodome with her 5-month-old child before the championship game against the Stanford Cardinal. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

NCAA spends more money, time fixing PR problems

The report is an in-depth, detailed review of the 2021 tournaments and the inequalities that have been raging since the beginning. While much of the issues come down to how it feels to be treated differently, many are about health and safety. More notes from the review: 

  • The food available to players inside COVID-19 bubbles went viral in nearly every sport, professional and collegiate. But in this case, the women didn't only face a quality issue. The first thing noted in the report is there was a quantity issue, as shown plainly by menus from each bubble site. The disparities "may have been based on unfounded assumptions at the hotels about what, and how much, women eat as compared to men," per the report. That is a basic, clear example of how societal assumptions and gender stereotypes can have outsized impacts on people's health and lives. 

  • Though corporate sponsors (Buffalo Wild Wings, Pizza Hut, Wendy's) offered free, supplemental food opportunities to the women's bubble similar to those it did with the men, the women's staff didn't have "the bandwidth to coordinate the necessary logistics" that late in the planning game. For example, a Wendy's food truck needed a permit to be outside the San Antonio Convention Center. There were fewer employees in the women's bubble than the men's to take on a last-minute responsibility like that. The NCAA corporate relations team later helped it go through after disparities began to hit social media. 

  • The NCAA ends up spending more money to fix its public relations blunders than it would if it strived for equality in the first place. Last-minute fixes to lounges so each of the Final Four teams could have their own, just like the men, cost almost $100,000. When the NCAA scrambled to get a photographer on site in San Antonio after its lack of one was called out, it spent more than $40,000 over what it would have had it initially hired one for the early rounds. 

  • A large reason Arizona was left out of the Final Four hype video was because of the differences in COVID-19 testing. A false positive antigen test kept the producers of the video from attending and photographing the Wildcats' practice. The women's bubble relied on the less-reliable antigen tests whereas the men's bubble had PCR tests daily. In the men's bubble, seven positives were detected of almost 20,000 PCR tests. In the women's, there were 226 positive antigen tests and two positive PCR tests of 15,597 and 2,342 given, respectively. 

There is money is women's sports. Full stop

Finally, there's the big headline news out of the review that, again, has been talked about for years. The women's tournament is worth between $81 million and $112 million annually in broadcast rights beginning in 2025, according to an 88-page media and sponsorship addendum analysis by Ed Desser of Desser Sports Media. And the sponsorship program structure set up between the NCAA and CBS/Turner all but guarantees fewer advertisements and sponsorships for only women's basketball, but every other NCAA Division I sport that isn't men's basketball. 

The NCAA could make even more money if it wanted. Instead, it is content letting the false idea that women's basketball is a "revenue loser" run rampant. Well, now there are 118 pages of receipts. Every issue detailed in the report, previous reports and for years in the media is fixable beginning right now. It's a matter of if the NCAA cares enough to do it. We know they have the time. 

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