If a picture tells a thousand words, these two images spit out 2,000 words of metaphorical fire and outrage.
One showed a glittering weight-room facility, stocked to the gills with an array of equipment that would have made any 24 Hour Fitness envious.
That was juxtaposed with another room, a thousand miles and another world away, outfitted with a tiny rack of dumbbells and a few yoga mats.
The first, of course, was the facility available for basketball players in the men’s NCAA tournament in Indianapolis. The second was the laughably meager training “equipment” earmarked for the NCAA women’s tournament in San Antonio.
When those images hit social media, the outcry was swift and furious. Rarely does one get a chance to see such a stark and indisputable example of inequality. Rarely is the hypocrisy of the NCAA laid so bare for the world to see.
The NCAA at first said the women didn’t have a better weight room because there wasn’t enough space at the hotel — a ridiculous claim that was exposed when Oregon forward Sedona Prince posted a video of an adjacent ballroom that was vast. And empty.
NCAA president Mark Emmert later said this was never intended to be a weight room, but rather an exercise room to be used before practice — as if the fact that the women were completely bereft of a true weight room was some kind of justification.
“Weight-gate,” as USA Today’s Christine Brennan dubbed it, soon became the prime talking point of the simultaneous tournaments, even as the culminating event of the college hoops season was producing high-magnitude games on both sides.
But the damage had been done. More infuriating discrepancies between the men and women quickly emerged. The men were using the more reliable PCR tests to detect COVID-19, while the women were using antigen tests. The men appeared, anecdotally, to be getting better food options and more copious “swag bags.” The NCAA provided an array of photos from all the men’s games, none from the women’s. The Wall Street Journal reported that the phrase “March Madness” had been reserved by the NCAA for exclusive use by the men only.
Petty stuff? Try telling that to women participants who can’t help but receive the message that they don’t matter as much as the men. The NCAA had all kinds of excuses, such as the difficulty of staging the first one-site tournaments. But in the end, the inequity is inexcusable.
It put out for the world to see what many have been saying for years: That the NCAA doesn’t value women’s sports as highly as men’s, despite the presence of a law, Title IX, designed to compel equity.
In a fully justified screed that should go straight to the righteous indignation Hall of Fame, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins wrote:
“I’m tired. Not from today or from yesterday but from 40 years of it. Forty years tired of writing the same damn story about the same NCAA shortchangers in suits who would begrudge women’s athletes so much as an equal amount of air in a tire if they thought it might come at a man’s expense. Sick and tired of the chiseling administrators with their million-dollar salaries and monstrous heaps of revenue who act like women’s basketball players should be thankful for a uniform that isn’t funded by a bake sale.”
And don’t try to say the revenue disparity between the men’s and women’s tournament justifies unequal treatment. For one thing, the NCAA is not supposed to be a revenue-producing entity; indeed, it goes to great lengths to paint itself as a nonprofit enterprise devoted to promoting the athletic opportunities of its members. On that front, it failed its women in full view of the world.
Beyond that, these disparities had nothing to do with money (the women’s tournament is profitable, by the way); it had everything to do with what appeared to be a willful indifference to even pretending to care about equality. Anyone with any sense of fairness at all could see that, and be highly disturbed by it.
The leading voices in women’s sports sent out blistering rebukes of the NCAA on social media. Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, the winningest coach in women’s basketball history, wrote: “Women athletes and coaches are done waiting, not just for upgrades of a weight room, but for equity in every facet of life … With the obvious disparity between the women’s and men’s tournaments, the message that is being sent to our female athletes, and women across the world, is that you are not valued at the same level as your male counterparts.”
Washington State’s women’s coach Kamie Ethridge, who was in San Antonio preparing her team for a first-round game with South Florida, had a similar take-away. In her Zoom news conference Saturday, Ethridge said: “What the disappointment is, it’s more of an afterthought. I think that’s the thing. If it (the weight room) is so important to the men, and they have it set up so pristine and perfectly, why would it not be important for the women?”
Ethridge said that in general, she had praise and gratitude for the way the NCAA put on the tournament under unique circumstances. But the “small details” were troubling.
“It’s the, ‘No, we’re not going to give this to you, and you shouldn’t ask for it.’ Like, you should just be happy you get this,” she said. “I think that’s the difference — we’re not going to totally think about you until then, and you should just be happy you’re here.
“That’s the feeling you get if you’re us and you see the differences. The hard part for us as coaches is to look at your kids and say, ‘Yeah, you didn’t deserve it. They do, you don’t.” How do you communicate that to your players?”
You don’t, of course. Because in a year in which striving for equity has been a constant theme, women won’t — and shouldn’t — accept such a notion.
This whole unseemly episode might, in fact, turn out to be a good thing — the galvanizing moment that forces (or shames) the NCAA into finally taking equity issues seriously. That was the conclusion of Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach Nell Fortner, who on Tuesday posted a statement that included this:
“To the NCAA: Thank You!
“Thank you for using the three biggest weeks of your organization’s year to expose exactly how you feel about women’s basketball — an afterthought.
“Thank you for showing off the disparities between the men’s and women’s tournament that are on full display in San Antonio, from COVID testing, to lack of weight training facilities, to game floors that hardly tell anyone that it’s the NCAA Tournament and many more. But these disparities are just a snapshot of larger, more pervasive issues when it come to women’s sports and the NCAA. Shipping in a few racks of weights, after the fact, is not an answer. It’s a band-aid and an afterthought.”
Fortner concluded: “For too long women’s basketball has accepted an attitude and treatment from the NCAA that has been substandard in its championships. It’s time for this to stop. It’s time for women’s basketball to receive the treatment it has earned.
“Thank you for the exposure,
Let’s hope those two pictures launch not just words, but actions.