NCAA makes significant changes to women’s tournament

Published: Apr. 5, 2022 at 10:54 PM CDT
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FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - March Madness!

A tradition even the less enthused sports fan will find themselves partaking in but for college women’s basketball players, it was a tradition reserved for the men.

That’s right, up until this year, the term ‘March Madness’ was reserved exclusively for the men’s tournament.

“The fact that you couldn’t say the words ‘March Madness’ before this year is non-sensical,” said ESPN host Elle Duncan ahead of the Final Four.

For the first time, this year’s women’s tournament included 68 teams and ‘March Madness’ branding.

Just like the men’s tournament.

The changes are two of many that have come after a third-party review was commissioned after Oregon women’s basketball player Sedona Prince’s TikTok videos of inequality at the 2021 tournament went viral. The independent report done by the Kaplan Hecker & Fink Law Firm found that the organization’s “structure and systems … prioritize Division I men’s basketball over everything else in ways that create, normalize, and perpetuate gender inequities.”

“So the review was important,” Duncan said. “I do have to give kudos to the NCAA because they hopped on it very quickly. It was embarrassing what happened at last year’s tournament, it was very visually embarrassing and to their credit, they got on it right away.”

“It’s unfortunate that the discrepancy was as stark as it was,” added former NCAA and WNBA player Rebecca Lobo. “And that something sort of as insignificant as a weight room, fortunately, brought light to the much bigger discrepancies that existed.”

“Listen the weight room was only a big deal because we were in a bubble and the other how many ever years we’ve been playing in the NCAA tournament I’ve never had a player ask to go to a weight room. Not one,” explained Louisville head coach Jeff Walz last week in Minneapolis. “And if we’ve suggested it, they break out in hives,” he said as the media and his players laughed.

“That to me was obviously a huge faux paw by our committee to not be aware of what the men were doing,” Walz went on to say. “But to compare that, I think that got blown way out of proportion. I think the experience is what matters to me.”

But it was that weight room and those TikTok videos that Kaplan Hecker & Fink pointed to in the first paragraph of their 118-page report as the “shot heard round the world” and resulted in the independent law firm making a laundry list of suggestions for where the NCAA was failing to provide an equitable experience for the women athletes.

“None of us were happy with the results of last year and we went through a great deal of hard work,” NCAA president Mark Emmert told media at the women’s Final Four.

It resulted in the NCAA stripping its March Madness budgets down to zero and rebuilding them from scratch.

The Kaplan report, as it’s commonly called, included several core recommendations related to systemic issues. Ranging from swag bags and hygiene kits to the stats and press conferences available for the media to be able to cover the games at the same level they cover the men’s. All the way down to the game day experience for everyone from the fans to the athletes. And it was an overarching experience that the NCAA was able to make drastic and immediate changes to over the last six months.

“We’re really proud of where we are today,” explained Vice President for NCAA Women’s Basketball Lynn Holzman. “But I want to emphasize that our work is not done around this championship and also as we work with our stakeholders in women’s basketball. The priority this year around this championship and over the last six months was the student-athlete experience.”

“I think they’ve had a great experience,” Walz affirmed. “The signage, the things they’ve done, the player lounge in the hotel. I think they’ve enjoyed that. They have a nice parent room now for the players and the parents to be in the hotel as well. From that side of it, I think it’s been better.”

“I think we’ve definitely noticed more attention, more attention brought to it,” added Stanford senior Lexie Hull. “Right when we got off the plane there was a welcoming party, which was really cool. And I think it’s really important because women’s sports are important, and equality is important and we appreciate the effort that’s been put in place to make that better and we’re looking forward to the continued effort for that.”

The Kaplan report highlighted 65 gap areas between the men’s and women’s tournaments and the NCAA reports that 50 of those have been closed with funding and at least a dozen others were addressed with non-monetary changes. Still, those that know women’s basketball best say it’s a more systemic problem that branches out further than just college women’s basketball.

“I think it’s all of our jobs,” said Stanford head women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer. “We all have sisters, daughters, nieces, you know women that are suffering because their not getting the resources or the support that they deserve. I call it hotdogs for the girls and steak for the boys. It’ll be a great time when we don’t need Title IX but unfortunately in our world, there is discrimination still against people, against women and we need to keep battling.”

And an important part of that battle is how we talk about women’s sports.

“There needs to be intentionality of making sure that if you’re talking about the men’s game, you’re also talking about the women’s game,” said Duncan. “Because what we discovered in having our selection Sunday show on Sunday this year along with the men’s is that our viewership was through the roof. What we’ve discovered is that there is a basketball crowd that loves basketball. Men or women. And we just need to make sure that instead of trying to fight each other, right? And distance each other, we embrace the fact that March is about fantastic basketball. No matter what gender.”

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