The bigger issue at hand

Kelsey O’Loughlin, Senior Writer

This week in college basketball, the elite eight and final four of the women’s NCAA Championship will take place. Regardless of the outcome for every team in the tournament, it has been quite a journey to get to the field of 64. Unfamiliar circumstances and challenges have tested these teams in many more ways than simply their talent on the court. As the women arrived in San Antonio on March 20 to isolate themselves in their designated bubble, the season’s unique circumstances collided with an old, pre-existing issue in women’s basketball: lack of respect.

The power of social media and its impact was seen this March. Sedona Prince, a redshirt-sophomore forward from Liberty-Hill, Texas, has a significant presence on TikTok with a verified account and over one million followers. She used her platform to highlight the disparities in facilities and amenities provided by the NCAA. Comparing the men’s and women’s facilities in their respective bubbles, the racks, weights, dumbbells, treadmills and other typical equipment found in a college weight room was no surprise in Indianapolis for the men. In San Antonio, the extent of the women’s weight room included a single rack of dumbbells, with the highest weight of 30 lbs, and a stack of yoga mats. The two main pieces of equipment sat in a corner next to a table next to the ample convention center space that remained empty. The claims the NCAA made after the viral video of the dumbbells and yoga mats entailed a lack of room for more equipment and that they were actively working on getting more equipment to the women. Once millions saw people’s videos, companies such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Orange Theory Fitness and Tonal reached out to immediately help the cause by donating equipment free of charge for the athletes. Thankfully, the rest of the world recognized the issue, while the NCAA continued to make excuses for their lackluster effort.

Holly Rowe, a critically-acclaimed sideline reporter for a number of sports, sat down with Lynn Holzman, vice president of women’s basketball for the NCAA. Holzman’s continuous and repeated response to direct questions about the weight room, the food, the different testing and other amenities was “we fixed it”. She fixed it, they fixed it, in response to a boatload of pressure put on by social media, athletes, companies and people in general who were genuinely confused as to how an NCAA Championship could fall so short in basic expectations. According to her and her boss Mark Emmert, “poor communication” led to the disparities everyone saw. Did the staff of the women’s and men’s March Madness crew not communicate effectively, or was there a blatant disregard for Title IX?

The NCAA is a non-profit organization founded in 1906. Its origins stemmed from the desire to protect young people from dangerous athletic practices at the time. The term student-athlete was formed to avoid paying the young people so they would not be considered actual laborers and so the NCAA could avoid paying worker’s compensation. The term arose in the 1950s when a football player from Fort Lewis A&M died from a head injury he received while playing football. Since the college was not in the “football business,” he did not receive worker’s compensation. This organization has lived through many historical moments, including the enactment of Title IX in 1972, a law that protects people based on sex discrimination which states that “[n]o person in the United States shall, based on sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” For athletics, this means that there has to be an equal distribution of accommodations for men’s and women’s sports. Was this standard adhered tp in 2021? No. Was this the year that revealed the persistent inequity for women’s basketball? Yes.

In the world of legends, names that have impacted the sport of women’s basketball come to mind. Nell Fortner, Tara VanDerveer, Dawn Staley, and Muffet McGraw are only a few of the many women who have made incredible contributions to the women’s game. Even though McGraw is no longer in the coaching world, she is still an advocate and voice for the equality of women’s basketball, standing alongside her former colleagues to condemn the unfair treatment facilitated by the NCAA.

These coaches each released statements about their tournament experience. VanDerveer has been the head coach at Stanford since 1985, with a total of 1,094 wins, making her the winningest coach in NCAA DI women’s basketball; reaching the aforementioned milestone just this season, VanDerveer has finally surpassed the achievement of her legendary coach and friend, the late Pat Summitt. In VanDerveer’s statement, she talked about feeling betrayed by the NCAA, noting that “this week is evidence of blatant sexism.” Nell Fortner, the head coach of Georgia Tech, thanked the NCAA in her statement for using the most critical event in women’s basketball to show the world how they feel about the sport, effectively as an “afterthought”.

These two women specifically have seen what life looks like before and after the implementation of Title IX. They are among many others who know the experience of lack of opportunity and opened doors in women’s athletics with certain drawbacks. Although it has been 49 years since U.S. President Richard Nixon passed Title IX, we are still struggling with the discriminatory practices it was meant to address. 

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