FARGO, ND (Valley News Live) – March Madness!
A tradition that even the less enthusiastic sports fans will relate to, but for female college basketball players, it was a tradition for men only.
It’s true, until this year, the term “March Madness” was reserved exclusively for the men’s tournament.
“The fact that you can’t say the words ‘March Madness’ until this year is absurd,” ESPN host Elle Duncan said ahead of the Final Four.
For the first time, this year’s women’s tournament featured 68 teams and the “March Madness” brand.
Just like the men’s tournament.
The changes are two of many that came after a third-party review was commissioned after Oregon women’s basketball player Sedona Prince’s TikTok videos about inequality at the 2021 tournament went viral. The independent report by law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink found that “the structure and systems of the organization…prioritize Division I men’s basketball over everything else in a way that creates, normalizes and perpetuate gender inequalities”.
“So the review was important,” Duncan said. “I have to give the NCAA credit because they jumped on it very quickly. It was embarrassing what happened in last year’s tournament, it was very embarrassing visually and to their credit, they got into it right away.
“It’s unfortunate that the gap is so glaring,” added former NCAA and WNBA player Rebecca Lobo. “And that something as insignificant as a weight room, thankfully, shed light on the much larger discrepancies that existed.”
“Look the weight room was only a big deal because we were in a bubble and the other how many years we played in the NCAA tournament I never saw a player ask to go in a weight room. Not one,” Louisville head coach Jeff Walz said last week in Minneapolis. “And if we suggested it, they burst into hives,” he said as the media and his players laughed.
“To me, that was obviously a huge faux pas from our committee to not be aware of what the men were doing,” Walz continued. “But to compare that, I think it was overdone. I think experience is what matters to me.
But it was this weight room and these TikTok videos that Kaplan Hecker & Fink named in the first paragraph of their 118-page report as the “shot heard around the world” and drove the independent law firm to make a long list of suggestions for where the NCAA was failing to provide an equitable experience for female athletes.
“None of us were happy with the results from last year and we worked hard,” NCAA President Mark Emmert told the media at the Women’s Final Four.
This led the NCAA to zero out its March Madness budgets and rebuild them from scratch.
The Kaplan report, as it is commonly known, included several fundamental recommendations related to systemic issues. From goodie bags and hygiene kits to statistics and press conferences available so the media can cover the matches on the same level as they cover the men. Up to the game day experience for everyone from fans to athletes. And it was an all-encompassing experience that the NCAA was able to make drastic and immediate changes to in the past six months.
“We’re really proud of where we are today,” NCAA women’s basketball vice president Lynn Holzman said. “But I want to emphasize that our work is not done around this championship and also that we work with our players in women’s basketball. The priority this year around this championship and over the past six months has been the student-athlete experience.
“I think they had a great experience,” Walz said. “The signage, the things they’ve done, the players’ lounge in the hotel. I think they enjoyed that. They now have a nice master bedroom for players and parents to be in the hotel as well. From that side, I think it’s better.
“I think we’ve definitely noticed more attention, more focus on this,” Stanford senior Lexie Hull added. “As soon as we got off the plane there was a welcome party, which was really cool. And I think that’s really important because women’s sport is important, and equality is important and we appreciate the efforts that have been put in place to improve this and look forward to continued efforts for this.
The Kaplan report highlighted 65 gap areas between men’s and women’s tournaments and the NCAA reports that 50 of them have been closed with funding and at least a dozen more have been resolved with changes non-monetary. Yet those who know women’s basketball best say it’s a more systemic problem that goes beyond college women’s basketball.
“I think that’s all our job,” said Tara VanDerveer, head coach of Stanford women’s basketball. “We all have sisters, daughters, nieces, you know women who are hurting because they don’t get the resources or the support they deserve. I call it hot dogs for the girls and steak for the boys. It will be a great time when we don’t need Title IX but unfortunately in our world there is still discrimination against people, against women and we have to keep fighting.
And a big part of that battle is how we talk about women’s sports.
“There has to be an intention to make sure that if you’re talking about the men’s game, you’re also talking about the women’s game,” Duncan said. “Because what we found out having our select Sunday show on Sunday of this year with the men is that our audience was through the roof. What we found out is that there has a basketball audience that loves basketball. Men or women. And we just have to make sure that instead of trying to fight, right? And stay away from each other , we embrace that March is all about fantasy basketball, regardless of gender.
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