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  • Andrea Adelson

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ESPN Senior Writer

    • CAC reporter.
    • ESPN.com since 2010.
    • Graduate of the University of Florida.
  • Heather Dinich.

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ESPN Senior Writer

    • College Football Reporter
    • Since 2007 on ESPN.com
    • Graduated from Indiana University.

In 2013, Val Ackerman produced a comprehensive report for the NCAA on the state of women’s basketball. The report, known as the Division I Women’s Basketball White Paper, is full of the concerns of the people it interviewed over a six-month period, as well as detailed recommendations for marketing and launching the sport in 2020.

There is a great need for change in the way women’s basketball is played, sold and managed in Division One. In many cases, the feedback I received was disappointing, pointing out that some of the ideas currently being discussed have been around for years, showing how difficult it is to make changes within the NCAA system.

None of the people I spoke with were in favor of a wait-and-see approach to women’s basketball; the prevailing feeling was that change was necessary and action needed to be taken now.

These words are even more true today, eight years later. Earlier this month, the glaring disparity between men’s and women’s basketball tournaments came to light once again.

The 37-second video, created by Sedona Prince of Oregon, shows a stack of yoga mats and free weights serving as a women’s gym, followed by a ballroom with no less than 12 kettlebell racks serving as a men’s gym.

Prince’s article accomplished what Ackerman’s 52-page report failed to do eight years ago. With more than 10.8 million views on TikTok and more than 189,000 retweets – including from NBA superstars like Steph Curry and U.S. senators like Chris Murphy – Prince has exposed a long-dormant problem beneath the surface.

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During the NCAA Tournament, Sedona Prince of Oregon will showcase the many differences between men’s and women’s equipment and facilities.

The NCAA has since apologized and made more resources available to the players, but in interviews with more than 20 coaches, administrators, athletics directors, lawyers and college athletics officials, they made it clear they weren’t that concerned about what happened in this year’s tournament. This is a culture that is in need of a major overhaul, not only to promote gender equality, but also to develop, market and promote the sport, which they say has been ignored for too long and not paid for on an equal footing with men’s sport.

The events in San Antonio, combined with the new movement for player empowerment, have given the commissioners and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association a chance to put pressure on NCAA President Mark Emmert when they may not have had the opportunity to do so before.

Now, that’s the right question: Is that the best we can do? Ackerman told ESPN on Friday. And who wants this or that group to call the shots? That’s the fundamental problem with the NCAA, it’s a bureaucracy that people don’t want to get rid of because that would mean deciding that someone or a committee is absolutely in charge and then trusting that group. People don’t want to give up the right to guess.

Emmert was asked Wednesday why it took the NCAA so long to address many of the same issues raised in the 2013 report. Emmert referenced another NCAA investigation from about two years ago, but said there was no excuse for it.

The women’s basketball community must also begin to determine which parts of these recommendations, such as Val’s white paper or others, it wants to adopt and implement, Emmert said. There is no excuse other than the fact that we need to do better and have the support of our entire leadership structure to move the work forward.

‘It was sad…. It was embarrassin’

Unlike the men’s championship team, the winner of the women’s tournament and its conference do not receive revenue from the NCAA tournament. Daniel Dunn/USA Today Sports

Prince’s video has opened old wounds in those who have felt – and cried – about the countless injustices and inequities of the past few decades. Suddenly, all the differences between this year’s tournaments are magnified, from the gift bags, to the food, to the KOVID-19 test, to the fact that the NCAA doesn’t have a uniform field for women in the first rounds, to the March Madness logo and branding.

The response was overwhelming and immediate.

ESPN received a letter from America East Commissioner Amy Huchthausen and Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris to Emmert calling the incident unacceptable. You wrote: This warrants a thorough post-tournament discussion on how we – staff and members of the national office – can protect and ensure equality in all leagues, but especially in basketball, in the future.

The WBCA sent its own letter to Emmert, calling the external review insufficient and instead calling for a commission on gender inequality in college sports. He also launched a website Friday called OurFairShot.com that focuses on the disparity between men’s and women’s basketball. Earlier this week, Emmert, senior vice president of basketball operations Dan Gavitt and vice president of women’s basketball operations Lynn Holtzman called the group, where coaches asked pressing questions about the lack of communication, structure and money.

2 Connected

The NCAA admitted it had made mistakes and hired a law firm to conduct an independent gender analysis of its championships in all three divisions and all sports, but pointed out the problems with holding two separate tournaments in the context of the pandemic. Normally, the first two rounds of the women’s tournament are held on campus. This year, each game had to be scheduled at a neutral site in a different city, allowing many teams to pass unchecked. The basketball courts did not look uniform because there was simply no time to order and install the courts.

The NCAA also provided manuals for the participating programs, one for men and one for women, with descriptions of the relevant activities. Reportedly, the women’s teams will not have access to the gymnasiums until the round of 16. Programs were also informed that coronavirus testing will be different because local health departments in San Antonio and Indianapolis do not have the same capabilities.

The NCAA has separated men’s and women’s basketball for at least 40 years, said Nora Lynn Finch, former senior assistant commissioner of ACC women’s basketball. There are things they don’t share, and they don’t want the NCAA women’s basketball team to know. They certainly don’t want the policy making bodies to know about it.

Sources from programs with both men’s and women’s teams told ESPN that administrators and coaches rarely have time to compare their respective playbooks. That’s why no one in the women’s gym questioned the situation until Prince’s video showed what the differences between the two tournaments really looked like.

Val Ackerman Noah K. Murray-USA Sports.

People have told me, called me, asked me: Is that right? Is it serious? Because it got so big and it was just embarrassing, Michigan guard Akienre Johnson told reporters last week. When we saw that our boys team had a huge gym, we thought: Okay, when we get there [in San Antonio], we have a big gym like they do. And when we saw that we didn’t… It was disappointing.

Asked if he would have done anything differently after the photos and videos came to light, Emmert said he wished there had been more attention to detail at both tournaments so we didn’t have these problems – whether it was problems with the weightlifting room or differences in nutrition.

As for the recent controversy, former Notre Dame coach and current ACC Network analyst Muffett McGraw said it was all paperwork, but eventually they add up and you have to think: How did we get here?

Part of the problem is the confusing governance structure of the NCAA and the sport. In women’s basketball, there is an oversight committee and another committee that manages the tournament and selects the teams. Another NCAA committee is looking at Title IX, in addition to the WBCA, which has its voice heard but is largely left out of the decision-making process.

Secondly, there are differences between existing and non-existing programmes and conferences with very different priorities, making it difficult to reach agreement on the way forward.

Ackerman described the national governance structure for women’s basketball as fragmented and frustrating, an ongoing problem she attributed to the fact that there was no way to implement many of the changes she described in her report.

She said it was the Tower of Babel. It’s really a challenge to figure out how to get the right people around the table, the right number of people around the table, how to get consensus on who can be trusted with a decision.

The NCAA has distinguished between men’s and women’s basketball for at least 40 years. There are things they don’t share, and they don’t want the NCAA women’s basketball team to know.

Nora Lynn Finch, former ACC Senior Assistant Commissioner of Women’s Basketball.

On campuses across the country, schools are working to make facilities and experiences equitable. Some do it better than others. However, because the NCAA is a private organization, it is not subject to Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex.

Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon, one of the players behind the #NotNCAAProperty campaign, took to social media this month to promote reforms to the NCAA, including a call for the organization to comply with Title IX rules.

We realize the NCAA is not bound by Title IX, but what we saw in the weight room … was not a mistake, Bohannon told reporters Thursday. As if it was obvious that they didn’t want to put as much effort into the women as they did the men. … I hope that people will understand that this situation will not be repeated in the future.

The NCAA has not met its own standards of conduct as outlined in the NCAA Handbook, Section 2.3 Gender Principle.

One of the NCAA’s founding principles is to manage activities in a way that avoids gender bias, said Amy P. Perko, CEO of the Knights Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and former Wake Forest basketball player. That should be the guiding principle for everything the NCAA does. All leaders should really just go through one page of principles at the beginning of the handbook.

It won’t cost millions of dollars to fix some of the tournament problems that came to light after the gym controversy.

First, the use of the term March Madness is discussed. Many women’s basketball officials have asked why the term is used exclusively for the men’s tournament. The men’s courts feature the March Madness logo, while the women’s courts just say NCAA Women’s Basketball. And the term is only used for men in branding and social media (the Twitter bio for @marchmadness reads: Official NCAA March Madness destination for all things Division I NCAA Men’s Basketball).

Carmen Mandato/Getty ImagesOne of the biggest debates surrounding the NCAA women’s basketball tournament was whether the NCAA should use the March Madness brand exclusively for the men’s event. The women’s brand, even on the court, is NCAA women’s basketball. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Emmert said women’s basketball can be used freely in the surf this week. However, it is not clear that the decision-makers on the women’s side have asked themselves this question. The women’s basketball selection committee and coaches never agreed on this issue. I don’t recall anyone asking us to include March Madness on the women’s committee, a former NCAA member told ESPN.

Those polled by ESPN also suggested other small changes that could make the student-athlete experience more equal for everyone. For example, calling an NCAA event a men’s basketball tournament instead of an NCAA tournament would send the message that it’s not the only tournament held in March; or offering the same benefits to men and women in the form of fitness equipment when the situation calls for it; or swag bags, gifts given to male and female players by the NCAA that have been a stumbling block for years.

Branding and messaging is something we can tackle sooner rather than later, Danielle O’Banion, assistant coach of the Minnesota women’s basketball team, told ESPN. Because of the way tournaments are advertised, many unhealthy messages are sent to our student-athletes.

The money trail, or lack thereof

NCAA President Mark Emmert (left) and NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations Dan Gavitt separately apologized for equipment failure during the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments last week during a conference call with the media. Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Gender inequality in sport is not a new phenomenon and it is understandable that this issue polarizes people. From women’s tennis to the U.S. national soccer team, female athletes have spent decades fighting for equal treatment and pay – and in many cases improving the sport for future generations.

Despite the major difference between professional and student athletes, a female basketball player who publicly denounces that her tournament does not have the same gym as her male colleagues has the same effect.

But when it comes to college sports and their athletes, the discussion of money and gender inequality becomes even more complicated, and Prince’s viral moment reinforces that.

First, the NCAA is a private organization, and thus not subject to the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act – the organization is not required to disclose its finances.

But after questions from ESPN and the New York Times, the NCAA released the budget figures for the 2018-19 tournament. In the end, the men’s tournament received $28 million, nearly double the $14.5 million for the women. Although both the men’s and women’s tournaments received $13.5 million, the men’s tournament accounts for the lion’s share of the NCAA’s revenue and has a larger budget due to the high costs associated with hosting.

They have different budgets, but the difference in budget is due to the size of the two tournaments, NCAA CFO Kathleen McNeely recently told ESPN….. …and nuances in the bids that are often committee decisions about how they’re going to run these championships. I’m not saying there can’t be minor issues, but I think there’s a lot of similarity between men’s and women’s basketball tournaments because we’re looking from the perspective of the individual student-athlete, who tends to be the focus of our attention.

Information from the NCAA also showed that the 2018-19 men’s tournament generated a total of $864.6 million in net revenue. The women’s tournament lost $2.8 million, the most of any NCAA championship. Emmert said proceeds from the men’s tournament will be used to support all other NCAA championships and $600 million in proceeds will be distributed to schools. Men’s teams and conferences earn money to enter the tournament, and for every game they win, they receive more money until they reach the Final Four. The champion on the other hand receives no money for winning the tournament.

Most of the men’s revenue comes from the NCAA’s billion-dollar television contract – CBS/Turner signed an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension in 2016 for the tournament alone. Three years ago, ESPN struck a $500 million deal with the NCAA that expanded the network’s broadcast rights to 24 national championships, including the women’s NCAA Tournament. The contract runs through the 2023-24 season.

Given the uneven budgets and revenue distribution, and the lack of communication and transparency about how those funds are spent and earned, those polled by ESPN were skeptical that the NCAA is holding back women’s basketball by not investing enough resources in the sport and tournament.

Why is there no formula for revenue sharing for women’s successes like there is for men’s? A commissioner asked ESPN. The NCAA gets money from CBS/Turner and ESPN for media rights. This pot should be divided into equal parts, and if you win a share on the male side, you should also get a share on the female side if you win. … But there’s no distribution of shares at all. Why? Because that’s the way it’s always been done.

One thing ESPN’s women’s basketball has made clear to those he’s talked to in recent days: They do not believe that significantly reducing the financial gap between men’s and women’s tournaments will solve gender inequality. But one of their demands was for more transparency, as they say there is no clear separation between the money generated by women’s basketball and the tournament.

Those involved in the sport also believe that women’s basketball is held back by various strategies that could bring in more revenue – it’s not about using resources, it’s about increasing them. Gavitt and Holtzman said they haven’t talked about branding and marketing for the women’s tournament yet, but Holtzman and the coaches think it’s time.

We are a huge potential source of revenue, and our numbers continue to show that, Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner said in a WBCA phone interview with Emmert, Gavitt and Holtzman earlier this week. They did it without much help. I think we are missing a huge opportunity if we don’t change something now. If we don’t seize the opportunity, the NCAA as a whole will really have the sport watered down. To really give it the attention it deserves. We have shown that we are a viable product for the company.

Is this really a tipping point?

Former Notre Dame head basketball coach Muffet McGraw said she is skeptical of any meaningful change in gender equality in sports as long as Mark Emmert is at the helm of the NCAA. Scott W. Grey/Icon Sportswire

To write his white paper, Ackerman conducted six months of research and contacted 240 representatives from NCAA conferences and schools. The comments in the interview are still relevant:

  • The sport is at a crossroads; the status quo is not an option; we need a call to action and bold, innovative action.
  • Everyone is doing their own thing, without a common strategy; there must be a sense of solidarity, a common vision, a vision of the future, a common goal.
  • The women’s basketball community needs to take the lead and say what they are willing to do, not just ask what is being done for them.

So why hasn’t women’s basketball developed solidarity and a common vision or purpose over the past eight years? After the student-athlete’s post in social media, why is the attention now being drawn back to the problem that still exists?

In addition to problems related to the governance structure, no consensus could be reached on the best way to manage the tournament itself, not only to develop the sport, but also to create more visibility, spectators and revenue.

In the tournament’s 40-year history, there have been several versions, including campus and neutral site tournaments, as well as regional tournaments in different parts of the country. Starting in 2023, there will only be two regional spots with eight teams each instead of four. The locations are fixed until 2026.

In her report, Ackerman outlined several ideas for the tournament, including choosing a location for the Final Four and maintaining it for several years. She cited sources who suggested a bubble-like location of the top 16, possibly in Las Vegas, using a model similar to the one that worked so well for baseball in Omaha, Nebraska, and softball in Oklahoma City.

Ackerman also suggested that the men’s and women’s tournaments be held at the same venue on the same weekend to maximize branding, revenue and marketing opportunities. None of these proposals were accepted. Part of the reason for this is that there is an even bigger difference between female basketball players than male basketball players. Opinions are sharply divided, and it is difficult to do anything for the general good of the sport when some feel that their own institution will not benefit at all. At some point, the sport got stuck in the mud and went crazy.

We have to be creative and courageous, Chris Plonsky, Texas Tech’s chief of staff and executive assistant athletics director, told ESPN. Can women’s basketball unite and make it happen? We need to be able to hand control over to someone who will try something new to fix what’s wrong with the game, and rule the reason.

Those who spoke with ESPN believe it is imperative that the evaluation ordered by Emmert look in detail at why the men’s and women’s tournaments and committees are set up the way they are, and why the various decisions made over time have put all parties in a position where the entire system needs to be rethought.

There was never a plan, a goal, or a desire to get it right the first time, so it’s easy to take small steps while showing incredible indignation to take another step? said one of the coaches. But there isn’t even a paradigm or model that starts with 50/50, or starts with equity. I wish someone would acknowledge that so that instead of putting out fires, we can rebuild the whole model.

McGraw, who has spoken out on equality issues for years, said she remains skeptical about revising the model as long as Emmert is at the helm.

The problem has existed for years, and it’s probably our fault for accepting it, she said. Now that everything is out in the open, I hope that the public outcry and media attention will shed some light on this matter and bring about change. We don’t need an excuse. We don’t want you to fix it today. We want you to fix it forever, but you have to change your mindset, and that’s the problem. How can we expect those same people to act differently? It’s not going to happen.

Others have suggested that the NCAA doesn’t really have a choice: players use their social media platforms to speak out and try to effect change.

Without Prince’s full demonstration of the differences between the halls of power, there can be no real discussion of these issues.

The question for all of us in athletics is this: If we dig in and do nothing, we’ll get out of this, O’Banion said. Our student-athletes have reached a time and age where they are ready to take a stand. Maybe I wasn’t his age, because I was told to be happy with what you have. These young men aren’t so bad, and they’re going for change, whether the NCAA likes it or not.

This has traditionally given the leaders of women’s basketball some hope, but the bigger question is whether this will be the change that leads to progress. This white paper shows why the path to that goal is more elusive than ever.

This could be a moment of change, but that remains to be seen, Ackerman said. There is a lot of activity and conversation going on right now, and I think that will be the key to the order that comes out of this. There’s nothing here. It’s not just about the gym. There are many articles here, and I tried to write them down in a report I wrote eight years ago. This is a time when we are looking at a wide range of issues.

ESPN reporters Mechell Voepel and Dan Murphy contributed to this story.

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