On March 14, just three days before the start of this year’s March Madness tournament, Congress sent a six-page letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert accusing the organization of making “inadequate progress’’ in addressing “historically disparate” treatment of male and female athletes. The letter claimed that the NCAA is “violating the spirit of gender equity as codified in Title IX.” The letter criticized Emmert for failing to take meaningful steps to ensure gender equity in college sports after the 2021 women’s basketball tournament exposed inequities between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Last year, women athletes took to social media to report differences between what men’s and women’s tournament participants were being provided in terms of their weight rooms, gifts, and meals. In the wake of the negative attention brought on by the social media storm, sponsors and non-sponsors contacted NCAA officials, upset with the situation and offering to help. Sponsors and non-sponsors wanted to donate meals and gift cards to women basketball players at the tournament in San Antonio. One of those offers came from Los Angeles Sparks player Chiney Ogwumike, who offered to donate $500 DoorDash gift cards to each of the 64 tournament teams. However, the NCAA denied this offer because UberEats, a direct competitor of DoorDash, was an NCAA corporate sponsor. According to emails supplied by the NCAA after lawmakers requested them last July, NCAA officials originally declined all donation requests. Eventually, the NCAA agreed to offers from corporate sponsors, such as Wendy’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Pizza Hut, to supply food to women athletes in a similar way that those companies were feeding men’s players at their tournament in Indianapolis.
In response to these blatant disparities between its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, the NCAA proactively commissioned a third-party law firm, Kaplan Hecker & Fink, to evaluate and produce a report of the organization’s policies and practices related to gender equity. Kaplan’s investigation ultimately exposed the NCAA’s underinvestment in women’s basketball. In a scathing 118-page report, Kaplan detailed how the NCAA’s “structure and systems prioritize Division I men’s basketball over everything else in ways that create, normalize, and perpetuate gender inequities.”
The Kaplan report revealed a $35.2 million difference between men’s and women’s tournament budgets. The report compiled over 2,800 budget line items and identified 65 “gap areas” between the two tournaments. Immediately after the Kaplan report was presented in early August, the NCAA staff began to strip those budgets down to zero and rebuild them from scratch to correct those discrepancies. According to the NCAA, more than 50 gaps have since been closed with new funding, and at least a dozen more have been addressed with non-monetary changes. In total, the women’s tournament budget has increased by $5 million.
The Kaplan report also included dozens of other recommendations on how the NCAA could rectify its gender inequities, some of which the NCAA has already implemented to its women’s basketball tournament this year. Such changes include: (1) expanding the tournament to 68 teams, (2) using the phrase “March Madness” in branding the women’s tournament (unbeknownst to most, this signature mark was previously limited to the men’s tournament), (3) increasing signage and branding inside the arenas, (4) more player lounges and Final Four festivities open to the public on the Saturday between the semifinals and final, (5) enhanced team introductions and in-arena video boards and news conference transcripts after every game, and (6) awards and gifts on par with the men’s.
According to the letter, “[a]lthough the NCAA has taken some short-term steps to avoid repeating the public relations catastrophe during last year’s March Madness championships, it has been notably slow to commit to or implement recommendations that will ensure structural, long-term changes to advance gender equity.” While the NCAA has satisfied some of the recommendations in the Kaplan report, progress in other areas has lagged. Specifically, the letter cites two prominent concerns:
(1) The “NCAA appears to have made no progress toward changing the leadership structure of Division I basketball to ensure that women’s basketball leadership has the same level of seniority as men’s basketball leadership.” As of now, Lynn Holzman, the vice president of women’s basketball, still reports to Dan Gavitt, senior vice president of men’s basketball, instead of reporting directly to Emmert.
(2) The NCAA has “failed to create or commit to creating a chief business officer role to oversee NCAA’s media partner relationships with CBS/Turner and ESPN, the Corporate Partner Program, and branding and marketing for all championships.’’
Ultimately, the letter did not request the NCAA to respond, nor did it seek any more documents from the association. However, in response to the letter, the NCAA said: “The shortcomings at the women’s basketball tournament last year have been well documented and extensively covered. Although our work is not done, we are focused on the many improvements made since then that provide students across all our championships with a lifelong memorable experience.” Sadly, it remains to be seen how long it will take for the rest of the work to be completed to achieve tournament equity and for the NCAA to comply with Title IX.