Women’s College Basketball Players Successfully Forced The NCAA To Look In The Mirror

This month, players and coaches stood up against the NCAA's treatment of the women's game. Hopefully, it'll be a catalyst.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Since sports have been taken seriously, women’s sports have been taken less seriously. The degree to which that’s true today as opposed to 10 years ago or 20 years ago is debatable: there are ways in which life is easier as a woman in sports and there are ways in which it’s more difficult, in which the technological evolution of contemporary life has crystallized inequality rather than erasing it. 

If it’s hard to assign women’s sports a net positive or net negative trajectory, it’s easier to assess that of the NCAA — a trend-resistant organization if ever there were one. Except for the trends with the potential to make schools more money. Those ones, they tend to be up on. 

Except, again, as the Wall Street Journal reported in a piece last week, in the realm of women’s sports. The NCAA and its member organizations have not matched what by most metrics — TV ratings, ticket sales — is a growing interest in women’s college basketball with any moves to capitalize on that interest, instead sticking with the status quo: the women get what the men get because federal law requires it, and in practice they always seem to wind up with less.

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Around women’s college basketball, the “less” tends to manifest in relatively small ways. Worse TV availability, minimal news coverage, championships that feel comparatively homespun instead of like massive, well-oiled machines, the seconds of everything — including names, with the Lady Bears (please find me one bear who identifies as a Lady) and Lady Vols and the fact that it’s not just basketball but Women’s Basketball, as the floor of this past weekend’s tournament games and every TV listing remind us. The men get ownership of the real version of the sport; the Lady version must be designated as different. 

It’s a slew of seemingly small things that together and individually drive home that same status quo: women’s sports are less, women are less. It’s a sort of perpetual oversight — the side effect of having eyes so trained on the men’s game that the basic steps required to offer women identical resources don’t even occur to you. Because the men are what’s interesting, to them. It hasn’t changed, and probably for as long as the NCAA exists it never will. 

The women’s basketball community has sighed away most of these obvious inequities for decades, a response that makes sense given how steep a hill must be climbed simply to play the sport in the first place. I remember being struck by all the ways women’s basketball was treated as second-class when I started covering the game, and more struck by the fact that everyone knew about them and saw them as permanent — not even worth addressing, really, because we were all just supposed to be happy to be there at all.

That’s what seems to have changed this year. The discrepancies between the men’s and women’s tournaments were more obvious than ever because for the first time they were held in exact parallel, at two single-site locations that made one-to-one comparison easy. The stakes were also higher, given that every player was literally risking their life to participate given the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Yet in a previous time, I think, players might have seen the discrepancies between what resources they and their male counterparts had, and remained silent, accepting the constant, thoughtless reminders that the women’s game would just never match up. This year, players and their coaches made their frustration known on social media, whether it was about the availability of exercise equipment or — unthinkably — adequate COVID-19 testing. Those obvious inequities were captured, concrete and impossible to ignore. 

While the NCAA attempted to put a Band-Aid on a bullethole, installing an oddly well-lit weight room and hiring expensive consultants, the conversation had already moved beyond that. “It is time for the NCAA to reevaluate the value they place on women,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley wrote in a statement. “The disparities are just a snapshot of the larger, more pervasive issues when it comes to women’s sports and the NCAA,” wrote Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner

If pinpointing progress in women’s sports and thus for marginalized genders more broadly is nearly impossible, it’s easier to circle this moment as, hopefully, a catalyst for things to come. We’re paying attention to some problems long taken for granted, and forcing the NCAA to, however briefly, commit to some degree of self-examination. It’s not going to be a straight line up from here, but there’s no question it’s one big positive step in the right direction.  

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