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.
Last year, the unfair treatment that the NCAA had gotten away with for decades was made obvious by the most unlikely circumstances: men’s and women’s basketball tournaments held at single sites in order to try to mitigate the risks of playing during the coronavirus pandemic.
All the little differences that had previously been brushed off as the inevitable product of practical concerns were laid bare by differently appointed weight rooms and meager gift bags, presented in photos and videos on social media that betrayed the unequivocal disparity between the men’s and women’s tournaments. The women, it will not shock you to learn, had received less.
As a result, the NCAA was at last compelled to (in their minds) hire expensive consultants to explain to them where exactly they had gone wrong — in spite of the fact that anyone with a couple brain cells to rub together would be able to explain it quite easily. Investing less in women’s basketball puts an instant ceiling on the sport’s potential returns, and that’s without considering the myriad ways in which the NCAA’s television contracts and sponsorship deals are designed specifically to exclude and undervalue women’s sports and especially women’s basketball.
This year, we are being hammered over the head with the fact that yes, the women finally get to use the phrase “March Madness” to describe their tournament (isn’t it amazing when the most visible change is also the easiest?). There have been other changes, though crucially not — as Lindsay Gibbs notes in her Power Plays newsletter — in the amount of money women’s basketball programs receive for participating in the tournament.
The changes are good, and overdue, and incomplete. But most irksome (besides the fact that games are still not staggered in a way that makes them easy to watch) is the fact that the NCAA now gets to perform accountability after decades of perpetuating inequality. A more just and accurate reading of the situation is only possible with a deeper knowledge of women’s sports history.
the NCAA now gets to perform accountability after decades of perpetuating inequality
Learning that history can feel nearly impossible. The limited books on it can be old and hard to find, and the internet is filled with much more misinformation and superficial timelines than it is anything substantive. Yet the remarkable thing about women’s sports history is because of the relative youth of their current structure, at least, many of the stakeholders who shaped Title IX-era decisions about women’s sports are not only still alive, but still participating in the community.
Watching Belmont come near toppling Tennessee in the second round, I was struck by the presence of Betty Wiseman — who founded the Belmont women’s basketball team in 1968 — cheering in the stands. She seemed not just awesome (as illustrated in this profile by Chantel Jennings) but like a fount of knowledge about the history of women’s college basketball.
If the NCAA wants to really change its ways and invest in the women’s game, it should devote resources to an archive filled with books, papers and oral histories from people like Betty — fund research that would help people better understand what progress in women’s sports has actually looked like outside of a few outstanding achievements and easy to understand highlights.
The problem with doing this is it would illuminate all the ways in which the NCAA has proactively fought the participation of women in sports over the years, from the early 20th century to the battles with the AIAW over who would administer women’s championships to today’s still unequal situation. But putting a spotlight on all the work that’s already been done will make what’s still left to do that much easier. There is a lot of wisdom all around women’s sports, living in the people who have dedicated their lives to fighting for them. The NCAA could learn a lot from preserving it.