NCAA Gender Inequity Is a Feature, Not a Bug
Why this matters
As an independent investigation financed by the NCAA and new data like what was found by a new Global Sport Institute Field Study paints the picture of women's college basketball as inequitable, the structures of the sport and the NCAA are in large part to blame for these inequities.
A common and longtime refrain among critics of college sports amateurism is that the National Collegiate Athletic Association should stop working so hard to regulate and control athlete compensation and instead stick to doing what the organization does well: running national championships.
But what the massive gender disparities during this year’s Division I softball, golf, and basketball tournaments reveal is that the NCAA does not, in fact, do a good job of running those championships.
During the women’s basketball tournament in particular, the list of inequities was glaring and varied: unequal weight room facilities, meals, swag bags, branding on courts, and digital photo catalogs from games for media use; restricting the use of the term “March Madness” to the men’s tournament, an enormous and inexplicable marketing self-own; and even uneven access to outdoor space and coronavirus testing during a deadly pandemic.
None of this is accidental. The NCAA’s current organizational structure and operations depend on gender inequity. It’s a feature, not a bug, fully and deliberately baked into the enterprise of major American college sports.
But wait! you may be thinking. What about Title IX? Shouldn’t the well-known federal civil rights law – which was enacted in 1972 and prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools or education programs receiving federal funding – require the NCAA to provide equally good weightlifting facilities for players in the men’s and women’s tournaments, as opposed to whatever the heck this is supposed to be?
Women’s @NCAA bubble weight room vs Men’s weight room... thought this was a joke. WTF is this?!?
To all the women playing in the @marchmadness tournament, keep grinding! pic.twitter.com/K04KTv6s46
— Sabrina Ionescu (@sabrina_i20) March 18, 2021
The answer, believe it or not, is no. And for that, you can thank the Supreme Court. In a unanimous 1999 opinion delivered by gender equality icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court ruled that while NCAA member schools receive federal funds directly and therefore must comply with Title IX, the association’s receipt of dues from those member schools does not make it subject to the same law.
Of course, the NCAA wouldn’t exist if not for schools and students. And you'd think an organization that has worked for decades to conflate amateurism and education in order to justify not paying athletes or treating them as employees would object to a SCOTUS ruling that could imply that the association has nothing to do with education. But no matter. The NCAA has embraced this Title IX loophole, paying lip service to gender equity while focusing on something else entirely: maximizing the value of the Division I men’s basketball tournament.
The staggering sums generated by this single event fund NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis; pay the lawyers and lobbyists working to preserve amateurism in the face of Congressional displeasure and ongoing federal antitrust lawsuits; get distributed to member schools; and subsidize national championships in other sports. In many ways, March Madness money is the source of the association’s power and legitimacy, especially because the very large piles of cash created by the College Football Playoff are outside the NCAA’s purview.
From the association’s point of view, what this means for women’s sports is that the way to support them is to prioritize men’s sports in general and basketball in particular. Women get to play, sure, but only thanks to the financial fruit of men’s labor. (Of course, we don’t call it labor. We call it play. Because amateurism.)
None of this is new. The NCAA began holding championships for women’s sports in 1981, a mere 75 years after it staged its first men’s championships. Ever since, it has gotten away with running separate events for men and women, with the exception of combined championships in cross country and track and field. What has changed, however, is that outspoken athletes in women’s college sports now have platforms and followings independent of the NCAA. When University of Oregon basketball player Sedona Prince’s TikTok video showcasing the dismal women’s weight room at the women’s tournament went viral, it blindsided university presidents, who have come to see that the larger crisis of inequality between the men’s and women’s tournaments are the result of a massive NCAA leadership failure.
In addition to performing an internal review and scrambling to make its spring sports championships more equitable, the NCAA has responded to this failure by hiring the law firm Kaplan, Hecker & Fink to perform a gender equity review. The subsequent two-phase Kaplan Report – the first phase covering basketball, the second providing an overview of all 84 other national championships – has documented what many women’s sports stakeholders already know: The NCAA does not operate those championships with gender equity as a guiding principle. As the Phase II report states, “Gender disparities in the NCAA championships stem from the structure and culture of the NCAA itself.”
What the report and related stories in The Wall Street Journal by reporters Rachel Bachman, Louise Radnofsky, and Laine Higgins also show is that the NCAA takes an active role not only in lifting up men’s basketball but also in driving down women’s basketball – making it worth less, matter less, and receive less coverage than it could and would in a world where the association saw men’s and women’s sports as equally worthy of care and consideration. The NCAA’s organizational chart places women’s basketball in a subordinate role to men’s basketball. Decision-making for the men’s tournament is streamlined and greenlit, while the women’s tournament is an afterthought. In what can be described only as marketing malpractice, women’s tournament organizers have been denied use of the valuable “March Madness” slogan and branding, which is a bit like Coca-Cola executives refusing to use the word “Coke” in the brand names of their various cola products.
More damaging still is the way in which the NCAA packages and sells championship media rights and corporate sponsorships, treating the men’s basketball tournament like a sundae with all of the fixings, and the women’s tournament (along with championships in every other sport!) like the optional cherry on top. Somehow, the NCAA’s deal with the CBS-Turner partnership to broadcast the men’s tournament allows those networks to determine whether they want to activate corporate sponsorships for the other sports, even though those sports’ championships are aired on ESPN, a rival network.
Moreover, corporate sponsorships aren’t sold on a sport-by-sport basis. This means women’s college basketball doesn’t get to pick and partner with the brands that would make the most sense for the sport’s long-term prosperity and growth. The Women’s National Basketball Association, National Women’s Soccer League, and other leagues around the world are benefiting from the current excitement and energy around investment in women’s sports. Meanwhile, NCAA women’s hoops – a hot product that knows how to market itself – is stuck sitting on the sidelines.
And the indifference to women’s basketball doesn’t just reside in Indianapolis. It permeates through conferences and athletic departments, too. Conference commissioners are hired to maximize revenue in football and men’s basketball. They say as much out loud – even when asked about the awesomeness of women’s basketball – and are celebrated by the university presidents who hired them to drag the business of college sports into the 21st century.
Of course, the wider 21st century sports industry that exists outside of the American college sports bubble has identified women’s sports as the greatest growth area now and for the foreseeable future. Yet according to the Kaplan Report, the only championships that the NCAA has previously identified as revenue-producing – or even potentially revenue-producing -- involve men: baseball, ice hockey, lacrosse, and wrestling. Rather than proactively embracing where business and culture are going, college sports power-brokers repeat tired refrains and outright lies about how women’s sports are an unpopular money drain and how failing to support them is simply a reasonable reaction to market forces and consumer demand.
This is hogwash. When it comes to women’s basketball, the NCAA is not a passive actor, at the mercy of the invisible hand’s cruel whims.
This is hogwash. When it comes to women’s basketball, the NCAA is not a passive actor, at the mercy of the invisible hand’s cruel whims. The association actively works to devalue the sport – not reacting to market forces but instead manipulating them. Right now, ESPN pays an average annual rights fee of $34 million to broadcast the women’s basketball tournament and all 28 other Division I college sports championships. But a team of sports media and market experts in the Kaplan Report found that the women’s championship alone is worth far more – from $81 million to $112 million annually beginning in 2025.
That the NCAA is among the chief culprits stymying the growth of women’s basketball and women’s sports is hard to reconcile with the 2021-2022 academic year marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX. We can expect the association to spend much of the next year celebrating its schools’ efforts to expand opportunities for women in sports, even though its own history and relationship with gender equity is best summarized as one of opposition, resistance, and defiance.
Understanding this commitment to placing women’s sports in a subordinate role also helps us see more clearly the (lack of) logic behind the longstanding use of Title IX and women athletes as human shields for amateurism. If college athletes are allowed to be paid by anyone who wants to pay them, the argument goes, then the enterprise will no longer be educational, Title IX will no longer apply, and schools will have no incentive to fund, promote, or keep women’s teams (or men’s Olympic sports teams) around.
This argument supposes that women’s college sports are a charity case. A gift made possible by football and men’s basketball. That argument undercuts the feelings of worth and empowerment that sports can create and instead sends the message that athletes and coaches in women’s sports should be grateful for whatever they get. It also tells them to keep their mouths shut about poor and inequitable treatment, lest they receive nothing at all.
At the same time, athletes in the so-called “revenue sports” are led to believe that claiming a just share of the profits that their performances create – the fruits of their own physical labor – is greedy and would harm other athletes, especially women. Advocates for gender equity and economic justice within college sports end up divided instead of united, competing for a bigger piece of a pie defined and limited by the NCAA instead of working together to bake a better pie and ensure the system treats everyone fairly.
These are awfully cruel lessons, and ones that no one at the NCAA or in higher education would support teaching – at least not publicly. But at this point, is the association even fit to remain in charge of college sports? An organization that hosts championships for its member schools should have gender equity as a guiding principle, regardless of legal loopholes in Title IX. An organization intent on maximizing revenue shouldn’t undervalue some of its assets, whether out of sexism or sheer laziness. An organization purporting to care for and represent the best interests of all college athletes shouldn’t pit them against each other or expect one group of athletes to pay for the rest. The Kaplan Report has provided an important peek under the hood of how the NCAA really operates, and it is clear that this wheezing, sputtering, jerry-rigged enterprise needs serious fixing. Otherwise, it needs to be abandoned.
Taking Charge in Women's Basketball
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While a diverse crop of head coaches at HBCUs has not created a pipeline to the Power Five, new momentum behind women’s sports has helped carry women’s basketball to new heights. Can an exciting, outspoken generation of leaders in the sport turn it into a more equitable and popular avenue for women to thrive as leaders and athletes?