HARTFORD, Conn. — NCAA President Mark Emmert said Wednesday that the association “dropped the ball in supporting our women’s athletes” following reports of disparities with amenities and branding between the men and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments.
“I and everybody else in the NCAA have been so disappointed in the shortcomings that have been starkly abundant and recognized here in San Antonio,” Emmert said at a press conference ahead of the Women’s Final Four, which begins Friday. “We can’t do that. That’s a failure that should not exist.”
In comparison to the men’s NCAA Tournament in Indiana, the women initially had much smaller weight rooms in San Antonio, less-robust “swag bags” and were tested for COVID-19 using antigen tests, a less-accurate process compared to PCR tests that the men received. Reports also surfaced that the food options in San Antonio were inadequate.
Emmert said he believes that NCAA has rectified the inequities in San Antonio “very effectively,” and that it will use this moment as a “pivot point” to determine what the association needs to do better to create an equitable experience for women athletes.
According to the Associated Press, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association sent a letter to Emmert requesting a “Commission on Gender Inequity in College Sports” led by people chosen by both the WBCA and NCAA. Emmert announced last week that the NCAA was hiring a law firm to review “potential gender equity issues” in regards to how it conducts its men’s and women’s tournaments.
The WBCA, though, said more than an external review has to be done.
“The issues raised by the treatment of the teams in San Antonio are symptoms of a much larger attitude that women’s sports are second class to their men’s counterparts,” the letter from the WBCA read.
Emmert said Wednesday he looks forward to meeting with the WBCA.
“I’m anxious to hear from them and to hear their thoughts and views,” Emmert said. “I understand their interest in being a part of that and together we can figure out a structure that, I think, we can all feel very comfortable with.”
On top of the differences in amenities and testing, there have been branding disparities. The logo at center court for men’s tournament games reads “March Madness” while the logo for the women reads “Women’s Basketball.” The logo for the national semifinal games for the women reads “Women’s Final Four,” while the men’s logo is non-gendered and reads “Final Four.”
Emmert said there is no reason why the women’s side cannot use “March Madness” if they choose (the details behind the decision not to will be addressed in the NCAA’s review) and that the decision to use a gender identifier for “Women’s Final Four” is up to the committee.
“Those are debates for marketing people and those who want to promote the game,” Emmert said. “But I’m committed to making sure that we use the marks of the NCAA as effectively as we can in promoting women’s basketball.”
Emmert said he wishes there was “greater attention” given in advance to the disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments, and that the NCAA was so focused on the task of holding championships during a pandemic that they were not as focused on equity as they should have been.
“One of the biggest frustrations is that the team that’s down here in San Antonio — the women’s committee, my staff that works on women’s basketball, all the volunteers around the community — they’ve been working unbelievably hard. It’s just been really, really hard for everybody,” Emmert said. “And then to have this incredible event marred by these incidents is just wrenching. And anything that we could have done to avoid that I would have happily done and obviously wish we had. These athletes deserve that. They earned it. They deserve it. And we let them down. And that shouldn’t have occurred.”
The problems which arose in San Antonio — weight rooms, food, swag bags — are easy fixes, Emmert said. But the the inequities in women’s collegiate sports are on a systemic level, and not just an isolated incident.
“Everybody recognizes, everybody I’ve talked to recognizes — and I listen closely to what they have to say because it’s very important — they recognize that the issues are not just what happened here in San Antonio,” Emmert said. “Candidly, the issues that are here in San Antonio are things that can be fixed and fixed relatively easily. That’s not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is that 60-year head start I was talking about — that we have for a long time had systemic disparities that have been a problem for gender equity. It’s not just in basketball; it’s across all sports. Indeed it’s in many things that go on in our society.”