Almost nobody likes the NCAA. Plenty of people like college sports, in the same way plenty of people like the NFL or the NBA. But very few like “the NCAA,” the governing body that oversees America’s college athletic contests. For many, that’s because when the NCAA isn’t working to prevent athletes from being paid, it’s working to make sure women’s sports are treated as something less than men’s sports. The latter was especially clear over the last week.
As March Madness began in earnest, photos and TikToks illustrating disparities between the NCAA’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments spread rapidly across social media, and subsequently, into wider press coverage. Thanks to posts by women’s stars like University of Oregon forward Sedona Prince, the organization was caught outfitting the men with better weight rooms, food buffets, swag bags, and even playing venues than the women. Along with other NCAA failures, the viral posts made the organization’s incompetence the defining story of the first week of both ongoing national tournaments.
Obviously, these imbalances are not new. Men’s and women’s sports have received different treatment for as long as they have existed. But the ways that powerful institutions in college sports have put down women’s sports go beyond putting less effort into logistical preparation for championships. This isn’t the result of neglect but of a series of deliberate choices by the NCAA and its member schools, who shield each other from accountability.
It starts with funding levels. The universities that comprise the NCAA have always given less money to women’s sports than to men’s. The gap has shrunk over time, but it appears to still be significant. In 1993, an NCAA gender equity task force found that 70 percent of participation opportunities and scholarship funds went to male athletes, along with 77 percent of operating budgets and 83 percent of recruiting budgets. In a 2017 paper on Title IX compliance, the NCAA reported that the total expense gap had narrowed in Division I to 42 percent for men, 36 percent for women, and 21 percent “unallocated and coed.” It’s common knowledge in college sports that accounting practices across schools are not standardized and are often cloudy.
Some of this discrepancy is complicated. Football drives much of the difference, but football is also the backbone of college athletics finances, the one profitable sport that funds everything else at many schools. (The fact that one of the NCAA’s few majority-Black sports bankrolls the rest of many athletic departments is its own civil rights issue.) And it’s hard to say how much, but a decent chunk of football expenses comes from boosters who earmark their donations for football alone. For instance, think of the few donors who stroked $20 million in checks to buy out a coach, or to build a new practice facility that promises to help a team rise in recruiting. (Spoiler: It doesn’t work.)
But even if we account for football’s supremacy, certain funding deficits for women’s sports don’t make sense. Across D-I athletic departments, men’s programs received 51 percent of scholarships but 67 percent of recruiting expenses. Why would it cost more to recruit male athletes? It’s not as if it costs more money to put high school boys on planes for official visits than it does for girls. Some might suggest that men’s larger recruiting class sizes (in part, again, due to football) explain the gap—but they don’t. Men enjoy a higher share of recruiting budgets than their scholarship slots account for. Maybe you believe that every football recruit is getting petty cash under the table (they are not) and that it’s being accounted for in official filings (it is not), and so you believe that’s what explains the higher expenditures on men. But even if that were true, exorbitant sums delivered in suitcases to hundreds of 18-year-old linemen across D-I would be needed to close the official gap. As a result of all this, the gendered difference in recruiting budgets makes it hard to infer anything but the Occam’s Razor explanation: Schools roll out glitzier red carpets for male prospects than for their female counterparts. It’s not as if an elite women’s basketball player (in a sport with five players on the court at a time) is inherently worth less to a team than a five-star football player, who’s one of 11 on the field at a given time.
Male coaches also received 70 percent of coaching funds across Division I. Today, an athletic director could point out that there’s no way to compete in major football or men’s basketball without paying coaches several million dollars a year. That athletic director would be correct, but that’s only a result of enough schools deciding together to inflate that market. It’s not any one institution’s fault that men’s coaching salaries are so much higher than those for women coaches—but that collective responsibility is largely to every school’s advantage. If everyone’s in on it, no individual college can be held accountable for it.
To be clear, coaching salaries and operating budgets are the purview of universities, not the NCAA. The administration of basketball championships, however, falls upon the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. And the NCAA’s high-profile failures around the 2021 women’s tournament expose how much the bosses cared about that event compared to the men’s tournament. NCAA president Mark Emmert called the disparity “inexcusable,” and of course he did. It is!
But Emmert failed to admit that this tournament’s failures rhyme with how the NCAA treats women’s basketball every other day of the year. It goes beyond money. As the legendary South Carolina coach Dawn Staley pointed out on Friday, even the NCAA’s trademarked “March Madness” branding is reserved explicitly for the male half of the sport. The NCAA’s @marchmadness Twitter bio calls the account “the official NCAA March Madness destination for all things Division I NCAA Men’s Basketball.”
“The tag line leaves no run for misinterpretation,” Staley wrote. “Those words mean one thing – March Madness is ONLY about men’s basketball.” She called on NCAA leadership to “reevaluate the value they place on women.”
The NCAA’s minimization of the women’s game is brazen, given the organization’s public posture as a benevolent educational institution seeking to lift up athletes in every sport. The NCAA wants badly to portray itself as more than a place for Division I football and men’s basketball. After all, if it’s associated too closely with the sports that produce the most revenue, more people might start to ask questions about why players aren’t paid any of that revenue. Remember the commercials about how there are thousands of NCAA athletes, and almost all of them will be going pro in something other than sports? Those commercials are full of women. Juxtaposed with the NCAA’s actual treatment of women’s sports, the NCAA office appears more interested in using women’s sports for PR than in investing time and money in them.
The women’s tournament brings in much less money than the men’s tournament—about $35 million a year in TV cash compared to nearly $1 billion for the guys. Legions of men, including former NBA player and casual misogynist Nick Young, have used that difference to justify the women’s tournament getting less investment. But that’s at odds with the story the NCAA tells about itself: that it exists to organize college sports for the benefit of the athletes playing the games. Moreover, the NCAA is officially a nonprofit, a tax-exempt entity that enjoys that status because it nominally exists for pursuits higher-minded than profit. But even if it were officially for-profit, treating the women at one’s company so callously would be bad business for a corporation. For proof, see how quickly a sporting goods company stepped in to offer to spruce up the women’s weight rooms after the NCAA got caught skimping on them.
The NCAA and its member schools have also worked together to uphold economic policies that are uniquely harmful to women. The ban on players getting paid for the use of their name, image, or likeness prevents athletes from accessing a potentially lucrative revenue stream during their playing careers. Women are less likely to have professional sports opportunities than men, so this restriction is likelier to wipe out more (or all) of their possible athletic earning years. Even in basketball, where the WNBA is rising in popularity, there are only 144 roster spots across 12 teams. In the NBA, there are 450 spots across 30 teams. There’s also a paid 18-team G-League for developing players, for which the WNBA has no equivalent.
Status quo advocates often cast a rollback of name, image, and likeness rules as a handout to football and men’s basketball players, because the highest-profile sports would surely invite more money-making opportunities for players. But plenty of women athletes have big social media followings. UConn’s freshman phenom Paige Bueckers and Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith both have about 670,000 followers on Instagram. Given that a lot of these deals would likely play out on Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, it’s likely that women would be big beneficiaries; the name, image, likeness marketplace is going to exist mostly on the internet. These huge followings could be turned into real money.
Sports marketing publisher Opendorse estimated 6 of the 12 highest college athlete earners in 2020 would have been women, had the NCAA permitted such deals. And that’s to say nothing about college towns that are especially into particular women’s teams, where other NIL opportunities might exist. Congressional and state government action are likely to force the NCAA to change its rules on this issue soon. Some lawyers and athletic administrators believe those payments will pose Title IX compliance issues, but that outcome is much less certain than the current reality—that women in college sports are being denied a chance to make money on their own.
Sedona Prince, the Oregon basketball player, has nearly 700,000 TikTok followers. It was her viral video that highlighted the disparity between the women’s weight rooms at their tournament bubble in Texas and the men’s setup in Indiana:
Prince is one of two Pac-12 athletes (the other is male Arizona State swimmer Grant House) who sued the NCAA over its name, image, and likeness restrictions in 2020, in a class-action that’s still working its way through the courts. She’d suffered a serious leg injury at her previous school, Texas, and described racking up “tens of thousands of dollars” in medical bills from several resulting surgeries. The NCAA required her to sit out the 2019-20 season under transfer rules that restrict athletes from changing schools with the same freedom as coaches and other students. A group of Oregon fans made “Free Sedona” T-shirts, the Oregonian reported, and asked Prince if she wanted to sell them. She couldn’t.
“For all the hard work college athletes put in, for all the risks we take and injuries we sustain, and for all the money we generate, we should at least be able to share in the profits that can be made off of our own names, images and likenesses,” Prince said in a statement upon filing the suit. “If not us, who can rightfully claim that and profit from it?”
“She clearly had a following,” her lawyer said. “She could have made some money, and that’s just one example.”
The NCAA’s minimization of its female athletes is not only on the organization and its schools. It’s also on the public and on companies. A Google search for “college basketball” brings up a page of entirely men’s search results, as well as a score box for men’s results built by Google itself. “NCAA tournament” is often synonymous with the men’s tournament, even though there are two Division I basketball championships put on by the NCAA.
“It makes us look like the JV tournament to their event,” former Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw said.
Internalized public bias is why Turner Broadcasting believes it can sell enough advertising next to the men’s tournaments to make it worth paying a billion dollars a year to show them, and why Disney believed a fair price for the women’s tournament was a tiny fraction of that. Both corporations are part of why more media workers (present company included) enter the business and gravitate to covering more men’s games. Much like universities can blame the competitive landscape for how they treat women’s sports, so can anyone else.
The people who designed college sports’ power structures built a series of mazes with nobody in charge of them. That setup also spreads around blame. The NCAA office messed up so publicly this week that it took a moment in the limelight all by itself, but the longer-term crimes against women’s sports are much harder to untangle into blame for specific parties. All that happened this month is that some of the athletes at the women’s basketball tournament forced more people to listen to a story an entire industry has been writing for years.