Women’s Basketball Is a Renewed Flashpoint for an Embattled N.C.A.A.

The women’s basketball players of Immaculata often washed their own uniforms. They flew standby to save money, and sold pencils and toot...


The women’s basketball players of Immaculata often washed their own uniforms. They flew standby to save money, and sold pencils and toothbrushes to finance travel costs to their first national tournament. A collection of pail-pounding nuns made up a raucous cheering section.

But the tiny Catholic school outside Philadelphia dominated women’s college basketball in the early 1970s.

“It was crazy: nuns in full habit banging on metal buckets and yelling for this team,” recalled Cathy Rush, who coached Immaculata to three consecutive national championships beginning in 1972. “We thought we were blessed.”

The advent of Title IX, the federal law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in nearly every educational setting, made the era an expectant, revolutionary one for women’s athletics. Approaching a half-century later, though, women’s basketball is still struggling for full acceptance in the male-dominated world of college sports and in American society as a whole.

This year’s N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament, which will conclude Sunday in San Antonio, has been a weekslong display of athletic intrigue and talent — and a showcase of the indignities, like a flimsily stocked workout area publicized online by the Oregon forward Sedona Prince, that players and coaches say prove that their sport is still seen and treated as second-class.

“It was so blatant, and it pulled back the curtain and it allowed people to say, ‘This is a systemic problem,” said Cori Close, the coach at U.C.L.A.

“People who were intimately involved in college athletics were not shocked, but they were deeply disappointed,” said Heather Lyke, the athletic director at Pittsburgh and a member of one of the N.C.A.A.’s most influential management groups. “They’re thankful that the discrepancies were captured and displayed and that people reacted the way they did, which was appalled or outraged or frustrated. People didn’t dismiss it.”

That is partly because women’s basketball is a powerful force in American athletics, especially compared with what it once was. These days, the sport’s luminaries can be household names, its games collectively draw millions of fans in person and on television, and the inequities that emerged from San Antonio drew swift attention online and in Congress. But a sport that has spent years contemplating ways to break through — and how much it should stand as a brand of its own — is finding it difficult to outrun a history of sexism, infighting and media rights deals that overwhelmingly tilt eyeballs and money toward men’s basketball.

The debacle in San Antonio cast a harsh light toward the N.C.A.A., which was already under severe strain because of the coronavirus pandemic and a crush of public and political pressure to change longstanding rules that would allow players to profit off their fame and benefit in some way from the ballooning financial might of college sports. Now the association is facing doubts over the depth of its commitment to one of its marquee offerings.

“Everybody is looking at treatment issues and promotion issues, when the last 40 to 50 years has been focused on participation issues,” said Donna A. Lopiano, the director of women’s athletics at the University of Texas for nearly two decades and now the president of the Drake Group, a nonprofit organization that seeks changes in college sports. “Now the whole laundry list is open, and that’s significant.”

The N.C.A.A. has repeatedly apologized for the problems in San Antonio and hired a civil rights lawyer to lead a review of how it conducts it championship events, with a particular eye toward gender equity and a report expected this summer. But the strategy was privately greeted with shrugs inside the college sports industry.

What, people around women’s basketball asked, could a lawyer conclude that they had not been saying for decades?

If Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, wants to understand how to resolve the disparities, “he should look in the mirror,” said Muffet McGraw, who coached Notre Dame to two national titles before she retired last year.

“I think they’re oblivious,” McGraw said. “I don’t think they care, either. I think they’re so worried about protecting the men’s tournament, they don’t really bother with anyone else.”

The N.C.A.A. held its inaugural men’s basketball championship in 1939.

It was not until 1971 that the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women opened for business as an alternative to an N.C.A.A. that was already regarded as both dismissive of women’s sports and more embracing of commercialism than academics.

Title IX became law in 1972. By 1973, the A.I.A.W. faced a potent legal challenge to its ban on athletic scholarships, which had been intended to help women’s sports grow without teams facing commercial pressures. Coaches and players from two Florida schools sued and argued that if men deserved scholarships, so did women. The A.I.A.W. relented — a concession that led to a policy change to allow teams to compete even if they chose to offer scholarships. It also set into motion a decline of the organization’s influence over women’s sports and an upending of the athletic order.

Small-school dynasties like Immaculata, where administrators balked at funding scholarships, could no longer compete at the top level. Rush remembers a stark realization: “If I wanted to continue coaching basketball, it had to be someplace else.”

Athletic centers for women were the stuff of miserly legend, with a converted men’s locker room, freshly outfitted with artificial flowers in the urinal, offered to women’s basketball players at Texas A&M.

Schools were simultaneously searching for ways to outmaneuver Title IX, with which colleges were supposed fully compliant by 1978. Christine Grant, the former women’s athletic director at Iowa, recalled the “submerging” strategy: Schools with separate athletic departments would combine them and place the director of men’s athletics in charge.

“It was a very successful strategy that was used in order to keep the status quo,” Grant said.

Still, the N.C.A.A. saw women’s sports as an industry poised to boom and “had two things the A.I.A.W. could not hope to match: money and status,” Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford wrote in the book “Shattering the Glass,” a history of women’s basketball. The N.C.A.A. had a $20 million budget and promised to devote $3 million to women’s championships, a vow that swamped the A.I.A.W.’s budget of $1 million.

Women’s athletics executives waged a fierce debate over what to do, and whether to cede influence to men, who were suspected by some to be hungry for control, not equity. But when the N.C.A.A. staged its first women’s tournament in 1982, it attracted top teams.

“We were given a whole lot,” said Sonja Hogg, who coached Louisiana Tech to an A.I.A.W. title in 1981 and to an N.C.A.A. championship in 1982. “Not to disparage the A.I.A.W., but they just didn’t have the money. Our athletes were at a disadvantage.”

Few events shaped women’s basketball like the A.I.A.W.’s demise. The embrace of the N.C.A.A. and the parallel pivot toward such a monetized model, current and former executives and coaches said, fed structural inequities that endure to this day. When Title IX was enacted, 90 percent of the coaches of all women’s sports were women, but that had plunged to 41 percent in Division I by 2019-20. The inequities are also found inside the N.C.A.A.’s organizational chart and budgeting, which have left the women’s game understaffed and less funded compared with men’s basketball.

“It’s not comforting to know that for the last 30-something years, there’s still disparity, even at the University of Connecticut, and we’re about as close as you can get to equity as any place in the world,” Geno Auriemma, the school’s coach, told Emmert during a videoconference with women’s basketball coaches on Wednesday.

Connecticut’s raft of titles and 13th consecutive appearance in the Final Four on Friday, when it lost to Arizona, have drawn much admiration but also have fueled perceptions that women’s basketball was less competitive and entertaining. And some critics have argued the sport is less worthy than the men’s game because it does not generate nearly as much money. Women’s basketball, though, is developing along much the same arc as men’s basketball did generations ago.

In the first 37 years of the men’s tournament, U.C.L.A. and Coach John Wooden won 10 national titles. In the first 37 years of the women’s tournament, Auriemma’s Huskies captured 11. This year’s women’s Final Four included a familiar trio of powers: Connecticut, South Carolina and Stanford. But there was also a newcomer — Arizona — and a mounting case that the women’s game has more competition and depth than the men’s game did at the same stage of its development.

A No. 16 seed defeated a No. 1 seed in the women’s tournament in 1998, two decades before the same feat happened in the men’s tournament. And those celebrated U.C.L.A. teams stocked with the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, and Bill Walton are enshrined as some of the greatest ever — but also came at a time when conferences could send just one team to the men’s tournament, cutting down on challenges to U.C.L.A.’s supremacy.

With greater parity emerging, and with women’s sports now an integral part of the American sports landscape, women’s college basketball officials see potential for enormous growth. They have been making a similar case for years.

“I don’t think anyone says, ‘Well, professional basketball, they’re bigger and stronger so I just want to watch professional basketball — not college basketball,’” said Tara VanDerveer of Stanford, who this season became the winningest women’s coach in Division I history. Basketball fans, she said, “appreciate women’s basketball for what it is and appreciate men’s basketball for what it is.”

“I think there’s enough room, whether it’s on television, whether it’s arenas, for both — and for both to be great,” said VanDerveer, whose team will play for the national championship after edging South Carolina. “And we do have a bigger area to grow because we started so far behind.”

In 2013, Val Ackerman, who had led the W.N.B.A., prepared a report about the women’s college game and its future. In interviews, she heard wide-ranging recommendations and feedback: “Get scoring up.” The sport is “still an afterthought to most people in positions of authority.” “No one would stay committed to the sport without Title IX.”

But, Ackerman concluded, no women’s college sport was “better positioned in the near term to generate revenues or, potentially, profits.”

Ackerman, now the commissioner of the Big East Conference, detailed an array of proposals, including blending the men’s and women’s tournaments into a single event, much the way tennis does with its Grand Slams, or having the women’s Final Four at a quasi-permanent location. She floated the suggestion of a 24-second shot clock — it remains at 30 seconds — and the idea of capitalizing on basketball’s international popularity by staging a women’s Final Four in China or Qatar.

Some ideas were adopted, like playing 10-minute quarters instead of 20-minute halves. But to read the report now is to see a range of unheeded recommendations, fueling public and private questioning of the N.C.A.A.’s support for a sport that it contends is a priority.

Naz Hillmon, a junior forward at Michigan, noted this past week how, even before she was in college, the official March Madness app did not feature women’s basketball.

“Is it great for us to have this separately or should we always be the exact same as what the men have going on?” she said, adding: “That’s a question that will have to roll through a lot of people’s minds for a little bit to get a definitive answer, because if we want to say that men and women’s basketball is completely equal, then things like that probably should be the same.”

Others eagerly ticked through their lengthening lists of long-term shortcomings. The failure to use the March Madness branding for the women’s tournament. The decision to set up a basketball academy for high school boys but no similar program for girls. The lack of financial incentives, which are offered in the men’s competition, for conferences when teams advance in the women’s tournament. The organizational chart that has the N.C.A.A.’s vice president of women’s basketball reporting to an executive whose primary focus is the men’s tournament.

“We want to be partners with the N.C.A.A., we want to make a difference with the N.C.A.A., we want to be transformative in the lives of women — and men,” said Close, the U.C.L.A. coach and the incoming president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.

“We all understand how imperative the men’s basketball tournament is to the structure of the N.C.A.A. — nobody begrudges that, we’re grateful for that,” she added. “There’s a lot of benefit that has happened through the years because of what an incredible event that is. We’re not complaining about that. It’s not that we want anything less for the men. We just want to help our women have more dignity, more investment and more opportunity to master their craft at the same level.”

There have been some successes. Participation in Division I women’s basketball is up slightly from about a decade ago, as is attendance. This year, for the first time since 1995, some women’s tournament games have aired on a national broadcast network, and all 63 matchups have appeared on national television, with some earning higher ratings than professional sporting events.

But the women’s tournament, part of a 14-year multisport deal that the N.C.A.A. signed with ESPN in 2011, is being credited with only $6.7 million or so in media money, much less than many analysts believe it is worth. The N.C.A.A. is earning more than $850 million for the television rights for this year’s men’s tournament. In 2019, when the N.C.A.A. most recently held full championship events, the women’s tournament attracted about 275,000 in-person fans, or roughly 40 percent of what the men’s tournament drew. That year, the N.C.A.A. budgeted $13.5 million less for the women’s tournament than the men’s, a gap that officials attributed to differences in competition formats and the bigger crowds that the men’s game drew.

This year’s troubles in San Antonio, though, brought the sport’s struggles into the spotlight, largely because increasingly empowered student-athletes turned to social media. The N.C.A.A. has blamed logistical challenges related to the pandemic for the breakdown in standards, an explanation that coaches and players said they understood but still left them hurt.

VanDerveer described the entire episode as “beyond a turnover.”

“Your team might go out and make mistakes, but this is not being prepared for the game,” the Stanford coach said. “There’s got to be better communication and decision making.”

Beyond citing the pandemic, N.C.A.A. officials have said little about how so many disparities could have happened at the women’s tournament, which had a dedicated planning staff of six people compared with the 12 who were focused on the men’s competition.

On Thursday, Emmert said the N.C.A.A.’s critics were right to judge the organization by its marquee events.

“They have to be the benchmarks that we judge gender equity by,” he said of the basketball championships. “If we’re failing at that level, we’re failing across the board.”

Lynn Holzman, who played at Kansas State and rose to become the N.C.A.A’s vice president of women’s basketball, told coaches on Wednesday that she expected “pretty substantive changes,” but she did not elaborate.

And so the women’s basketball community waits. They are accustomed to it, they say, frustratingly accustomed. Over the past two weeks or so, some mulled over what the game could have been if the A.I.A.W. had survived.

“Is it time to separate?” Kim Mulkey, Baylor’s coach, said. “I don’t know. Can we sustain it financially? I don’t know. But those are discussions that need to be had at the higher levels by people who are a lot smarter than me.”

VanDerveer said she simply wanted to see more input from players and coaches, offering them “more of a voice so that someone can say, ‘Hey, the weight room doesn’t make any sense.’”

And then there is Rush, the pioneering coach at Immaculata, who said she believed the N.C.A.A. had “worked well” and even proved “transformational” for women’s sports.

But she had a caveat.

“I’m not sure better is the answer.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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