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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Law firm recommends combined men’s and women’s Final Four

Fans watch from the stands during the first half of the championship game between Stanford and Arizona in the women's Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament in San Antonio, in this Sunday, April 4, 2021, file photo. A law firm hired to investigate gender equity concerns at NCAA championship events released a blistering report Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, that recommended holding the men's and women's Final Fours at the same site and offering financial incentives to schools to improve their women's basketball programs. (Associated Press)

An independent report has confirmed what women basketball players from Gonzaga and Washington have known for months: The NCAA has a lot to learn about equity.

A law firm hired to investigate gender equity concerns at NCAA championship events released a blistering report Tuesday that recommended holding the men’s and women’s Final Fours at the same site and offering financial incentives to schools to improve their women’s basketball programs.

“With respect to women’s basketball, the NCAA has not lived up to its stated commitment to diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators,” the 113-page report concludes.

The report noted disparities were not confined to this year’s tournaments and that the bedrock financial deal for the NCAA and its member schools is partly to blame: Kaplan said NCAA’s structure and systems “are designed to maximize the value of and support to the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship as the primary source of funding for the NCAA and its membership.”

The NCAA did not immediately comment on the findings.

The firm, Kaplan, Hecker & Fink LLC, was hired in March after the NCAA failed to provide equal amenities to the teams in the men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments, a situation that blew up on social media amid player complaints.

Like other women’s teams, Gonzaga arrived in Texas to a tiny, makeshift workout room that included a single dumbbell rack and a few yoga mats. Meanwhile, the men’s teams in Indiana worked out in large spaces with every manner of apparatus: squat racks, barbells, plates, kettlebells and elastic bands.

The disparities provoked an outcry on social media even before the tournaments began.

“What does raise some eyebrows and get some attention from me is just from a health and mental health standpoint, of the disparities between the men and women,” former Gonzaga star Jill Townsend said at the time.

“We deserve our health and mental health to be taken just as seriously as the men. It is kind of disappointing when you see that stuff like that,” she added.

Neither GU coach Lisa Fortier nor Washington State coach Kamie Ethridge could be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Ethridge, however, reacted sharply to the disparity before the Cougars’ first-round game against South Florida.

“This disappointment is, it’s more of an afterthought,” Ethridge said. “I think that’s the thing. It’s that, if it’s so important to the men and they have it set up so pristine and perfectly, why would it not be important for the women?”

The report found more inequalities in COVID-19 testing protocols, meals, signage and outdoor recreation, which stemmed mainly from a lack of staffing of the women’s tournament and coordination between organizers of the two events.

“The women’s basketball staff member responsible for credentials, game operations and approximately 30 other tasks had approximately eight men’s basketball counterparts with whom she was in theory supposed to coordinate,” the report said.

Among the conclusions made by Kaplan, Hecker & Fink, which specializes in employment and discrimination matters, including Title IX and gender equity cases, was that the NCAA’s model for revenue distribution “prioritizes and rewards investment in men’s basketball,” impacting the experience for student-athletes in women’s sports.

The NCAA should “maximize value through gender equity in marketing, promotion and sponsorships,” the report said, by marketing the women’s tournament as a “stand-alone property” and using the term “March Madness” in conjunction with both the men’s and women’s championships. Also, the NCAA should consider holding the men’s and women’s Final Four in the same location, the firm concluded.

Among the other suggestions made by the firm include changes to the current leadership structure around men’s and women’s basketball; increased gender equity in basketball staffing; greater communication between the Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Committees and Basketball Oversight Committees; and “a real-time gender equity audit of the Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships as they are being planned and executed each year.”

“I don’t think you can sweep this under the rug,” Tara VanDerveer, who coached Stanford’s women’s team to a national championship this year, said Tuesday.

“I don’t think you can say this is a one-off,” she added as she praised the report’s scope. “I think we’ve hit kind of a tipping point.”