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Sports >  NCAA basketball

Sally Jenkins: NCAA’s message to women’s basketball players: You’re worth less

UPDATED: Fri., March 19, 2021

A visitor looks up at the logo for the Women’s Final Four in San Antonio on Thursday as the city prepares to host the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.  (Eric Gay)
A visitor looks up at the logo for the Women’s Final Four in San Antonio on Thursday as the city prepares to host the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. (Eric Gay)
By Sally Jenkins Washington Post

I’m tired. Not from today, or from yesterday, but from 40 years of it. Forty years tired of writing the same damn story about the same NCAA short-changers in suits who would begrudge women’s athletes so much as an equal amount of air in a tire if they thought it might come at a man’s expense. Sick and tired of the chiseling administrators with their million-dollar salaries and monstrous heaps of revenue who act like women’s basketball players should be thankful for a uniform that isn’t funded by a bake sale.

The women’s basketball tournament ought to be an NCAA flagship event, yet it continues to be treated as some kind of cheap subsidized junior varsity by the book-cooking crooks. All these women do is raise their arc of performance, command steadily increasing viewership and graduate at a sky-high rate of 93%. For which they get petty insults and cheap treatment. The ludicrously inferior weight room these women were provided at their bubble site in San Antonio, a single rack of weights and a couple of yoga mats? That’s nothing new, and it’s no surprise.

Nothing changes. Ever. On one occasion in 2004, Tennessee and its coach Pat Summitt arrived at their accommodations for the Sweet 16 to discover that they had been put in a seedy motel – along with a police dog convention. It was one of those joints where the corridors were all outdoors, and the food was a vending machine. Every time a player left her room for a bag of peanuts, German shepherds would leap at the windows and start baying. In the motor lobby and the parking lot, trainers were walking dogs around on short leases. The whole place smelled of canine.

Women are 50.8% of the population and they earn 57% of all college degrees, and they make up 44% of all NCAA athletes. You know how many female athletic directors there are among the 65 schools in the Power Five conferences? Four. The women’s Final Four is an annual sellout, and ESPN paid $500 million for a TV contract bundling the tournament with 24 championships. You know how much money UConn, Stanford or Baylor will get for winning in the women’s tournament? Nothing.

The NCAA provides no payouts to women – at all. It refuses to factor the women into any revenue-sharing.

Exactly where does the NCAA, which calls itself a nonprofit and benefits from all manner of preferential subsidies, deductions and tax favors on its billions in TV and licensing revenue, get off pretending the women’s tournament has no value at all? And where does it get off serving the athletes slop? And why are they giving women a combination of antigen and PCR tests for COVID-19, while the men undergo only the more expensive – and more reliable – PCR?

The 2019 women’s Final Four in Tampa, Florida, set attendance records in an arena of 21,000. Fans jammed local hotel rooms. More than 3 million TV viewers watched Baylor’s 82-81 victory over Notre Dame in the championship game, and ratings were up 24% since 2016. This year, ESPN has decided to show all 63 games of women’s March Madness – presumably because of demand, and value, and advertising.

But the NCAA, funnily enough, won’t break out the specific numbers on the women’s basketball tournament revenue and operating costs. Their finances on the women are opaque.

Do some math for yourself. A sold-out arena, at $30 for a single face-value ticket, that’s at least $600,000 per game. All told, 274,507 fans attended the 2019 women’s tournament. And that’s not counting concessions and advertising.

“They’ve got tens of millions in value there,” sports economist Andrew Zimbalist said.

Now, certainly the men’s tournament is worth more: Its 22-year TV deal is for $19.6 billion, and it can command 10 million viewers across CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV. That still doesn’t explain why a men’s team that wins a single game will get a payout of $2 million, while a women’s team that wins an entire championship tournament will not get a cent.

“One can make an economic argument that men should get a larger benefit and payout because they have higher ratings and attendance and tickets cost more,” Zimbalist said. “But to say that women should get nothing, when we all know they are on ESPN and in large arenas where they sell out, and are valuable – that is totally unacceptable. It’s a clear case of discrimination.”

Here’s the deal: The NCAA needs to fix this, and fix it now. Otherwise, it’s just one more reason for Congress to legislate it out of existence.

It’s Women’s History Month, so let’s review some history. Women’s basketball built itself. From scratch. In the face of vehement opposition from male administrators and athletic directors. The first women’s championship was played in 1972, in Normal, Illinois, and it drew 16 teams, most of which drove hundreds of miles piled into station wagons, traveling on their own dime. Summitt’s athletic director at UT-Martin, Bettye Giles, walked around town with a piggy bank collecting donations to get the gas money for the 7-hour drive to the tournament, which would be won by Immaculata.

To help pay for uniforms, Summitt raked yards.

Out at Cal State Fullerton, Billie Moore, who was head coach of the first U.S. women’s Olympic team – the Olympic team for God’s sake – washed cars to finance her team.

Marynell Meadors, who served for several years as the general manager of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, can remember driving her Tennessee Tech college teams to games in a dilapidated van with bald tires, because administrators wouldn’t devote any money to fixing it. The door on the van wouldn’t close properly, and Meadors feared it would slide open and one of her players would tumble out onto the highway.

They had to beg for occasional pittances from athletic directors, usually bulldoggish former football stars who viewed them with red-faced hostility. At Austin Peay, a coach named Lin Dunn, who would later win a WNBA championship with Indiana, was told by her AD she could use the gym only “when nobody else wants it.” She had to drive her team to games in her own Impala – which could fit just eight. She would slip into the men’s locker room and steal their extra warm-ups.

This is the backstory to the tournament that will be played in San Antonio, and all of the coaches and players there know it by heart, and feel it burning inside. A’ja Wilson, the former South Carolina star who plays for the Las Vegas Aces, called the disparities for women’s teams “beyond disrespectful.” Sue Bird took one look at snapshots of the difference between facilities and food for the men and women and tweeted, “I can’t.”

If they seem to seethe with a special intensity, that’s because they’re not small slights; they’re a lifetime worth of frustrations, of chronic insults and grudging advance, of being told that they’re worth less. And they’re tired of it. Forty years worth of tired.

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