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Gonzaga Women's Basketball

Gonzaga, Washington State women speak up about inequity between men’s, women’s NCAA Tournament

The weight room offered to women’s basketball players at the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio shows the discrepancy in amenities between the men’s and women’s tournament bubbles, drawing criticism since March Madness began earlier in the week.  (Courtesy/Gonzaga women's basketball team)

When the Gonzaga women walked into the makeshift weight training facility set up in San Antonio, they, like most of their peers competing in this week’s NCAA Tournament, were appalled to see 12 dumbbells resting on a single rack in the middle of a warehouse-sized ballroom.

The dumbbell stand is an essential component to any weight room, generally accompanied by squat racks, barbells, plates, kettlebells and elastic bands. Videos of the weight room at the men’s tournament in Indianapolis depicted a large ballroom space furnished with all of the above.

As for the women, the amenities amounted to the bare minimum: a single dumbbell rack, a few yoga mats and lots of frustration.

“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,” Gonzaga senior Jill Townsend said. “You saw the weight room, obviously, and the weight room serves as a health standpoint for us. It’s injury prevention, getting our lifts in.

“… 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.”

More than the major upsets, outstanding players and polarizing coaching figures, the disparity between men’s and women’s weight rooms has become a the main talking point through the first four days of the 2021 tournament – and only subsided slightly when the NCAA responded to complaints by upgrading the convention center fitness facility being used by every team in San Antonio.

“I think it’s unfortunate the way it played out,” Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said. “Because I know as they were planning, if people were thinking about the things we would need down here or maybe asking the questions of the coaches and strength coaches of what our teams would need down here, they would’ve provided us with a lot more than that.”

It started when Oregon women’s player Sedona Prince shared a TikTok video of the dumbbell stand in San Antonio. In a statement, NCAA Vice President of Women’s Basketball cited “limited space” in San Antonio as the reason for the disparity, but Prince’s video – which at one point cuts to a clip of the more equipped men’s facility – also pans to a larger area of the ballroom where more weight machines theoretically could be used.

“This disappointment is, it’s more of an afterthought,” said Washington State women’s coach Kamie Ethridge, who’s leading the Cougars to their first NCAA Tournament in 30 years. “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?

“… It’s the small details, it’s the, ‘No, we’re not going to give this to you and you shouldn’t ask for it. You should just be happy you get this.’ I think that’s the difference. It’s the, ‘We’re not going to think about you until then and you should just be happy you’re here,’ feeling you get if you’re us and you see the differences. The hard part for coaches is to look at your kids and say, ‘Yeah you didn’t deserve it. They do and you don’t.’

“How do you communicate that to your players?”

Gonzaga’s Jenn Wirth, the West Coast Conference’s co-player of the year, has traded notes with longtime boyfriend Corey Kispert, an All-American wing on the men’s team, about the varying NCAA Tournament experiences. Men’s players in Indianapolis have access to a large grass field, where NCAA organizers have provided equipment for football, Wiffle ball and other games. Women’s players get fresh air once a day, when they take about a 10-minute walk to a COVID-19 testing center.

“It’s super important that both men and women are drawing attention to it, because I think if it’s only coming from the women’s side, the people that don’t really have respect for women’s sports aren’t going to care,” Wirth said. “But I think having figures on the men’s side bring attention to it also is just huge for us.”

The story has captured the attention of the sporting world, drawing criticism from WNBA players such as Sue Bird and Sabrina Ionescu, as well as NBA stars Stephen Curry and Ja Morant. A San Antonio-based branch of national retail giant Dick’s Sporting Goods offered to lend assistance, filling U-Haul trucks with fitness equipment, claiming, “We are standing by to deliver it and have your facility outfitted within hours! Let’s make this happen.”

By Saturday, videos and pictures of a newly renovated workout facility in San Antonio began to surface on social media. During a morning Zoom call with reporters, Ethridge said the tournament had created a walking path for players who want escape the confines of their hotel outside of daily COVID-19 testing.

Ethridge finds it unfortunate her team had to deal with the circumstances, but she recognizes how it could create growth in the equality battle between men’s and women’s basketball.

“This is good for it,” Ethridge said. “For those that come after us, you’re going to have it better and it’s going to be more equal, and we’re going to get this thing right and they will get it right. I believe that and trust it, and it’s not going to dampen our experience.”

Ethridge, a former national champion and All-American at the University of Texas, said equity in the sport “has changed so much” since she played in the mid-1980s, but a lapse like the one this week demonstrates how much more progress is needed.

“Yes, we can go into revenue, but there’s two sides to the NCAA,” she said. “They do have to make revenue, but they’re not set up as a revenue-producing organization. So equality has to be a part of that.”