The single rack of dumbbells and pile of yoga mats in San Antonio compared to the convention center room full of power racks, Olympic platforms, barbells and free weights in Indianapolis are a viral metaphor for the state of college basketball in 2021, say women’s sports advocates.
Oregon women’s team member Sedona Prince on social media pointed out the disparity in strength training facilities at the respective women’s and men’s national tournaments and sparked heated claims that women have not yet won the fight for equal treatment in athletics.
Without having been in San Antonio to review the situation, Terry Gawlik declined to say whether controversies over amenities and accommodations for players at the NCAA Division I women’s basketball tournament versus what the men get in Indianapolis hearken back to systemic inequalities between men’s and women’s sports dating to the early Title IX days or simply reflect that whoever was charged with setting up the women’s tournament dropped the ball.
“Honestly, I don’t know. I wasn’t down there,” she said.
But Gawlik, the University of Idaho athletics director, does have an unusually close perspective on the women’s tournament. She was a member of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament committee from 2012 to 2017, and she chaired the committee in 2017. She offers an insight that suggests the San Antonio shortcomings may be the result of poor planning more than social bias.
In a normal year, she said, tournament committees closely study how a city hosts a championship in an effort to duplicate what worked and to improve what didn’t for the next year’s event. The tournament experience for both men and women is also codified in a checklist so detailed it identifies where black carpet is required at a venue and how many people must be able to be seated at a table for press conferences.
But the last normal year was 2019. Baylor won the women’s national championship in Tampa, Florida, at a Final Four hosted by the University of South Florida.
Nobody has been asked to set up an entire NCAA tournament in a quasi-bubble during a pandemic with less than a year’s notice until now. In this situation, the NCAA checklist may not cover all contingencies. Notes from 2019 may be of limited use.
“Just from the point of running it and trying to figure out how to do that with all the COVID restrictions, I can’t imagine what it is like to set up that tournament,” Gawlik said.
Strength training facilities are the most glaring disparity between the men’s and women’s tournament sites. But there are also apparently differences in the COVID tests provided men and women and the quality of catering in San Antonio and Indianapolis.
Gawlik wondered if this is because men’s and women’s tournament officials failed to coordinate to ensure women and men were treated equally. Things might have fallen through the cracks. She is willing to give the NCAA some benefit of the doubt. In her experience, she said, the women’s tournament committee received adequate financial resources and staff support from the organization.
“I thought we did. The staff was phenomenal,” she said.
In describing procedures for putting on a championship and listing goals tournament leaders tried to accomplish, Gawlik makes another point. The NCAA endeavors to provide a comparable but not identical experience for men and women, because college basketball is in a different place in society for the respective genders. Women’s tournament officials are still keenly focused on growing the women’s game. Tournament participants are able to bid on hosting tournament rounds. The men’s tournament no longer permits that.
“We want fans. That’s why we allow seeds to host,” Gawlik said.
During the years she was on the committee, there were discussions about conducting joint men’s and women’s Final Fours. Nothing came of it because “we didn’t want the women to be overshadowed,” Gawlik said. “But it would have been really cool.”
After Prince’s video went viral, the NCAA hastened to improve strength training facilities in San Antonio, and Gawlik said there will be a powerful lessons-learned component in the 2021 tournament for current women’s committee members.
“I guarantee they are taking notes,” she said.
Regardless of why it happened, the situation in San Antonio raises anew the issue of whether in college sports women and men are treated equally.
Women may not be there yet, and if they are, they haven’t been there long enough to take anything for granted. In her own lifetime, Gawlik remembers playing basketball on tile floors and taping players’ ankles as a college coach because her school wouldn’t send a trainer on the road to women’s games. She played in a volleyball national championship put on by the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, the predecessor to the NCAA in women’s sports which is now defunct.
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