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Gonzaga University Athletics

NCAA looks to improve treatment of women athletes during postseason

Dayton forward Kyla Whitehead gets set to shoot a free throw during the second half of a First Four game against DePaul in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Wednesday, March 16, 2022, in Ames, Iowa.   (Associated Press)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Cosmetically at least, the NCAA is making some progress in equal treatment of women’s basketball players.

As the Gonzaga women practiced Thursday afternoon for their first-round tournament game against Nebraska, the “March Madness” logo was everywhere.

It was plastered on towels, chair backs, and every drink cup at the KFC Yum! Center. When Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier and two of her players took their seats for a news conference, it filled the space behind them.

Because image matters to the NCAA. And the more images, the better.

But it remains to be seen whether or not the signage is a sign of real change in the wake of last year’s scandal over the unequal treatment of two genders that play the same sport.

Last year, fans of the women’s game were outraged by images that showed gross disparities in everything from workout rooms (a full-size gym for men, a stack of dumbbells for women) down to the “swag bags” given to every player.

The men got towels, T-shirts and a book autographed by coaching legend John Thompson.

The women received something that looked like a regift from the Dollar Store.

The outrage went viral, and the NCAA responded (after a third-party review) by stripping its March Madness budgets down to zero and rebuilding them from scratch.

By January, it had identified 65 “gap areas” between the women’s and men’s tournaments. Those differences included hotel decor, “swag bags” and game day experiences.

Of those, the NCAA said, more than 50 of those have since been closed with new funding and most of the rest addressed with “nonmonetary changes.”

Besides the March Madness signage – a staple of the men’s tournament since 2011 – the NCAA expanded the women’s tournament to 68 teams, increased pay for women’s game officials to match the men’s and equalized the swag bags.

More contractors and vendors, and new full-time employees will work this year’s women’s tournament.

The budgets for both tournaments have reportedly been reworked for this year. Updated figures are not yet available, but the women’s tournament budget is set to increase by “multiple millions,” according to Yahoo Sports.

But for many who love the game, the changes are insufficient.

“I’m not even close to satisfied,” UCLA coach Cori Close told Yahoo Sports in a recent interview. She described the changes as “low-hanging fruits” that don’t yet touch the real inequities at the heart of the system.

The biggest complains revolve around unequal monetary opportunities.

Broadcasting rights for the women’s tournament haven’t been put up for competitive bid since 2001. The NCAA had been valuing the women’s tournament at about $6 million a year, but an independent analysis last year found that its true value could be more than $80 million per year.

The next women’s TV contract will begin in 2024 and carries the potential to pull in much greater revenue, particularly if it’s sold as a stand-alone package like the men’s tournament.

Also, the NCAA’s current revenue-distribution scheme allocates more incentive money to schools and conferences that have success at the men’s tournament.

The women’s tournament has no such incentive system, thereby encouraging schools to prioritize men’s programs over women’s.

“It’s systemic, and it encourages a certain behavior that inhibits the growth of women,” Close said.

The women’s players and coaches in Louisville, however, were inclined to give the NCAA the benefit of the doubt.

Acknowledging the logo change, GU senior Cierra Walker said, “I just think it’s awesome for us women to be able to see that. We do the same things that the men’s teams do, so it’s nice to be able to share the same logo and not have differences.”

Nebraska coach Amy Williams called the changes “a step in the right direction, while Fortier saw the 2022 tournament as an “enhanced experience with what the NCAA has committed to or at least we’ve been told, and so far from what we’ve seen.”

Hailey Van Lith, who prepped in Cashmere, Washington, and now stars at Louisville, made a heartfelt pitch for change.

“I’ve heard there’s supposed to be a lot of changes this year,” Van Lith said. “And I really hope they happen, because we deserve it.”