Investigation into gender disparities finds NCAA 'significantly' undervalues women's basketball

Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Kevin McGuff hopes a new investigation results in "true investment in women’s basketball."

A report released Tuesday by a law firm hired by the NCAA to investigate gender disparities among the governing body's championship events found that the NCAA "prioritizes men’s basketball, contributing to gender inequity," and internal support systems and television contracts contribute to the NCAA "significantly undervaluing women’s basketball as an asset."

The report comes after social-media posts outlined the differences between the treatment of athletes at the men's and women's NCAA tournaments, with teams at the men's tournament given better food, workout areas, recreation space and gifts compared to their counterparts in the women's bracket.

Among the conclusions made by Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, 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.

"The primary reason, we believe, is that the gender inequities at the NCAA — and specifically within the NCAA Division I basketball championships — stem from the structure and systems of the NCAA itself, which 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 report found, noting that many of the issues identified in the review — and some of the recommendations it put forward — are not new. 

Ohio State women's basketball coach Kevin McGuff, for one, was not surprised by the findings. "The Kaplan Hecker report illuminated obvious gender equity concerns that were brought to light at the most recent NCAA tournament," he told The Dispatch. "Hopefully this creates real momentum towards true investment in women’s basketball. Our game reflects the incredible competitive character our student-athletes display and they deserve the highest level of support."

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The NCAA Board of Governors, the highest governance body in the organization, said it was "wholly committed to an equitable experience among its championships."

"We know that has not always been the case and the instance of the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship is an important impetus for us to improve our championship experience so it is not repeated. This report provides useful guidance to improve our championships," the group said. 

"We have directed the NCAA president to act urgently to address any organizational issues. We have also called him to begin work this week with the three divisions and appropriate committees to outline next steps, develop recommendations and effectuate change. We will continue to review and process the recommendations in the gender equity report as we move forward to strengthen championships for all student-athletes.” 

Complaints about differing championship experiences also arose two months later during the Women's College World Series, which took place at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. While the facility expanded its capacity to 13,000 for this year's event, there were still no showers in locker rooms.

The schedule also was criticized after an elimination game between Oklahoma State and Florida State started around midnight due to rain delays instead of being pushed to another day. Further delays forced the final game of the championship series between Oklahoma and Florida State to be moved to an afternoon start instead of prime time.

Even with all the adjustments, the WCWS outdrew baseball's College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, which is played in a minor league stadium with nicer amenities for fans and players.

Lori Schmidt of The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.