NCAA women's tournament 2021: Inside an overdue reckoning over inequity in basketball

Flashback: Prince shows disparity between men's and women's facilities (0:37)

Oregon's Sedona Prince shows the many differences between the men's and women's equipment and facilities during the NCAA tournament. (0:37)

In 2013, Val Ackerman compiled an exhaustive report on the state of women's basketball for the NCAA. Known as the "Division I Women's Basketball White Paper," the account was filled with concerns from those she interviewed over a span of six months and detailed recommendations to market and usher the sport into 2020.

"There is a tremendous appetite for change in the way Division I women's basketball is played, marketed and managed. In many cases, the comments I received were tinged with frustration, as it was noted that some of the ideas now being discussed have been 'kicking around for years,' demonstrating the difficulty of making change within the NCAA system.

"No one I spoke with advocated a laissez-faire or 'wait-and-see' approach to women's basketball; the overriding sentiment was that changes of some kind were clearly in order and that the time for action is now."

Those words ring even truer now, eight years later. The stark inequalities between the men's and women's basketball tournaments was again brought to light earlier this month.

A 37-second video by Oregon forward Sedona Prince shows a single stack of yoga mats and free weights as the women's weight room and then cuts to a ballroom-sized area with at least 12 weight rack stations that serves as the men's weight room.

Prince's post did what Ackerman's 52-page report eight years ago could not. With more than 10.8 million views on TikTok and more than 189,000 retweets -- including from NBA superstars like Steph Curry and U.S. Senators like Chris Murphy -- Prince laid bare an issue that had been simmering beneath the surface for a long time.

The NCAA has since apologized and provided more resources for women's players, but in interviews with more than 20 coaches, administrators, athletics directors, college sports advocates and commissioners, they made clear their concern is not so much with what happened at the tournament this year. It is with a culture in need of an overhaul to address not only gender equity, but the best path forward to grow, market and promote a sport they believe has been neglected for far too long and hasn't received equal billing compared to the men's game.

What happened in San Antonio, combined with a new player empowerment movement, presented an opportunity for commissioners and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association to exert pressure on NCAA president Mark Emmert -- where they may not have had the leverage to do so before.

"The right question, fairly now, 'Is that the best we can do?'" Ackerman, who was hired by the NCAA as a consultant when she wrote the White Paper, told ESPN on Friday. "And who's willing to allow what group to be in charge here? That's a fundamental problem with the NCAA, is it's a bureaucracy that people don't want to let go, because it would mean deciding that somebody or some committee is absolutely in charge and then trusting that group. People don't want to give up the right to second-guess."

On Wednesday, Emmert was asked why the NCAA has taken so long to address many of the same issues that were raised in the 2013 report. Emmert pointed to another NCAA study done about two years ago, but said "there's no excuse."

"The women's basketball community first and foremost also has to determine which parts of those recommendations, like in Val's or anybody else's white paper, they want to pick up and run with," Emmert said. "There's no excuse other than we need to do better and we need to get the commitment of all of our governance structure to get on with it."

'It was disheartening ... It was embarrassing'

The Prince video reopened old wounds among those who had felt -- and called out -- myriad inequities and unfairness over the preceding decades. Suddenly, every difference between this year's tournaments was magnified, from the swag bags to food to COVID-19 testing to the way the NCAA failed to have uniform courts in the opening rounds for the women -- and all the way to the March Madness logo and branding.

The response was overwhelming and immediate.

ESPN obtained a letter from America East commissioner Amy Huchthausen and Ivy League executive director Robin Harris that was sent to Emmert, calling what happened "unacceptable." They wrote, "It warrants a comprehensive discussion once the tournaments conclude about how we -- national office staff and membership -- can protect and ensure equity across all championships in the future, but especially in the sport of basketball."

The WBCA sent a letter of its own to Emmert, calling the external review "insufficient" and asked instead for a Commission on Gender Inequity in College Sports. It also launched a website Friday called OurFairShot.com, which is focused on addressing the inequities between men's and women's basketball. The group had a call earlier this week with Emmert, senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt and vice president of women's basketball Lynn Holzman, in which coaches asked pointed questions about lack of communication, structure and money.

While the NCAA conceded it made mistakes and ordered a law firm to conduct an independent gender-equity review of its championships across all three divisions for all sports, it pointed to the challenges of staging two separate tournaments in the midst of a pandemic. The women's tournament usually holds its first two rounds at on-campus sites; this year, it had to plan for every game on a neutral site at various locations in one city, allowing many more line items to slip through without scrutiny. Basketball courts didn't have a uniform look because there was simply no time to order and install courts.

The NCAA also provided manuals to participating programs, one for the men and another for the women, outlining the respective events. In it, the manual stated women's teams would not have access to weight rooms until the Sweet 16. Programs were also notified coronavirus testing would differ because of what was available to local health departments in San Antonio and Indianapolis.

"The NCAA has segregated men's and women's basketball for at least 40 years," said Nora Lynn Finch, former ACC senior associate commissioner for women's basketball. "There are things behind the scenes they don't share, and they don't want their women's basketball staff at the NCAA to know it. They certainly don't want committees that are making policies to know them."

Sources from programs that had men's and women's teams participating in tournaments told ESPN there is rarely time for administrators and coaches to compare their respective manuals. That's why no one on the women's side questioned the weight room situation until Prince's video showed what the disparities between the two tournaments actually looked like.

"I had people say to me and call me and ask me, 'Is this real? Is this serious?' because it had gotten so big and it was just embarrassing," Michigan guard Akienreh Johnson told reporters this past week. "When we saw that our [men's] team had a huge weight room, we were like, 'OK, when we get [to San Antonio], we'll have a big weight room, just like they do.' And when we saw we didn't ... It was disheartening."

When asked if he would have done anything differently to respond after the photos and videos surfaced, Emmert said he wished there had been greater attention to the details of both tournaments "so we didn't have these issues -- whether it was the weight room issue or the food differentials."

Speaking to the latest controversy, former Notre Dame coach and current ACC Network analyst Muffet McGraw said, "They're kind of like paper cuts, but they add up eventually and you just think, 'How did we get here?'"

Part of the issue is the convoluted governance structure of the NCAA and the sport. Women's basketball has the oversight committee and another committee involved with the tournament and selection of teams. There is another NCAA committee that focuses on Title IX, in addition to the WBCA, which has been vocal but is largely cut out of the decision-making process.

Then there are divisions among the "have" and "have not" programs and conferences, whose priorities are widely different from one another, making it harder to agree on one path forward.

Ackerman, who was formerly the founding president of the WNBA and is currently commissioner of the Big East Conference, called the national structure of women's basketball management "fragmented and frustrating," a persistent problem she attributed to why there hasn't been a way to enact many of the changes she highlighted in her report.

"It's a Tower of Babel," she said. "Trying to figure out how to get the right people at the table, the right number of people at the table, how to get consensus around who you can trust to make the decision is really challenging."

"The NCAA has segregated men's and women's basketball for at least 40 years. There are things behind the scenes they don't share, and they don't want their women's basketball staff at the NCAA to know it." Nora Lynn Finch, former ACC senior associate commissioner for women's basketball

On campuses across the country, schools have made a concerted effort to make facilities and experiences equitable. Some do better than others. But because the NCAA is a private organization, it is not subject to Title IX, the federal law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

Iowa men's point guard Jordan Bohannon, one of several players leading the #NotNCAAProperty campaign, has used social media this month to push for NCAA reforms, including asks into the organization to abide by Title IX rules.

"We're well aware that the NCAA doesn't have to operate under Title IX, but what we saw with the weight room ... it wasn't a mistake," Bohannon told reporters Thursday. "It was almost like it was clearly done, that they didn't want to put as much effort as they did for the women's as they did for the men's. ... Hopefully, [there is an] understanding that, in the future, this situation will never happen again."

The NCAA failed to meet its own standard of conduct according to its constitution in the NCAA manual, under Section 2.3 The Principle of Gender Equity.

"One of the NCAA's foundational principles is to conduct its activities 'in a manner free of gender bias,'" said Amy P. Perko, chief executive officer of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, and former basketball player at Wake Forest. "That has to guide everything the NCAA does. All leaders really should just go back to the one page of principles at the very beginning of the manual."

It wouldn't take millions of dollars to address some of the tournament-specific issues that have surfaced since the weight room controversy.

First, there is the debate over using the phrase "March Madness." Many women's basketball leaders asked why that term has been used exclusively for the men's tournament. Men's courts use the March Madness logo, while the women's simply say "NCAA Women's Basketball." And the phrase is only used for the men in branding and on social media (the Twitter bio for @marchmadness reads, "The official NCAA March Madness destination for all things Division I NCAA Men's Basketball").

Emmert said this week women's basketball is free to use it as part of its branding. But what remains unclear is whether those with decision-making power on the women's side ever asked to use it in the first place. The women's basketball selection committee and its coaches have never been on the same page on this specific issue. "I don't recall that anybody ever even asked us to use March Madness in the women's committee," one former NCAA official told ESPN.

People interviewed by ESPN also suggested other small changes that could make the student-athlete experience feel closer to equal across the board. For example, calling the event the "NCAA men's basketball tournament" rather than the "NCAA tournament," which would send a message that it's not the only tournament happening in March; or supplying the same perks to both the men and women across the board, like gym equipment when the situation calls for it; or "swag bags," gifts the men's and women's players receive from the NCAA, which have been a sticking point for years.

"The branding and messaging are things we can tackle sooner rather than later," Minnesota women's basketball assistant coach Danielle O'Banion said in an interview with ESPN. "There are so many unhealthy messages sent to our student-athletes through the way they market the tournaments."

The money trail, or lack thereof

Gender inequity in sports is nothing new, and the topic is understandably polarizing. From women's tennis to the U.S. women's national soccer team, female athletes have fought for equal treatment and equal pay for decades -- and, in many cases, have made the sport better for future generations.

While there is a big difference between professional athletes and student-athletes, a women's collegiate basketball player publicly calling out why her tournament didn't have the same weight room compared to her male peers has the same effect.

But when it comes to collegiate sports and its athletes, the discussion about money and gender inequity is where the debate gets complicated, and Prince's viral moment has helped further amplify it.

First, the NCAA is a private organization, so it is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests -- the organization doesn't have to share its financial numbers.

But after inquiries from ESPN and The New York Times, the NCAA did release tournament budget figures for 2018-19. It showed the men's tournament received $28 million, nearly double the $14.5 million for the women. While there was a $13.5 million budget gap for the men's and women's tournaments, the men's tournament makes the lion's share of the NCAA's revenue and has a bigger budget because of the larger costs associated with its event.

"They have different budgets, but the difference in the budgets is because of the scale of the two tournaments," NCAA chief financial officer Kathleen McNeely recently told ESPN. "... and the nuances in the delivery, which tend to be committee decisions on how they're going to deliver those championships. I'm not saying there might not be minor issues, but in my opinion, there is a lot of parity between the men's and women's basketball tournaments as we look at it from an individual student-athlete experience, which tends to be our focus."

The information provided by the NCAA also showed the men's tournament brought in a total net income of $864.6 million in 2018-19. The women's event lost $2.8 million, the largest loss of any NCAA championship. Emmert said the profit from the men's tournament is used to support all of the NCAA's other championships and $600 million of the revenue is distributed to the schools. Men's teams and conferences receive revenues for reaching the tournament field, and accrue more money for every game they win until the Final Four. The women's champion, meanwhile, receives no money for winning the tournament.

The men's revenues are largely derived from the NCAA's multibillion television contract -- CBS/Turner signed an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension in 2016 for that tournament alone. Three years ago, ESPN agreed to a $500 million deal with the NCAA that expanded the network's broadcast rights to 24 national championships, including the NCAA women's tournament. The deal runs through the 2023-24 season.

Given the disparity in budgets and revenue distribution, and a lack of communication and transparency around how those dollars are spent and earned, there was skepticism among those ESPN interviewed as to whether the NCAA has held back women's basketball by not putting adequate resources into the sport and tournament.

"Why is there not a revenue distribution formula for women's success like the men's?" one commissioner posed to ESPN. "There's a pot of money that comes into the NCAA from CBS/Turner and ESPN off media rights. That pot should be divided equally, and if you win a share on the men's side, you should get a share on the women's side when you win. ... But there's no share distribution at all. Why? Because it's always been done that way."

Those within women's basketball ESPN spoke with in recent days made one point clear: They don't believe significantly closing the financial gap between the men's and women's tournament budgets will be the solution for gender inequity. But one ask was for more transparency, as they believe there is no clear breakdown on how much money women's basketball and its tournament actually generate.

Those inside the sport also believe women's basketball is being held back from pursuing different strategies that could bring in more revenue -- the point would be to not drain resources, but add to them. Gavitt and Holzman said they haven't even had a conversation about specifically branding and marketing the women's tournament, but it is one Holzman and coaches believe is long overdue.

"We're a huge potential revenue stream, and our numbers continue to bear that out," Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner said on a WBCA call with Emmert, Gavitt and Holzman earlier this week. "They've done that really without a lot of help. I think we're gonna miss a huge window if we don't change things now. If we really don't step up to the plate, the NCAA as a whole, to really water this sport. To really give it the attention that it deserves. We have shown that we are a viable product for the public."

Is this really a tipping point?

In order to write her White Paper, Ackerman did six months of research and connected with 240 representatives from NCAA conferences and schools. The comments from the interviews are relevant today:

  • Sport is at a "fork in the road moment;" "status quo is not an option;" need a "call to action" and "bold, innovative action."

  • "Everyone is doing their own thing without an overall strategy;" need to develop a "sense of solidarity," a "shared vision," an "envisioned future," a "unity of purpose."

  • Women's basketball community needs to "step up and demonstrate initiative and lay out what they're prepared to do" and "not just ask what's going to be done for them."

So why hasn't women's basketball developed "solidarity" and a "shared vision" or a "unity of purpose" over the past eight years? Why, after a student-athlete's social media post, is there now renewed attention to something that remains a problem?

In addition to the issues around governance structure, there hasn't been consensus on the best way to hold the tournament itself, in order to not only grow the sport but generate better visibility, attendance and revenue-producing opportunities.

There have been various iterations throughout its 40-year history, featuring campus sites and neutral sites, while trying out different parts of the country for regionals. Starting in 2023, there will be two regional sites instead of four, with eight teams each. Host cities have been announced through 2026.

In her report, Ackerman laid out several ideas to stage the tournament differently, including choosing one host site for the Final Four and sticking with it for multiple years. She cited sources who suggested a bubble-type site from the Sweet 16 on, perhaps in Las Vegas, using a model similar to what has worked so well for baseball in Omaha, Nebraska, and softball in Oklahoma City.

Ackerman also proposed having the men's and women's tournaments at the same site on the same weekend in order to maximize the branding, revenue and marketing opportunities. None of those suggestions have taken hold. Part of the reason is there is an even wider disparity between the have and have nots in women's basketball, compared to the men's game. Viewpoints vary wildly, and it's difficult to do something for the general well-being of the sport when there are those who believe their own institutions might not benefit. Ultimately, the sport gets stuck in mud, spinning its wheels.

"We've got to be creative and bold," Chris Plonsky, chief of staff and executive senior associate athletics director at Texas, told ESPN. "Can women's basketball come together and do it? We've got to have an ability to cede some control to somebody to try something new to fix what isn't working in the game, and that's going to take sane minds prevailing."

Those who spoke with ESPN believe it is imperative the review ordered by Emmert takes a comprehensive look at why the men's and women's tournaments, and committees, are shaped the way they are, and why various decisions along the way have put all parties in a place where the entire system needs to be reimagined.

"There's never been a plan or a goal or a desire to make this even, and so, is it just doing baby steps at a time like, 'OK, show incredible outrage to get one step closer?'" one coach said. "But there's never even a paradigm or a model that begins at 50/50, or begins at fair. I would love for someone to admit that so that instead of just putting out fires, you're reworking the whole model."

McGraw, who has been vocal about gender equity issues for years, said she remains skeptical the model will get reworked as long as Emmert is in charge.

"The problem's been there for years, and it's probably our fault for accepting it," she said. "Now that it's out in the open, you hope the public outcry and media attention shines enough light on it that they do make some changes. We don't want apologies. We don't want you to fix it today. We want you to fix it for good, but you have to change your mindset and that's the problem. How can you expect the same people to operate in a different way? It's not going to happen."

Others suggested the NCAA doesn't really have a choice -- players are using their social media platforms to speak out and try to enact change.

Without Prince putting the weight room disparities on full display, perhaps there isn't a real discussion about these issues.

"The issue for all of us in athletics is, if we're going to be dug in and don't do anything, we're going to get run out of here," O'Banion said. "Our student-athletes have reached a time and age where they're willing to take a stand in ways maybe I wasn't at their age because I was told to be happy with what you get. These young people are not of that same ilk and they're going to drive change whether the NCAA is willing or not."

That gives longtime women's basketball leaders some hope, but the biggest question is whether it will be the type of change that produces progress. The White Paper shows why getting there may be as elusive as it has ever been.

"This can be a moment for change, but that remains to be seen," Ackerman said. "There's now a frenzy of activity and conversation, and I think what will be key is what orderliness comes out of this. There's not one thing in play here. It's not just the weight room. There's many pieces to this, and I tried to note them in the report I wrote eight years ago. This is a moment to take a look at a broad array of topics, and then we have to wait."

ESPN reporters Mechelle Voepel and Dan Murphy contributed to this story.