Three congressional lawmakers have sent a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert accusing the organization of making “inadequate progress” in addressing “historically disparate” treatment of male and female athletes.
Singling out the March Madness basketball tournaments, Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York, Jackie Speier of California and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey said the NCAA was “violating the spirit of gender equity as codified in Title IX.”
They blamed Emmert for his failure to implement some of the key recommendations from the external review that the NCAA commissioned last summer after inequities between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were exposed a year ago. The NCAA last month said it had taken important steps toward solving the issues.
“The shortcomings at the women’s basketball tournament last year have been well-documented and extensively covered,” the NCAA said Tuesday in an emailed statement in response to the lawmakers’ letter. “Although our work is not done, we are focused on the many improvements made since then that provide students across all our championships with a lifelong memorable experience.”
The letter, which was sent only a few days before the start of this year’s tournaments, notes that the NCAA “failed to create or commit to creating a chief business officer role to oversee NCAA’s media partner relationships with CBS/Turner and ESPN, the Corporate Partner Program, and branding and marketing for all championships.”
The lawmakers also said Emmert has made no progress in changing the leadership structure that would have NCAA vice president of women’s basketball Lynn Holzman report directly to him instead of going through NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt.
The letter also cited internal emails from the NCAA that highlighted some of the disparities at last year’s tournaments, including food differences. The staff had declined offers from sponsors and non-sponsors to donate food or food gift cards when female players complained that their food was not equal to the amount given to the men.
One of those offers came from LA Sparks player Chiney Ogwumike, a former Stanford star who offered to donate $500 DoorDash gift cards to each of the 64 teams; the NCAA denied the offer because Uber Eats was an NCAA corporate sponsor.
The NCAA has already made changes to its women’s basketball tournament this year. Many of the changes have been relatively easy to do, such as expanding the tournament to 68 teams and using the phrase “March Madness” — once limited to the men’s tourney — in branding.
Players and coaches will have to wait until the Sweet 16 to see March Madness on the court in the women’s tourney. Unlike the men, who have predetermined sites for the entire tournament and branding on the courts, the first two rounds of the women’s tournament are played at 16 campus sites that aren’t known until selection night.
It’s impossible to have the March Madness-branded courts shipped and installed in the arenas by the start of the games a few days later, the NCAA said.
“It’s a practical issue in this case,” Women’s Basketball Coaches Association President Cori Close said. “It’s not that they’re not willing to spend the money. I really do hope there’s as much signage in as many areas.”
Close agreed with the NCAA that putting down March Madness decals could lead to safety issues.
“I do understand not putting the big stickers down. I always choose safety above branding,” the UCLA coach said.
ESPN, which airs the women’s tournament, will digitally add “March Madness” to the courts in first- and second-round games so viewers will see branding on the corners of the courts. The NCAA will also have March Madness signs and branding inside the arenas.
The organization admits there is still a lot of work to do. Earlier this year, the NCAA announced it would not combine the two Final Fours, which was a recommendation from the Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP report. There are other possibilities, including potentially moving one of the two Final Fours to a different weekend. This year’s events are in Minneapolis (women) and New Orleans (men).
Looming for the women’s tourney is a full discussion — or new deal — for TV rights, the lifeblood for hundreds of schools. On the men’s side, CBS and Turner’s original contract with the NCAA was for 14 years at $10.8 billion ($770 million per year). They signed an eight-year extension in 2016 that gives them the rights through 2032, and the per-year average will jump to $1.1 billion beginning in 2025.