March Madness 2021 may be relegated to those who keep statistics and sports trivia for roll-out at future tourneys, but perhaps the most important result of this year’s NCAA tournament is a renewed focus on women’s basketball and, in turn, women’s sports overall. The glaring inequities about the women’s weight and training area in San Antonio may have been the catalyst for a lot of discussion and NCAA apologies last month, but apologies and lip service don’t cut it. Expeditious change is needed, now.
The first NCAA men’s basketball tournament was held in Evanston, Illinois, in March 1939. The tournament was won by the Webfoots, now known as the Ducks, of the University of Oregon, who defeated Ohio State, 46 to 33. (In the spirit of full disclosure, my parents met that same year at Oregon, and I am a second generation “Duck.”) More than 30 years after that first men’s tournament, the Education Amendments of 1972 added Title IX, which protects people from discrimination, based on sex, in education programs or athletics in any educational institution that receives federal financial assistance. Title IX initiated a sea change for women’s programs, but it took another decade — 10 years! — for the NCAA to institute a women’s basketball tournament, in 1982.
Women’s sports have come a long way since I was in school, when girls could play volleyball (using “girls” rules) field hockey, and tennis, but few other team sports were recognized and supported by their educational institutions (both high school and college). Title IX opened the floodgates for female athletes to pursue their chosen sports, but many barriers still exist, as exemplified by the weight and training inequities publicized by Sedona Prince, also an Oregon Duck, as she sought to work out in preparation for the Lady Ducks’ appearance in the Sweet 16. Covid-19 often is used as an excuse/reason for not doing something, but the NCAA explanation fell flat. It shouldn’t matter whether a team is one of dozens in the preliminary rounds, or in the Final Four. An athlete is an athlete, regardless of gender; opportunities for training should be the same whether you are at the top or somewhere further down, and with similar, well-stocked facilities available to all competitors. If the NCAA truly values the athletes, rather than just the financial proceeds that accrue to the organization, it will work during the coming year to address the inequities that Ms. Prince and others pointed out so deftly. The women’s tournament showcased many talented women’s teams from across the country, and the championship game, between Stanford and Arizona (like my alma mater, Oregon, both are PAC-12 schools) was simply superb, with a one-point win by Stanford at the buzzer.
The Covid-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges for both amateur and professional team sports, and their many fans. Many of those challenges have been met, and overcome, by the athletes and their coaching staffs. In the spirit of never letting a crisis go to waste, they devised new approaches to training, practice, and the social interaction that is special to team sports. As the pandemic, hopefully, wanes, the NCAA and other sports organizations should take the lessons of the women’s basketball tournament to heart, and start recognizing women athletes as the first-class players they are. It shouldn’t take another 40 years.