Sleepless in Seattle.
For the Michigan softball team, a long weekend in the Pacific Northwest turned even longer in the early hours of Monday morning.
After dealing with 14 innings of NCAA Player of the Year finalist Gabbie Plain, Michigan was sent packing back to Ann Arbor. The double–header sweep abruptly ended the Wolverines’ promising season, yet they were denied the opportunity of a night’s stay in Seattle before heading back home.
Instead, they had to endure a near-instant turnaround. At 4 A.M. PST, Michigan was at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, checking in its large travel party for a 6 A.M. flight to Detroit.
After already feeling wronged by being sent to the West Coast instead of hosting a regional, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins did not appreciate the travel schedule thrust upon her team. She took aim at the NCAA in a series of tweets from the airport.
Having just completed her 37th season as the head softball coach at Michigan, the winningest coach in NCAA softball history is no stranger to the NCAA and the way it conducts its business. She does not shy away from calling the organization out either.
This past March, for instance, disparities between the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments were laid bare on social media. Hutchins and her team made their voices heard in the matter, directly criticizing the NCAA for its failures.
Hutchins has become a titan in activism for equality in sports throughout her storied career. Her Title IX fight has been well-documented, and tremendous strides have been made since Hutchins began coaching at Michigan in 1985.
There is, however, a long way to go.
Despite all the progress, there continue to be roadblocks. When a group of athletes lay it all on-the-line in elimination softball, battling late into the night, a 6 A.M. cross-country commercial flight early the next morning becomes one of those roadblocks.
The Wolverines’ grievances with the NCAA earlier in the week were directed towards the organization’s disregard for their body of work on the softball diamond this season. They were sent west, forced to face an underseeded Washington team that they would eventually succumb to, and then sent home immediately afterward.
“(The NCAA softball committee) disrespected our entire conference.” Hutchins said after the selection show on May 16. “(They) absolutely did not do a very good job.”
Hutchins believed the NCAA did not truly know the teams it was evaluating, an outcome she foreshadowed earlier that week.
And her prophecy came true.
The COVID pandemic caused major schedule changes in sports throughout the NCAA landscape. Cutting down on travel decreases the amount of out-of-conference games teams can play, and limits their abilities to show postseason NCAA committees how they stack up to the rest of the nation when seeding rolls around.
This became less of an issue in sports like basketball. In basketball, the NCAA has been refining its NET rankings to aid committees in team evaluations over the last couple of seasons. With NET, teams are evaluated using a far more holistic approach, one that goes beyond simple strength of schedule via opponents’ records alone. NET uses multifaceted analytics to provide greater-accuracy evaluations of teams, giving teams that opted for more-local schedules due to the pandemic a fair-shake in tournament seeding.
That type of high-level, complex data was unavailable for those ranking the softball programs.
The NCAA would never put that type of thought or effort into a sport that isn’t football or basketball — not that they usually treat women’s basketball right either. As any softball or baseball fanatic would tell you, the data is there. In today’s game, analytics run deep. Where to bunt, what pitch-count is better to swing at against which pitcher, what is the average exit velocity of a batting lineup in their second time through the order, the list goes on and on.
Data that complex isn’t even needed, though, for the NCAA to do its job. Simply taking a deeper approach to strength of schedule that goes beyond surface-level records that average-out in an all-conference schedule — something NET does well as it even looks at where the game was played and provides a difficulty score for each game, for instance — can make all the difference.
But why would the NCAA care? It didn’t even bother providing usable weight-rooms for teams in this year’s women’s basketball tournament until it caught-fire on social media. They don’t even write March Madness on the women’s tournament basketball courts.
Instead, the NCAA softball committee relied heavily on RPI, a much more basic formula that is ineffective when teams play conference-only schedules, such as the teams of the Big Ten.
It led to a softball bracket that was a complete failure.
The end result was strong softball programs meeting too soon in the bracket. It was a bracket that pinned some of the best teams in the nation against each other in regionals, and denied so many deserving teams — and senior classes — one last run towards the College World Series in Oklahoma City.
A talented top-10 Oregon team had to travel to Austin, Tex. for a difficult regional against the Texas Longhorns, where the Ducks fell. Clemson, winners of the ACC regular season title, was forced to travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala., where it was eliminated by the committee’s third-ranked Crimson Tide. Wichita State, a hungry mid-major on the rise who rolled-through the American Athletic Conference, was paired up with No. 1 Oklahoma in the regionals. And Michigan, well, you know the story.
All the while, teams like Louisiana State, Kentucky and Tennessee, who had uninspiring records of 13-11, 13-11 and 12-11, respectively, in Southeastern Conference play, got to host regionals. They hosted because the committee relied on the NCAA’s RPI, which ended up heavily favoring the SEC.
They hosted because the NCAA failed.
The NCAA’s wrongdoing in the aforementioned events, however, were issues of competition. Sending teams across the country is manageable from a health and well-being standpoint, until it isn’t.
In her tweets from the airport, Hutchins used the hashtag #StudentAthleteWelfare. In this instance, she wasn’t advocating for the right to host a regional, or to face a less-formidable softball opponent. She was instead asking for her players to be treated in a way that a billion-dollar organization, supposedly on their side, is capable of treating them.
And they weren’t.
The NCAA shipped the Wolverines to Seattle for the “regional,” a regional in which all the other teams hailed from the Pacific Northwest. They were then shipped right back to Ann Arbor mere hours after the high-stakes elimination bout did not go in their favor. After a seeding-failure, the NCAA ensured that the outrageous amount of travel that Michigan had to endure for the regional would inconvenience it to the greatest amount possible on the way back home.
“We deserve better,” Hutchins said on Twitter. “We deserve better.”