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As various instances of inequitable treatment from the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments circulate the internet, the optics are damning. 

To start, there have been images showing the difference between men’s and women’s weight rooms. There have been similar images regarding “swag bags” at the men’s and women’s tournaments. Moreover, there have been less tangible disparities in that the men’s tournament is the only to use the branding of “March Madness” and “the Big Dance.”

On appearance alone, these conditions require explanation. And, quite frankly, the NCAA has failed to provide justifiable explanations for their actions at every turn.

“In part, (the lack of a women’s weight room) is due to the limited space,” NCAA Vice President of Women’s Basketball Lynn Holzmansaid in a statement released by the NCAA on Mar. 18. “And the original plan was to expand the workout area once additional space was available later in the tournament.”

Without context, this explanation already seems weak considering the months of planning that went into this year’s tournament on account of COVID-19, but we do have context here.

And the context makes matters worse.

As a video captured by Oregon forward Sedona Prince shows, the space was there the whole time. Just behind the abysmal setup the NCAA provided, a wide-open floor space capable of holding a much more adequate weight room awaits.

It doesn’t make sense. 

The NCAA decided to hold its entire women’s tournament in a San Antonio bubble at the beginning of February. And while there is obviously a lot that goes into planning such an event, it seems highly improbable that there could be a misstep in something as simple as space availability.

There is just no way that, with all the concerns over space relevant to conducting a large, bubble-style tournament during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA hadn’t thoroughly considered potential spatial issues before booking the San Antonio venues.

Even more, a proper weight room is fundamental to the preparation and success of collegiate athletes. And as such, providing appropriate facilities for women’s tournament participants should not have been an afterthought. With all of this being said, blaming the lack of proper facilities on a lack of space isn’t a settling explanation, it’s an excuse, and a false one at that.

The merchandise provided to each group shows an equivalent disparity. While the men received a vast “swag bag” of goods ranging from towels to T-shirts to banners all emblazoned with “March Madness” or “The Big Dance” branding, the women received a scant package of generic “NCAA” and “women’s basketball” branded merchandise. 

The NCAA has provided a statement about these packages, but they would have to do a lot better than “there wasn’t enough space” to explain away this unequal treatment. And to put it simply, they didn’t.

Holzman stresses in that public statement that the dollar values of the two bags were equal, but one certainly does not get that impression from looking at the images.

It would be understandable that the men’s and women’s merchandise teams would have created different bags if they were given an equivalent value to use and then sent their separate ways to fill that total, but that’s not what happened. 

In fact, Holzman explains that the men’s and women’s staffs “proactively” worked together on making the bags. So, what explains away the difference in appearance?

The answer cannot be equivalent value because optics matter and, again, the optics are damning. Maybe an excuse is that the NCAA doesn’t use its trademarked phrase “March Madness” for the women’s tournament, so it doesn’t make sense to give them branded material. 

But again, why not brand the women’s tournament?

There is nothing different about what teams have to do to get into the men’s and women’s tournaments. There is nothing any less difficult about making a deep run in the tournament. And there is nothing that makes earning such an appearance or run any less meaningful for the women than to the men.

Put simply, this matter of branding, which is likely intended to preserve the integrity of the men’s tournament’s magic, binds the women’s tournament to a lack of comparable spectacle.

You don’t even have to give the “March Madness” or “the Big Dance” branding to the women’s tournament, NCAA. You only need to give the women’s tournament a brand of comparable appeal and consistency.

The fact that the women’s tournament is completely unbranded is insulting, and it belies a lack of respect for the efforts of the student-athletes, coaches and staff involved. In 2021, there is no excuse for blatant preferential treatment of male athletes, and the NCAA is more than wise enough to know it needs to take specific measures to ensure equality in how it provides for its male and female athletes, no matter the sport.

I don’t care about revenue differences; the NCAA makes $1 billion in revenue each year and the disrespect of women’s sports is a large part of why women’s basketball does not bring in more of that revenue. The NCAA must acknowledge the power it has over people’s opinions about men’s and women’s sports and the power it holds over young female athletes’ self-esteem.

As Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins said via Twitter Mar. 19, “It is time to consider ALL the athletes, ALL the time!”

Hutchins is absolutely right, and it is time that the NCAA catches up with the moment.

And to do so, the NCAA must start with providing better explanations for its current mistreatment.

Jacob Cohen can be reached by email at jaccohen@umich.edu

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