‘This is not ok’ — Lackluster accommodations at NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament

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Normally a source of Cinderella stories, buzzer beaters and general mayhem, this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament has given fans something different  — allegations of gender- and sex-based discrimination.

On March 18, Stanford sports performance coach Ali Kershner posted a photo on Instagram comparing the different weight rooms provided to the men’s and women’s basketball teams participating in March Madness. The men’s weight room consisted of rows of weights, benches and dumbbells. The women’s weight room featured a small rack of dumbbells and a few yoga mats.

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A post shared by Ali Kershner, MS, CSCS (@kershner.ali)

The NCAA put out a statement later that evening citing a lack of space as the reason for the disparity, but Oregon forward Sedona Prince shared a TikTok video the same day showing a large amount of unused space surrounding the stack of weights available for use by the women’s teams.

Since then, the NCAA has apologized and added amenities for the women to use, but the organization has continued to face criticism for the perceived bias and preferential treatment directed toward male athletes. 

Members of the Utah Valley women’s basketball team echoed the statements of Kershner and Prince, and detailed further subpar amenities they received while representing the Western Athletic Conference in the tournament.

Upon arriving in the “bubble” in San Antonio for the tournament, the players and staff went through a quarantine in their hotel rooms, pending the results of COVID-19 tests. During their quarantine, the players were given meals provided by the hotel — which were not enough to sustain the athletes as they prepared for top-level competition, according to UVU forwards Nehaa Sohail and Shay Fano.

“I don’t ever want to come off as not being grateful for the experience,” Sohail said. “For our program, it was our first time going so most of us have never experienced the NCAA Tournament. We were all just really excited and grateful to be there.”

Fano seconded Sohail’s gratitude at receiving the invite, but both players made clear that anyone would have deserved better. Fano said the players were given the choice between entrees containing turkey or “mystery meat,” and Sohail — who doesn’t consume pork — said she refrained from eating certain meals because she didn’t know what was in them.

“It was some meat that didn’t look very cooked,” she said. “With [vegetables] and rice on the side. This is not ok.”

“Most of us didn’t eat because we didn’t know what we were eating,” Fano added. “I wasn’t even comparing it to the men, but we’re practicing every day, we’re playing in the NCAA Tournament. We need to be fueling our bodies with good food.”

After a couple of days in quarantine, teams were allowed to have outside food delivered, so an assistant coach for the Wolverines ordered food through DoorDash for the team through the remainder of their stay.

Clint Burgi, associate athletics director for UVU, was in San Antonio with the team and confirmed the food could have been better, although it did improve throughout the week.

“The food was pretty mediocre to begin with,” he said. “The biggest concern as an administrator was that on a day of practice, the portions weren’t very big. These are Division I athletes, they need the calories.”

The NCAA has not responded to a request for comment.

Fano said she saw the weight room as the team was checking into their hotel, but didn’t realize then that it was the sole facility for the tournament.

“I literally thought, ‘Oh, this must be for someone to warm up or something,’” she said, adding that they only provided weights up to 30 pounds. “We’re a really strong team, that’s props to our strength coach. I don’t think anyone on our team lifts 30 pounds. I’m almost positive everyone lifts more than that.”

The NCAA added more equipment the day before games started, but for many players it felt like too little, too late.

“I appreciate that they got weight rooms in on Saturday,” Fano said. “But at the same time, why did you have to wait for it to blow up… to go viral online to do something about it. It feels more like they’re putting a band-aid over it instead of trying to heal or fix the problem.”

Sohail said she felt as if the NCAA had failed to consider how the accommodations would impact the health and well-being of the athletes, and said that anyone who thinks they are complaining about superficial things is missing the point.

“To compare it to what the men got was a little degrading,” she said. “I think if the NCAA is going to come out with an inclusion statement and talk about giving student-athletes equality, then they should stand by that. Regardless of all the fun stuff, just from a health standpoint, [they should] make sure their athletes are taken care of regardless of gender. Someone should have said, ‘Hey, we need to be doing more for the women, their mental health is equally as important as the men’s.”

Burgi admitted that putting on a tournament of this magnitude — in the middle of a pandemic, no less — is never an easy task, but said this incident highlights the gendered discrimination that can exist even without conscious intent or malice. “They worked just as hard as the men,” he said. “They deserve the same as the men.”

While this is one extreme example, Fano said that being overshadowed within the sport is nothing new. “It just becomes the normality at this point, which it shouldn’t be,” she said. “They’re more well-known, they’re more watched, so they get more things. It’s just how it is.

“I think it just comes down to appreciating and understanding women’s sports. We do the same things, we’re in the gym the same amount of time. Our season is just as long. We’re putting in the same work as the men. It starts with people taking time to take notice.”

Fano knows there’s no reason women’s basketball can’t be just as big as men’s basketball, and challenges fans to “just watch one game of women’s basketball” and appreciate the effort that goes into it.

“The talent level, the amount of skill in the tournament right now is insane,” she said. “The women’s game between Baylor and UConn [the other night] is one of the best basketball games I’ve watched all year.

“I come from a family of boys and there’s always a football game or a basketball game on TV. Usually it is men that we are watching, and I’ve never really thought about that until recently. We were at a family get-together and the Baylor-UConn game was on TV, and I feel like that’s a start. My brothers and little cousins were all watching… it’s a step for women’s sports in general.”