The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pressure mounts on NCAA as House Democrats demand answers over tournament disparities

Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. women’s national soccer team is sworn in virtually during a House Oversight Committee meeting, where she called out the NCAA for disparities between its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Controversy over gender disparities at college basketball’s marquee tournaments reached Capitol Hill on Wednesday, as a group of 36 House Democrats demanded answers of NCAA President Mark Emmert and soccer star Megan Rapinoe called out NCAA officials in a congressional hearing.

In a letter to Emmert, the lawmakers asked for a review of the NCAA’s other championships and raised questions about the organization’s role in fueling inequity in college sports, a sign that scrutiny of the NCAA is likely to expand beyond this month’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

Rapinoe, the outspoken star of the U.S. women’s national team, also signaled out Emmert by name, testifying about equal-pay issues before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

“For Mark Emmert and the executives at the NCAA, you just simply have to do better,” Rapinoe said at the hearing.

The House Democrats’ letter, which was provided to The Washington Post, asks Emmert to review “all other championship competitions to ensure that they adhere to the gender equity principles of Title IX,” the landmark gender equity law that bars discrimination on college campuses. It demands a breakdown of the resources the NCAA uses to investigate and identify gender disparities at its member colleges.

The controversy has been stirring since last week, when images of virtually nonexistent weightlifting facilities inside the women’s tournament bubble in San Antonio sparked outrage among athletes, coaches and professional players. The NCAA apologized and said it would work to fix some of the problems. It has since provided women’s players with a weight room and said it would address problems raised by players about food offerings.

NCAA’s message to women’s basketball players: You’re worth less

But the congressional letter, spearheaded by New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill, counted among Democrats’ “deep concerns” the NCAA’s withholding of the ultra-valuable March Madness brand from its women’s tournament — a sign of how scrutiny has broadened beyond the facilities in the tournament bubbles.

Along with other inequities, the refusal to allow female athletes to use the March Madness brand, the letter says, “reflect NCAA’s lack of commitment to the spirit of Title IX.”

“Despite having corrected at least some of these infractions, the NCAA’s clear disregard for women cannot be tolerated,” the letter says.

Rapinoe’s sharp criticism of the NCAA is also likely to resonate. She compared the oversight organization with the U.S. Soccer Foundation, which Rapinoe and her teammates sued over demands for equal pay and other inequalities.

“To say that you value your student-athletes … [and] to have your women’s players show up for one rack of dumbbells, is just completely unacceptable,” Rapinoe said to Congress. “Someone, at some point, thought to themselves that was okay.”

Emmert told NCAA committee members Tuesday that he will call for an independent investigation into the situation at the women’s tournament, according to a letter to the committee obtained by The Post, but has not yet announced that review publicly. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) sent a letter to Emmert on Tuesday echoing calls for the independent investigation.

Scrutiny from congressional Democrats could eventually pressure the NCAA to make the results of the review public.

Emmert and the NCAA are also facing pressure from college athletes upset that the governing body does not allow them to be paid for use of their personal brands. After some athletes at the men’s tournament wore T-shirts branded with the slogan #NotNCAAProperty, Emmert said he would meet with them — though only after the conclusion of the tournament.