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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congressional leaders call NCAA’s gender-equity efforts ‘inadequate’ on eve of March Madness

(Eric Gay/AP)
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The NCAA’s efforts to remedy gender inequity in its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are “inadequate” and “lackluster,” three congressional leaders charged in a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert that concludes the organization is violating the spirit of Title IX.

The letter, dated Monday, was written by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform; Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus; and Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.). It was made public Tuesday, a day before the start of the women’s tournament.

It notes that the NCAA has taken “short-term steps” in response to the outcry that resulted when women’s athletes documented their substandard training equipment on social media during last year’s tournament. But it faults the NCAA for failing to make several substantive changes — or simply commit to making the changes — recommended by the law firm it retained to conduct a review of its policies and procedures.

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“Although [the] NCAA has taken some short-term steps to avoid repeating the public relations catastrophe during last year’s March Madness championships, it has been notably slow to commit to or implement recommendations that will ensure structural, long-term changes to advance gender equity,” the letter states. “… In creating and perpetuating structural inequities between men’s and women’s post-season championships and failing to implement substantive changes that would rectify these inequities, [the] NCAA is violating the spirit of gender equity as codified in Title IX.”

The NCAA responded to a request for comment Tuesday with an emailed statement: “The shortcomings at the women’s basketball tournament last year have been well-documented and extensively covered. Although our work is not done, we are focused on the many improvements made since then that provide students across all our championships with a lifelong memorable experience.”

In a media briefing last week, NCAA executives summarized steps they had taken to correct the inequities identified by law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink in a scathing report it issued in August. Most notably, the NCAA increased the women’s tournament field to 68 teams this year, putting it on par with the men’s. It also is giving women’s players the same gifts and mementos that men’s players receive for participating in each round of the tournament. Similarly, it is furnishing women’s players with the same number of private lounges at their team hotels as the men have, and the NCAA agreed to extend its trademark “March Madness” branding to the women’s tournament.

But the six-page letter from Maloney and her colleagues makes clear that, in their view, this is not enough.

“You have failed to take meaningful steps to correct deficiencies identified by the Committee and by outside review, and you have failed to ensure gender equity across NCAA’s athletic programs,” it states.

The heavily footnoted letter details what it calls “troubling gender inequities” uncovered by the congressional committee and the Kaplan review. It cites an internal NCAA document obtained by the committee that shows the NCAA’s budget for its Division I men’s tournament was more than double that of the budget for the women’s event for eight years, starting with the 2013-14 fiscal year. The men’s budget accounted for 71 percent of spending that year, and the women’s accounted for 29 percent. The split remained “consistently 70%-30%, plus or minus one percent here or there” over the subsequent years, according to an NCAA email cited in the letter.

The letter also cites internal NCAA communications that shed light on the organization’s response during last year’s tournament after women’s coaches and players complained that they were given prepackaged meals with less food, and of lower quality and variety, than men’s players were getting at their buffet services.

The perfect NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket

After that information was made public, Chiney Ogwumike, a former star at Stanford now playing in the WNBA, offered to give DoorDash gift cards to all 64 teams in the tournament. The NCAA declined her offer “to avoid upsetting [its] corporate partners,” according to an internal NCAA communication obtained by Congress.

The Kaplan report recommended 39 actions that the NCAA should take to create gender equity. In October, the NCAA launched a “Gender Equity Updates” page on its website to track its progress on the Kaplan “to-do” list. But the letter from Congress says that page is “not comprehensive” and so sparse in details that it’s difficult to understand whether particular recommendations have been enacted or rejected.

The letter makes no explicit demand of the NCAA, nor does it spell out any consequences, but the committee is pushing to keep the spotlight on the NCAA’s actions.