March Madness is undoubtedly the biggest event in college basketball and arguably one of the biggest annual events for college sports in general, requiring tons of practice and prep for the athletes who compete in the two-week tournament. As fans dutifully check their brackets and enjoy the fun of March Madness, the NCAA was recently under fire for discrepancies in amenities provided to men and women athletes, proving that there's still so much work to be done to achieve true gender equality in professional sports.
ICYMI, photos showing the staggering differences between the NCAA women's and men's training facilities and accommodations began going viral online as March Madness kicked off on March 18. Some photos suggested differences in the food and gift bags offered to men and women athletes (think: smaller swag bags for women than men, as well as full trays of buffet food for the men and seemingly smaller portions and more limited options for women). But another set of photos showed a singular weight rack (with dumbbells up to only 30 pounds) and a stack of yoga mats provided for the women in San Antonio, while the men's weight room in Indianapolis was fully furnished with training racks, bars, plates, dumbbells, and benches, with ample space to accommodate social distancing measures.
Stanford University sports performance coach, Ali Kershner posted a side-by-side shot of both weight room setups on Twitter, tagging the NCAA and writing, "this needs to be addressed. These women want and deserve to be given the same opportunities." She added, "In a year defined by a fight for equality this is a chance to have a conversation and get better." (Related: Elena Delle Donne's Denied Health Exemption Request Speaks Volumes About How Female Athletes Are Treated)
In terms of apparent differences in food and swag bags between men and women athletes, Lynn Holzman, the NCAA's vice president of women's basketball, said in a news release that "the dollar value of the [men's and women's gift bags] is equal," while the food quality issue "was addressed immediately." As for the backlash in response to the weight room photos, Holzman initially released a statement on Twitter citing "limited space" as the reason for the differences between the men's and women's weight rooms. However, shortly thereafter, Oregon Ducks player Sedona Prince shared a TikTok video suggesting that statement was false, highlighting the massive — and largely empty — space provided to the women, with more than enough wiggle room for adequate training equipment.
Prince's video quickly went viral, leading Holzman and NCAA senior vice president of basketball, Dan Gavitt, to issue apologies. "I apologize to women's basketball student-athletes, to the coaches, Women's Basketball Committee for dropping the ball, frankly, on the weight room issue in San Antonio," Gavitt said during a press briefing on March 19, ABC News reports. "We fell short this year in what we've been doing to prepare in the last 60 days for 64 teams to be here in San Antonio, and we acknowledge that," Holzman added during the same press briefing, according to the news outlet.
On the bright side, Prince's video led to real change: a new women's weight room that seems to be just as decked-out as the men's weight room, based on another TikTok shared by Prince. (Related: What Really Happens When Women Lift Heavy Weights)
Still, the controversy shines a light on the many inequities faced by professional women athletes across all sports — not just basketball — from the gender pay gap to union negotiations that often leave women athletes with lower salaries, diminished benefits, and fewer opportunities to advance in their respective sports. In recent years, the U.S. women's soccer team, for example, has been fighting to tackle the gender wage gap, sparking a discrimination lawsuit in 2019 which was then dismissed by the presiding judge in 2020. While the women's team recently agreed to a settlement with the U.S. Soccer Federation over equal working conditions, the fight for equal pay is still ongoing, according to NPR. (ICYMI, the U.S. Soccer Federation once claimed it doesn't have to pay the women's team equally because men's soccer "requires more skill.")
The NCAA's weight room discrepancies also point to a longheld fallacy that, in general, women supposedly don't need to train as intensely as their male counterparts — something Prince noted in an interview with CNN. "I think there's this big misconception that women don't need to lift weights, and especially at my level, if we don't, then we can't perform to our best," Prince said. "With the weights that we were [initially] provided, we can't become the best of our abilities, and that kind of message of 'you don't need it — the men need it,' that was kind of portrayed." (Related: 5 Reasons Why Lifting Heavy Weights *Won't* Make you Bulk Up)
There's no doubt that these misconceptions feed into the inequalities women athletes face, from training accommodations, to pay and benefits, and everything in between. Clearly, there's a lot more work to do to achieve equality across the board. For now, though, Prince and her fellow athletes have expressed gratitude to the NCAA for remedying the weight room situation. In terms of what she'd like to see in the future, Prince told MSNBC that it's all about achieving "more equality" and, in her sport, in particular, being "represented in a way that [makes women athletes] feel special and feel like [they] are true Division 1 athletes."