The Road to Gender Equality
With both March Madness tournaments about to tip off, National Sports Museum celebrates the evolution of the women's game taking its equitable place alongside the men's.
by Adam Slocum
March 14th, 2023
Getty Images / NSM Illustration
With the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments about to tip off March 14 and 15, respectively, everyone is bracing for another exciting two and a half weeks of March Madness. When the men’s tournament started in 1939, only 8 teams competed for the national championship. Dubbed March Madness at the time it took a while for the name to stick. Brent Musburger started using it again during the 1982 tournament, and since then the term has been synonymous with some of the most exciting weeks in sports each year.
The women’s tournament started in 1982 with 32 teams. Now a combined 136 men’s and women’s teams get invited to the Big Dance (68 each), allowing many lovable underdogs to make a run at the title. Both fields get whittled down to their respective “Final Four” through a single-elimination format. National Sports Museum celebrates the evolution of the Women’s Tournament, which, as of 2022, now shares the March Madness title with the men.
1976: An Early Title IX Success Story
Ann Meyers Drysdale was one of the most talented young athletes in the country in the early 1970’s. In high school, she lettered in seven sports, and excelled in basketball, where she was the first high schooler to make the U.S women’s national team. Despite her exceptional talent, she assumed her next step would be junior college, because her parents couldn’t afford a four-year university. However, in 1976, UCLA offered her the first four-year athletic scholarship ever given to a woman. Drysdale found great success during her years as a Bruin; she was the first four-time All-American in women’s basketball and won an AIAW national title. It is stories like Drysdale’s that underscore the transformational effect of Title IX, passed in 1972, which made gender discrimination illegal in any federally funded educational program. Title IX facilitated the ability for colleges to offer athletic scholarships to women, opening a whole new world of opportunities, not only in sports, but also in life.
1982: First Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament
Women’s sports’ transformation due to Title IX is evidenced by the fast progression of women’s basketball from the early 70’s to 1982, when the first women’s NCAA basketball tournament was held. Only eleven years earlier, in 1971, the rules for women's basketball had been changed to five players per team using a full court and a thirty-second shot clock. Prior to that, each team had six players, three stationed on the offensive side of the court and three on defense.
From the NCAA’s founding in 1906 to the late 1970’s, it did not sponsor any intercollegiate sports for women. Various governing bodies operated women’s sports for member colleges, the last, from 1971-1983 being the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Women’s sports administrations were housed within each university’s department of physical education, instead of their athletics departments, and received little funding. The NCAA favored this arrangement—when it became clear that Title IX would apply to athletics, they lobbied against the legislation that would prohibit sex discrimination, calling it the “doom of men’s intercollegiate sports.” But when the federal government started enforcing Title IX in 1978, the NCAA decided that it was in its best interest to take over the operation of women’s collegiate sports. By offering schools incentives to switch, the NCAA quickly put the AIAW out of business.
In 1982, the NCAA hosted its first Division 1 women’s basketball tournament, concurrent with the AIAW’s last-gasp tournament. It was clear that the AIAW was sunk when 17 out of the top 20 programs, including Tennessee, Louisiana Tech, and Old Dominion chose to participate in the new NCAA tournament. Louisiana Tech, led by Kim Mulkey, the future Hall of Famer and only person to win an NCAA Tournament as a player, assistant and head coach, emerged as the inaugural NCAA champion, defeating Cheyney University, 76-62.
Although NCAA membership accorded women’s athletics more funding and playing opportunities, there were benefits to the AIAW system where sports were governed by women for women: in 1972, 90% of the coaches of women’s teams were women, now that number is 40%. Now that there are no longer separate athletic administrations for men’s and women’s sports, it is now overwhelmingly men who run and make hiring decisions for women’s programs— 89.5% of Division 1 Athletic Directors are men. While the NCAA has made great strides in promoting women’s college sports, they might also reflect on certain aspects of their predecessors in the administration of women’s intercollegiate athletics.
2021: Unequal Conditions
Two years ago, unequal treatment for the men and women athletes at the NCAA tournament were exposed, bringing attention to the NCAA’s enduring inequalities. The 2021 men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments were much anticipated by players and fans alike. Everyone was excited about the first tournament after the cancellations of the prior year due to COVID-19. The NCAA put on each tournament in a bubble-like environment where player movement was restricted to their hotels when not at practice or games. The college athletes naturally spent their down-time on their phones on popular apps like TikTok. So, when players in the women’s tournament bubble in San Antonio noticed subpar conditions, they could look at the social media posts from the men’s bubble in Indianapolis and immediately see that they were being treated at vastly different standards.
The first inequity exposed was the difference between weight rooms. The men were provided with a hotel ballroom filled with squat racks, weightlifting platforms, and dumbbells. In a tweeted picture from Stanford performance coach Ali Kershner, there was a plastic folding table with a handful of yoga mats and a single rack of dumbbells only going up to 30 pounds. The discrepancy blew up into a mainstream story when Oregon center Sedona Prince responded to the NCAA’s explanation that referenced “limited space” by posting a TikTok video showing the paltry equipment in the spacious room they occupied. That TikTok, which eventually garnered 12 million views, set off a cascade of evidence that the NCAA had put far less effort into the women’s tournament than the men’s.
Soobum Im / Getty Images
In Indianapolis, every court the men’s games were played on sported new court designs with March Madness branding. At every women's venue, except for one, the courts went unchanged—a viewer would have been forgiven for not knowing they were watching the NCAA Tournament. Prince also posted a TikTok “meal review” where she showed the unidentifiable food that they were provided next to photos from the men’s side showing a very appetizing buffet. The inequality extended to the number of freebies the men got in their swag bags, down to the number of pieces in the puzzles given out—the men got a 500-piece puzzle while the women’s puzzle was 150 pieces.
Media attention led to a much closer look at how the NCAA was holding back the women’s tournament, including scrutiny of the NCAA withholding the use of the name “March Madness” for the women’s tourney despite trademarks allowing for it. National attention and conversation from student-athletes like Sedona Prince’s social media posts had the positive effect of drawing increased viewership to the women’s tournament—the Final Four that culminated with Stanford beating dark-horse Arizona had the highest average viewership since 2012.
Such awareness has brought about subsequent changes that support and empower gender equality. As of 2022, the NCAA now uses the popular nickname, March Madness, to promote both the men’s and women’s tournaments. So, go ahead—pick your favorite team for each tournament, sit back, and enjoy the spectacle, as the best men’s and women’s collegiate basketball teams take the court and embark on the road to the Final Four.
National Sports Museum focuses on using the power of sports to advance social justice, empower diversity, equity, and inclusion, inspire personal excellence, and unite us as a nation. With nine leading non-profit co-founders, NSM will be a central gathering place and welcoming environment for the American and global sports communities to come together to address a multitude of social and cultural issues, all centered around sports as a unifying force.
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