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The NCAA and March Madness embody systemic sexism

Henry Bushnell
·8-min read

Dawn Staley has seen the same photos you have. Of weight rooms alongside near-empty rooms, and soggy meals alongside buffets, and “swag bags” alongside each other. All physical representations of what the NCAA has admitted are “inexcusable” inequities between its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

But Dawn Staley would like to talk about a Twitter handle. And she’s onto something.

The most popular social media brand that the National Collegiate Athletic Association owns is @marchmadness. Its display name, “NCAA March Madness,” is the colloquial term for the wildly entertaining college basketball played this month.

But the account doesn’t post about all that basketball. It exclusively posts about men’s basketball. Its bio promotes Men’s” basketball. Its “words mean one thing,” Staley wrote Friday – to the NCAA, “March Madness is ONLY about men’s basketball.” Whether on social media or on courts, whether on merchandise or in articles on its own website, the NCAA only uses its most recognizable brand alongside the men’s game.

(Screenshot: Twitter)
(Screenshot: Twitter)

It’s unclear why. NCAA spokespeople did not respond when asked. Perhaps the distinction isn’t intentionally discriminatory. Most NCAA employees, it’s fair to assume, are not overtly sexist. They don’t believe women are inferior to men. They don’t believe male athletes deserve more attention. They certainly wouldn’t say any of that aloud.

But whether they realize it or not, they actively uphold a sexist system. It’s on display, blatantly and proudly, every March. And the system is so powerful, so oppressive, because it can maintain and exacerbate inequities even if not a single sexist human being exists within it.

A history of denial

The NCAA built March Madness into an enormously popular spectacle over decades during which it didn’t sponsor women’s basketball.

The NCAA men’s tournament peaked in 1979, when 35 million people watched Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird.

The NCAA women’s tournament, at the time, didn’t exist.

Why?

Sexism. Plain, old-fashioned sexism. Patriarchal gender norms sourced in bulls***.

Over time, society has tried to break down those norms. The ridiculous beliefs at their root — that women are too fragile for sports, etc. — have been disproven and denounced as socially unacceptable. The NCAA does not publicly or privately subscribe to them.

They are, however, irreversibly ingrained in sports.

The men’s tournament was first played in 1939. Over four decades, it became a must-see event. The NCAA promoted it as such, cultivating both an audience and a place in American culture. TV networks wanted to show it. Media outlets wanted to cover it. Companies wanted to advertise alongside it. Money rolled in, and got reinvested in further promotion, promotion that further enhanced the men’s tournament’s popularity. By the time it adopted the “March Madness” moniker in the early 1980s, it was a 48-team mega-tournament built on mega-brands, featuring mega-stars such as Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan.

Its women’s equivalent, meanwhile, was nascent. The NCAA adopted it from the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women in 1982, but mostly ignored it, and forced the women’s game to raise itself.

So of course the men’s tournament became the moneymaker, the one that now accounts for 75% of the NCAA’s total revenue, the one that CBS and Turner pay $900 million annually to televise. So of course, the men’s tournament is where the NCAA invested resources. Of course, the men’s tournament is what the NCAA promoted. It put, and still puts, so much of what it has into maintaining and monetizing that men’s tournament audience. Because that’s what makes economic sense.

In a vacuum, it does not make economic sense to sink equal resources into promoting a less popular product. It did not, therefore, make economic sense to promote the women’s tournament equally in the early ’80s, so promotional dollars went overwhelmingly to the men’s tournament. Because they did, the popularity chasm persisted, and equal investment does not make economic sense now.

But that economic sense is almost entirely built on decades of sexism, and the self-perpetuating cycle it created.

Every decision the NCAA makes based on that economic sense is, therefore, based on sexism too.

NCAA's height of hypocrisy

Perhaps the NCAA doesn’t realize this. Perhaps the NCAA sees its decision to invest more in the men’s tournament than the women’s tournament as the equivalent of a decision to invest more in men’s basketball than men’s volleyball, or any other sport that earns it little to no profit.

But they aren’t equivalents. Men’s basketball is more popular than men’s volleyball for a variety of reasons, none of which is morally reprehensible and socially unacceptable. Men’s basketball is more popular than women’s basketball, on the other hand, for a variety of reasons, many of which stem directly or indirectly from misogyny.

Besides, the NCAA is a nonprofit institution. Most of its member schools are too. They supposedly exist not to make money, but rather for societal benefit. They claim to value all athletes equally. And the NCAA claims that one of its “principles of conduct … focuses on gender equity.” Its own interpretation of Title IX is that the law “requires the equal treatment of female and male student-athletes in the provisions of: (a) equipment and supplies; … (f) locker rooms, practice and competitive facilities; … (i) publicity and promotions ….”

It has clearly violated some of those provisions this week, and many times over the past five decades.

The NCAA should, at the very least, put an equal amount of money and resources into men’s and women’s basketball. And those who believe in the concept of reparations could very easily argue that the investment should be beyond equal.

Ingrained in society

The ongoing disparity between men’s and women’s tournaments is a function of far-reaching, institutionalized inequities. The NCAA feeds the self-perpetuating cycle described above — of popularity leading to profit, leading to reinvestment, leading to more popularity — but people and institutions all across America keep it moving.

The NCAA isn’t the only one who equates “March Madness” with only the men’s tournament. To most fans and journalists, “college basketball” means men’s college basketball too. “The NCAA tournament” means the men’s tournament. “Filling out your bracket” means your men’s bracket. “NCAAB” is the abbreviation for men’s college basketball. Only the women’s game needs to specify gender with “NCAAW.” Search “NCAA” on Google this month, and guess what you’ll find?

(Screenshot via Google)
(Screenshot via Google)

And if hoops junkies searching for “NCAA” basketball only see scores and headlines about the men’s game, guess which version of the game will remain more popular?

That lingo wasn’t consciously established by sexist 21st-century decision-makers. It’s systemic. The men’s side of the sport became the dominant side, the default side, because for decades it was the only side. In 1970, calling it “men’s college basketball” was unnecessary. “The NCAA tournament” could only possibly refer to one thing. “March Madness” entered our sporting lexicon at a time when no NCAA women’s basketball champion had ever been crowned. And it simply stayed there, and would have, for natural linguistic and sociological reasons, even if not a single overtly sexist person ever used it.

None of this is to absolve the NCAA of responsibility. The NCAA has inked these inequities into its brand strategy. Its member schools bear heaps of responsibility too.

This, rather, is to show just how deeply ingrained the inequities are, and how even well-meaning people often further engrave them. And it’s to show that systemic sexism doesn’t just passively come undone. It exists throughout sports, for many of the same reasons it does in college sports, and it must be actively undone. The NCAA must actively undo it with public communication, with branding, and most of all with money.

The NCAA, in recent months and years, has done the opposite. It has actively kept this cycle spinning. The alarming disparities in weight room access are one example. Its male-exclusive use of “March Madness” is a more harmful one. “How can an organization that claims to care about ALL member institutions’ student-athlete experiences have a copyrighted term that only ‘represents’ one gender?” Staley asked.

But most harmful is the broader disparity between the resources that the NCAA puts into promoting the men vs. the women. The excuse many outsiders like to give is that the men’s tournament brings in more money. It brings in more money, though, because it had a four-decade, millions-of-fans, millions-of-dollars head start. It makes more money because of this cycle. The NCAA must reallocate resources to break that cycle. Or else the NCAA, as an institution, will continue to support the patriarchal ideology responsible for it.

“It is sad,” Staley wrote, “that the NCAA is not willing to recognize and invest in our growth despite its claims of togetherness and equality.”

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