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Saturday, October 23, 2021

‘Strike while the iron’s hot’: Women’s hoops coaches hope Kaplan gender equity review instigates change


Last season, Kelly Graves went to the women’s NCAA tournament as a coach, and the men’s tournament as a proud dad and fan. The contrasts he noticed weren’t just because of his different points of view. And in the wake of Tuesday’s release of the NCAA’s commissioned report on gender equity focusing on the disparity between the two tournaments, Grave’s observations were on point.

“There was more of a feeling of a tournament in Indianapolis,” said Graves, the Oregon women’s college basketball coach whose son, Will, played for Gonzaga’s men’s team. “It just seemed like a much bigger deal there than in San Antonio.”

Graves said he wasn’t sure how much of that was on the NCAA, and how much on the two cities. But he said in general, the findings in the report — done by the Kaplan Hecker & Fink law firm — didn’t surprise those in the women’s basketball world.

“I guess they just put out there what we already knew,” Graves said. “The food options, the hotels you stay in, the weight room facilities, the gift bags … I mean, come on. I can’t believe we’re still having to see disparities in those areas.”

Women’s basketball coaches were mulling over the report Tuesday, and hopeful that it means steps will be taken to not just lessen the disparities, but allow the women’s NCAA tournament to truly flourish.

“Women’s basketball is not a loser,” said Tara VanDerveer, coach of defending national champion Stanford. “That is the most important thing that needs to be addressed by the NCAA leadership.

“In fact, women’s basketball and other sports — women’s and men’s sports — have more potential to be income-producers. It’s been very painful to know this, but have the message always be that we’re losers. I know women’s basketball has great potential, and it has not been realized.”

Texas coach Vic Schaefer said it was especially key that the Kaplan report had some widespread access to data that showed that potential in detail, and the ways in which the NCAA hasn’t capitalized on opportunities, in part because of preconceived ideas.

“We have some real numbers now, and it’s important that we strike while the iron’s hot,” Schaefer said. “We also have to remember the NCAA is not just one person or 10 people, it’s all of us. It’s the membership. It’s every university president, every faculty representative, every coach, every student-athlete. I believe it can be taken care of.”

To that end, Graves complimented the video made by one of his Ducks players, Sedona Prince, that went viral when she pointed out the stark differences between the men’s and women’s weight training facilities in Indianapolis and San Antonio. The public shaming was necessary.

“And it was authentic,” Graves said. “I think it made it more powerful coming from a player directly, and not just coaches complaining.”

While Schaefer is now at Texas, a university that was early to commit to women’s sports back in the 1970s, he also gave kudos to his previous employer, Mississippi State, for the commitment it made to women’s basketball when he took over there in 2012.

“If you invest in it, your return will be tenfold,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer and other coaches also pointed out that the Kaplan report’s conclusion that television rights were being undervalued was a sign of optimism in terms of future revenue production, if it means more bidding from television networks and streaming services.

“Competition always helps,” said former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who now serves as a television analysis for women’s basketball.

McGraw also said the Kaplan report’s assertation that there wasn’t enough communication between men’s and women’s basketball tournament planning personnel, which contributed to inequities, should be pretty easily fixed.

“We have that at most of our athletic departments — there’s at least somebody who is paying attention,” McGraw said. “And making sure, ‘OK, you’re doing this for the men? You need to do it for the women.’ It all comes back to leadership and how you view each sport and value each sport.”

McGraw was firmly against one of Kaplan’s recommendations: that the men’s and women’s Final Fours be held concurrently in the same city. She thinks it would mean the women’s event was perpetually overshadowed.

Schaefer felt that way, too, and said he felt the women’s Final Four has been strong enough for a while to keep standing on its own. UConn’s Geno Auriemma said he wasn’t entirely closed off to considering the men’s and women’s combo, though, and VanDerveer said the same.

“My first reaction to that was, ‘No way!’ ” VanDerveer said. “But I’ve been re-thinking it. Some of it is we’re so used to getting treated as second-class, we think that’s what will happen. But if the microscope was on it if we were all in the same place, more people would see it.”

Louisville women’s coach Jeff Walz said he wasn’t opposed to having both Final Fours in the same city, although he was concerned if it would be a bigger logistical problem than people think.

All the coaches said the possibility of the women having one weeklong site eventually for the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight and the Final Four — as was the case in San Antonio — could be a good compromise without putting the men and women in the same city.

VanDerveer and Schaefer additionally made note of the Kaplan report detailing how sponsorship agreements and broadcasting rights don’t necessarily align in NCAA sports, which could mean potential sponsors specifically interested in the women’s game are squeezed out of opportunities. Plus, that’s another way in which the sport’s value isn’t being truly measured.

Ultimately, the Kaplan report seemed very positive about women’s basketball’s continued growth potential, in very concrete ways. The reports also suggested that it’s well past time for various entities inside and outside the NCAA to be working together and communicating constantly. And that this shouldn’t be another well-meaning but toothless fact-finding mission that just ends up gathering dusk on a shelf.

“I believe our game is in a great place and we have a great opportunity to take advantage of this now,” Schaefer said. “What can’t happen is that nothing gets changed. This is it. This is the time.”

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