The Biggest Upset of March Madness: Unequal Accommodations

Jacqueline Brown
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

A major upset took place on first day of the very much anticipated 2021 National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) Division 1 Basketball Tournaments, and I am not referring to any of the games that took place on that day. In the evening of March 18th, University of Oregon Forward Sedona Prince took to social media to expose the evident discrepancies between the weight room facilities for the men’s and women’s tournament facilities. To prevent a coronavirus outbreak, each of the tournaments are taking place in a bubble funded by the NCAA. The video Prince posted showed the women’s tournament weight room which consisted of a single set of dumbbells, then showed the men’s tournament weight room that was supplied with various training equipment. Not only were there massive disparities between the weight rooms for the men’s and women’s tournaments, but there is also a clear and substantial difference in the “swag bags” given to each student athlete participating in the tournament from the NCAA. As well as the quality of food provided to the female student athletes who are competing in the tournament.

Some prominent basketball figures directed comments to the NCAA about the disparities between the men’s and women’s facilities at their respective NCAA tournament bubbles including Kyrie Irving, Sabrina Ionescu, Steph Curry and more. Of the thousands who are publicly speaking out on this issue, many have questioned whether this inequity is even legal under Title IX.

What is Title IX, and does it apply to the NCAA?

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Title IX was originally a civil rights law passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. This regulation encompasses areas like Recruitment, Athletics, Sex-Based Harassment, Treatment of Pregnant & Parenting Students, Discipline, Single-sex education, Employment and Retaliation all under its protection. The statute requires higher education institutions to provide equitable access and resources to its men and women who choose to participate in college athletics. This, however, does not require that equal dollars are spent on men and women’s sports. Only in the instance of scholarships must the same amount of dollars be spent. Still, under Title IX, there cannot be disproportionate access and support for men’s and women’s sports. Meaning that under Title IX, men’s and women’s programs must receive the same level of services, facilities and supplies. So then why was the NCAA able to spend so much less on the women’s weight room as opposed to the men’s?

Although the NCAA does not receive federal funds itself, the colleges and universities that make up of the NCAA pay the organization dues that the NCAA uses to support things like its annual championship tournaments. The question of whether the NCAA could be sued under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was decided in the 1999 case NCAA v. Smith. In Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court held that although the NCAA collected dues payments from its federally-funded member institutions, it would not subject the NCAA to suit under Title IX.

Has anything been done since?

After thousands of public complaints over the disparities between facilities were brought to the attention of the NCAA, the organization acknowledged it provided the women’s programs with less access to weight rooms and equipment than it had the men’s teams at their respective March Madness tournaments. The NCAA vice president Lynn Holzman put out a statement, “In part, this is due to the limited space and the original plan was to expand the workout area once additional space was available later in the tournament.” However, Will Abrams, the director of player development for the Rutgers University Women’s team, subsequently tweeted a video of a large open gymnasium at the San Antonio bubble facility where the women’s March Madness tournament is being held. The NCAA’s Committee on Women’s Athletics sent president Mark Emmert a letter asking the league to investigate the unequal training accommodations at the women’s tournament in San Antonio. Dan Gavitt, the Senior Vice President of Basketball at the NCAA, did take the blame for the weight room discrepancy and said it will be fixed “as soon as possible.”

Considering federal Title IX compliance in college athletics has traditionally been weak, the National College Players Association has begun to seek enforcement through state law. “The College Athlete Race and Gender Equity Act”, introduced but California Senator Sydney Kamlager would suspend athletic directors for three years for failing to comply with Title IX.