March Madness brings timeless moments to college basketball fans every year, but this tournament’s one shining moment might just be the story that took social media by storm in the tournament’s early days.
Upon arrival to tournament facilities, Stanford coach Ali Kershner and University of Oregon basketball player Sedona Prince were quick to point out on social media just how obvious the differences in amenities for women and men were, notably the sorry excuse for a weight room provided to the female athletes by the NCAA.
As the tournaments progressed, it became obvious that the male athletes were not only provided with a more complete weight room but also enjoyed better food options and more accurate COVID-19 testing. While the NCAA did rectify the situation with the weight room and food shortly after the social media outcry, the organization didn’t change from the less accurate tests that were administered to female athletes.
Sadly, this March Madness is just the most recent example in a long history of female athletes’ treatment as afterthoughts. Muffet McGraw, the former head coach of Notre Dame women’s basketball and Hall of Famer, puts it best in her Twitter statement, “the fact that’s there’s a huge disparity between men’s and women’s sports is hardly breaking news.” The NCAA made this painfully obvious despite the fact that its own website states that Title IX — a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex for educational programs receiving federal funding — requires the equal treatment of female and male student-athletes. The NCAA’s website even specifically names both “equipment and supplies” and “dining facilities and services” as part of a list of provisions where Title IX applies, theoretically ensuring equal treatment. Still, the NCAA needed widespread backlash and negative coverage nationally before fixing an entirely avoidable situation.
This behavior from national organizations such as the NCAA is inexcusable, and the criticism that the organization received from players, universities and fans was entirely warranted. Yet, some people’s initial response to the issue was to point out the fact that the women’s tournament does not generate as much revenue as the men’s tournament, attempting to justify the unequal treatment. This mentality isn’t exclusive to collegiate women’s basketball at all. Much of the discourse surrounding fair pay in women’s sports is reduced to revenue comparisons with male counterparts.
When WNBA players negotiate for fair pay from WNBA owners, many misunderstand that to mean that WNBA players are attempting to negotiate to receive the same salaries as NBA players. Considering that the NBA generates $7.4 billion per year in comparison to the WNBA’s $60 million, it is understandable why that would be impossible. But WNBA players are not asking to be paid the same as NBA players; they are asking for their fair share. NBA players earn around 50% of the revenue generated by the league, meaning that half of the money generated by the NBA goes to the owners and the other half is split between the players. WNBA players, on the other hand, earn just 25% of the revenue generated by the league, meaning that 75% of revenue goes to ownership and the remaining 25% is split between players.
The same dynamic plays out in other high-profile sports such as soccer, as well. When the United States Women’s National Team, or USWNT, argued for equal pay to the United States Men’s National Team, or USMNT, critics constantly cited the fact that the Men’s World Cup generates much more revenue than the Women’s World Cup. FIFA’s reports indicate that the 2018 Men’s World Cup in Russia generated $5.4 billion while the revenue generated by the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France remains unclear. That being said, the USWNT still generated $1.9 million more for U.S. soccer than the USMNT in recent years, thanks in part to their success on the field: The Women’s Team won two world cups in the same time period where the men failed to even reach their World Cup competition.
Even so, the women were paid less for their efforts.
There are countless examples of female athletes earning less than they are due in sports. Even in tennis, the sport that is often lauded as the most equitable in this arena, some tournaments are yet to offer equal prize money to male and female athletes. Despite this, public perception of the fights for fair treatment of female athletes is often shaped by two core arguments from critics: women’s sports don’t generate as much money as men’s sports and women’s sports aren’t as entertaining as men’s sports.
The first argument, as evidenced by the example of March Madness, the WNBA and the USWNT, is often used without context to blindly justify the unfair treatment of female athletes at any level. While it is true that athletic competition between women does not usually generate the same amount of revenue as athletic competition between men, female athletes’ push for equality contains nuances beyond the basic revenue numbers that get ignored all too often. In order to have constructive conversations around fair treatment and equal pay, the public must delve deeper into what these women are truly asking for before dismissing them based on basic revenue numbers.
The second argument is subject to personal opinion, but as WNBA legend Sue Bird puts it: “90 percent of the people that do like to talk trash about women’s basketball haven’t even been to a game anyway. It’s just a bandwagon thing for them to do.” The trend of blind condemnation of women’s sports can often be traced to the fact that, on average, women do not run as fast or jump as high as men, leading many to assume that women’s sports can’t be as exciting. That assumption is highly reductive of what sports actually are: a complex combination of skill, athleticism and strategy. At the highest level, women’s sports require a world-class level of athleticism to go along with world-class skill and strategy, even if the level of athleticism isn’t quite as eye-popping as that of the men. People who dismiss women’s sports on this basis are a lot like a music critic attending a pop concert only to complain that rock isn’t performed. Focusing on the fact that the female athletes don’t perform the same way that the male athletes do takes away from the fact that women’s sports are every bit as high quality and exciting as men’s sports.
Women’s sports have long suffered from lazy comparisons to men’s sports. If fans gave women’s sports a fair shot, their popularity could very feasibly catch up to that of men’s sports. If fans actually gave women’s sports a fair shot, the female players of March Madness, the WNBA and the USWNT might not have to fight for fair treatment from their governing bodies. If fans actually gave women’s sports a fair shot, our society might be one step closer to having real conversations about gender equality. There are deeper systemic issues to address within women’s sports, too, but fair pay and a fair shake in judging their quality seem like good places to start.