'It's disgusting': Disparity between women, men's NCAA basketball turns into weighty matter

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

At this point, the image of the dainty single dumbbell rack and yoga mats provided for the 64 basketball teams participating in the women’s NCAA Tournament located in the San Antonio bubble has made the rounds the after being posted on social media.

But the side-by-side photos of the men’s massive weight room for the NCAA Tournament next to the women’s sliver of space, drawing the ire of coaches and players in the game, fans, including many well-known men and women, and outspoken women’s rights proponents, might be the catalyst for change in the sport.

Then there were social media posts of the subpar meals provided to the women’s teams and the players’ gift bags, as well as a different daily coronavirus test given to the women than more accurate testing provided to the participants in the men’s tournament.

By Saturday, a much larger weight room was made available to the women’s teams, but the damage had been done, and on this large national stage the outcry regarding the discrepancies between the men’s and women’s tournaments has been enormous.

Michigan, Michigan State and Central Michigan are playing in the women’s NCAA Tournament that begins Sunday.

Michigan forward Naz Hillmon

“It’s disgusting to see that on the biggest stage of women’s college basketball there are so many discrepancies in what women and men are receiving,” Michigan standout Naz Hillmon, whose team plays a first-round game on Sunday, said Saturday during a Zoom with reporters. “For me, it goes through my mind, 'Did they think no one was going to say anything? Did they think we weren’t going to notice?' In the age of social media, you see everything. Everything is posted. You can’t keep too many secrets.

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“For that to even seem OK and go through so many people, the people who set it up, the people who ordered it to be set up, for it to go through so many levels and nobody to see a problem with it is the first problem. We always talk about the first thing of recognizing anything is to acknowledge it and then you can change it. But there wasn’t even an acknowledgment of how that weight room just was not it on so many different levels on the biggest stage. So if you can just imagine how we felt at the NCAA Tournament, just think about how many other things are going on on smaller stages."

Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s vice president of women’s basketball, told reporters on Friday that the NCAA “fell short this year” in its preparations and would work to immediately make improvements. While Holzman took the hits for the women’s tournament, NCAA president Mark Emmert, who made nearly $4 million in total compensation last year, admitted to a small group of reporters on Friday, that while he didn’t know all the details of the situation, this should never have happened.

“It’s a shocking failure in leadership,” Jay Bilas, ESPN basketball analyst and vocal opponent of NCAA leadership, said Saturday on the cable network.

Michigan women’s softball coach Carol Hutchins, in her 37th season of coaching, posted Friday on Twitter above a passionate letter written by South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley that: “It is time to consider ALL the athletes, ALL the time! Equity is NOT a sound bite!”

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Kim Barnes Arico, who has led her team to a No. 6 seed, a program best, said she and her players have spent time since this became such a public issue the past few days, discussing how to keep the conversation going. Barnes Arico is motivated by the young women athletes who have become more vocal as they challenge for equity and also the men’s basketball players and coaches who have spoken on the issue.

Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico.

“We need everybody on board,” Barnes Arico said Saturday. “I think it’s going to be a continued voice and message and don’t stop. I think people for years and years and years, we were so fearful to say anything because you’re gonna be judged, or you may lose your job, or someone’s gonna call you a (expletive), or hard to work with, or always complaining. I’m sure every woman would say they’ve heard that through their whole entire lives, but I think it’s our responsibility to continue to fight.

“The older you get, the more comfortable you feel because you’re not so afraid anymore, but our younger generation is different because they grew up hearing that constant message and being able to fight for that change. I have a 19-year-old son, and I talked to him (Friday) and he’s a freshman at college, and he gets it because he grew up in my house, and he never knew anything different. For men to continue to use their voice is really important, too, and he said, ‘You know mom, one day if I ever win that Oscar I’m planning on, the first thing I’m gonna get up and talk about is fighting for change for women and the inequalities that go on.’ The more and more people that we can have doing that, the more helpful it will be. The youth of America, our student-athletes, they’re absolutely incredible. Since (last) March they’ve started their fight. They want to change everything. They want to change the world. They want to make an impact.”

Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant

Michigan State’s Suzy Merchant, in her 14th season as head coach, was blunt in her assessment of the discrepancy in weight rooms, food and gift bags.

“I was a little surprised, but I’m not shocked, no,” Merchant told reporters Friday as her team prepares for its first-round game Monday.

Merchant expanded the issue, questioning why the men’s tournament features 68 teams with play-in games to the women’s 64 teams, but more importantly, the fact the women’s typically play first- and second-round games on home courts of the higher seeds.

The men are sent to neutral sites. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, both tournaments are being held in bubbles, the men in Indianapolis and the women in San Antonio.

“I’ve never thought that was fair, and we’ve benefited from hosting, so I’ve been on the other side of that,” Merchant said. “So, I look at what’s kind of going on here as a microcosm of what I think is a bigger issue of really investing in women’s basketball and changing the way we look at that sport and doing a better job of promoting it from media to resources to funding to the championships. If we had more opportunities and more coverage, I think we would have more interest, as well.”

She mentioned a recent conversation questioning what it would be like for the men to play on home courts the first two rounds.

“Imagine (MSU men's coach Tom) Izzo hosting every single year the first and second rounds and he goes on to the Sweet 16 almost every year,” she said. “It’s home, it’s his fan base, everybody’s supportive. They don’t have to travel. I’ve just for years been saying this, and again, we’ve benefited from hosting, but if we really want to look at the good for our sport, and the equity and the fairness of it all, we shouldn’t be in a global pandemic to say, ‘Oh, let’s play in neutral sites now.’ I just think it’s unfair from an equity standpoint. Now you throw in some of the differences between what’s going on on the men’s side and what’s going on on the women’s side, and I’m not surprised.

“It’s always been a little bit more of a financial reason that we can’t play on neutral sites, which I find ridiculous because it should be a good experience. They always say on the women’s side the answer to that is, well, your student-athletes want to play in front of people. I don’t want to play in front of 10,000 screaming Notre Dame fans and their five starters that went to the WNBA and played on their home floor for the last time. That’s not a fair and equitable game for me. I don’t think financial should be the reason. There’s plenty of money to go around. They should invest in women, and they should invest in it the same way they do the men when it comes to post-season championships.”

This situation hasn’t been about one moment in time or a sound bite, they said. For the players, Hillmon believes this is a catalyst for using their platforms and voices to encourage change and not to settle, she said, for “just be happy that you’re here.”

“Do I think this single situation is going to get us to where we are happy with? I don’t think so. But I do think it will be the stepping stone or the foundation that will help us to get where we want to be eventually,” Hillmon said. “It sucks to say that. You would hope this one incident would change everybody’s mind and everybody would see it and be like, ‘That was disgusting. It will never happen again,’ but it’s not a reality.

“It’s not going to change in one moment, or one day or with one person. It’s going to take a group effort. It’s going to take a village, it’s going to take a stage, it’s gonna take a country, the world, to change it to be where we want to be eventually. Having an opportunity to speak on it now and have so many people involved in it now is definitely going to propel us forward in the future.”


Twitter: @chengelis