COVID-19 and gender at the NCAA Tournament

Lochlain Steere, Staff Writer

In 2020, for the first time in NCAA history, both the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were canceled due to the growing threat of COVID-19. Now a year later, the ongoing threat of the coronavirus remains, making the two 64 team tournaments a challenge to put together. Then, on the first day of the tournament, several women’s players began to bring attention to the gender inequities present at the women’s tournament, a tournament excluded from the “March Madness” promotional moniker.

Over the phone, Brigham Young University’s sixth player, Tegan Graham, shared her experiences of what may have been the most unconventional NCAA women’s tournament to date. After a season of uncertainty due to COVID-19, Graham and her teammates were both excited and shocked to be in the tournament after losing at the buzzer in their conference championship and getting an at-large bid to play in the San Antonio tournament. Upon her arrival, however, the strict protocols and gender discrepancies dominated the atmosphere of the tournament.

After being flown in by the NCAA and given three chartered buses for a team that usually fit on one, Graham became aware of the protocols in place. The players were tested daily, using the cheaper and often less sensitive rapid antigen test as opposed to the polymerase chain reaction (P.C.R.) test that was used on the men’s side. There was also an elaborate contact tracing system in place. “They had little trackers that we had to wear at the tournament, so they could actually tell how much time we were in close contact with each other,” said Graham.

In addition to heightened safety measures during the pandemic, there was intense controversy over gender inequity after images of vastly different tournament weight rooms circulated on social media. When Graham first saw the images on Instagram, she thought they were a joke. Then she and her team had their first practice. Sharing her frustration with the organizers, she said, “the men’s side is all decked out with this huge room, whatever, and then [we had] literally a pyramid stack of dumbbells that went up to 30 pounds and some yoga mats, 8 dumbbells and 10 yoga mats.”

She was not alone in her anger. Many players and coaches on the women’s side of the tournament took to social media to air their grievances about the different treatment. For Graham, there was more to the issue as well. “It annoyed me too that there were so little male athletes or male basketball players that cared about it. In fact, there were more people saying like, ‘well, you don’t deserve it because you don’t make the money the men do,’ and all that sort of stuff,” she said. The NCAA annually hosts 90 championships across three divisions, and 94% of them, or 85 out of 90, don’t generate revenue.

In response to the outcry, the head of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, acknowledged the tournament discrepancies as “inexcusable.” Emmert and the NCAA eventually added a more extensive gym that Graham and her team were able to use, but she still felt the women’s tournament was treated as an afterthought.

Although Graham sees the tournament as something every college basketball player dreams of, she found the lack of respect for the women’s game infuriating. “It’s so disrespectful. We put the same amount of hours in, we lift the same amount of times that men do. Like yes, do they lift more weight? Great, good for them, but at the end of the day we still deserve [the same], right?” she said.