NCAA's weight-room fiasco, clumsy attempts to explain it are the real March Madness

·6 min read
Pictures of the women's weight room, left, vs. the men's posted by Ali Kershner, Stanford sports performance coach for women's basketball. (@kershner.ali/Instagram - image credit)
Pictures of the women's weight room, left, vs. the men's posted by Ali Kershner, Stanford sports performance coach for women's basketball. (@kershner.ali/Instagram - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

By now we can't unsee the side-by-side photos, tweeted out last week by Ali Kershner, a performance coach with Stanford's women's basketball team, and seemingly shared by every Twitter and Instagram user on the continent.

The weight room at an Indianapolis hotel hosting participants in the NCAA men's basketball tournament looked nearly as well-stocked as an on-campus facility. Rows of racks with barbells, rubber-coated weight plates and lifting platforms. Whoever outfitted the space realized the elite athletes present might perform power cleans or snatches, high-revving lifts that end with the lifter dropping the barbell, and need workstations optimized for high-impact.

And the women's facility in San Antonio? A mostly empty ballroom, with a small Christmas tree-shaped rack holding a few pairs of light dumbbells. Whoever stocked that room either didn't know, or didn't care, that elite athletes across the gender spectrum perform the same movements in training. Strength coaches don't program "men's squats" and "women's squats." They program squats.

Before the NCAA could even convene a press conference to explain the disparity, private operators like Dick's Sporting Goods and Tonal volunteered to fill the void. When NCAA basketball VP Dan Gavitt finally addressed reporters on Friday, he called the mismatched weight rooms "a mistake," a signal that the NCAA spent the intervening hours cooking up half-baked spin instead of a plausible response.

Gavitt could, for example, have told us the women's weight room inspiration came from celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson, best-known for keeping actress Gwyneth Paltrow lean using pilates and tiny dumbbells. "No woman should lift more than three pounds," Anderson told Oprah.Com in 2008.

Or he could have blamed the social media staffer who authored this since-deleted tweet about Loyola-Chicago toppling top-seeded Illinois in an intrastate showdown in the men's tournament. The tweet included an outline of the state of Indiana, and Twitter users could tell the difference even if the NCAA's tweeter couldn't. Maybe Gavitt could have explained that the women's equipment, like the map on that tweet, simply landed in the next state, and should arrive quickly from Louisiana.

Or the NCAA could have told the truth — that the organization doesn't value the women's tournament and its athletes the way it does male athletes and their event. It's a fair conclusion to draw given the weight-room drama, as well as the COVID-19 test discrepancy. Men's tournament participants undergo PCR screening; the women's side gets less expensive, less accurate rapid antigen tests. But it's not an argument a serious sports organization can make with a straight face in 2021, when so many other sports industry players are emphasizing gender equity.

The NCAA could also put a gender-neutral business spin on the truth. The men's tournament generates an average $771 million a year in broadcast revenue, and that figure jumps to more than $1 billion in 2025, when a new contract starts. Meanwhile, ESPN airs the women's tournament as part of a 12-year deal worth $500 million total, and includes rights to several other sports. In a strict business sense, you can't argue against devoting more resources to the property that makes more money. But telling that truth undermines the fantasy that big-time college sports in the U.S. exist to provide opportunity and experience for young adults, and not as a big business that enriches a long list of stakeholders, but doesn't pay the talent.

In our gender-neutral hypothetical, you could probably justify spending lavishly to equip the stars of the billion-dollar mega-event, and saving money on the broadcast property that merely brings in eight figures. But if you introduce gender — and there's no meaningful way to factor it out — you also have to investigate whether committing more resources to the women's event might help it grow into a bigger revenue generator.

And if you cast big-time college basketball as a business, you can't avoid the reality that the unpaid labourers who make the industry visible and valuable deserve payment — not instead of the in-kind compensation their scholarships represent, but in addition to it. New legislation allowing players to cash in on their name, image and likeness, treats athletes less unfairly than the current system does, but still relies on third parties to pay athletes while college programs pay them in exposure.

If that setup were just or logical, it wouldn't just apply to players. But you won't see Kentucky head coach John Calipari forgo his $8.1 million salary because he thinks he can make more money licensing his name, image and likeness. And Turner Sports and CBS didn't secure broadcast rights to the men's tournament by delivering a shipload of scholarships to the NCAA. They paid in dollars — not opportunity, experience or exposure, and not crypto or NFTs — because cash is still the currency that counts.

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So the NCAA will peddle the idea that it exists to facilitate opportunities, but if that were true the organizers of the men's and women's tournaments would have stayed on the same page about what athletes need if they're sequestered at a hotel for three straight weekends. The men had a fully equipped weight room because somebody recognized they'd need to access all their regular training methods but couldn't retreat to campus for a post-practice lifting session.

As for the women's tournament, NCAA president Mark Emmert told the Economic Club of Indiana on Monday that weight rooms, technically, weren't part of the deal.

The strides in gender equity across many sports appears to have fallen on NCAA president Mark Emmert's deaf ears.
The strides in gender equity across many sports appears to have fallen on NCAA president Mark Emmert's deaf ears.(Associated Press)

"Those were never intended to be weight rooms," he said "Those were exercise rooms before the kids went onto the court for practice."

If the people setting up the women's tournament HQ didn't think high-level basketball players use weights to exercise, it's fair for the rest of us to question how much they know about elite sport in the 21st century. And if they didn't think the women's tournament deserved expensive perks like a fully equipped weight room, it's clear the focus was never on facilitating opportunities. Otherwise, you wouldn't need to peg spending to revenue. Each event would receive the budget needed to keep players healthy, safe and performing.

That means approximating the weight rooms the athletes have on campus, PCR COVID-19 tests, and better on-site nutrition for everyone involved, even if the extra spending gnaws at the profit margin. If the NCAA doesn't want to make sure women and men have a similar quality of tournament experience, it should just admit that college sports at the highest level are a business.

And if college sports are a business, people in charge need to start cutting cheques to the workers.