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Pointing the finger: Congress blames NCAA in gender equity issue

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

In a six-page letter addressed to NCAA President Mark Emmert, U.S. House of Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jackie Speier (D-C.A.), and Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) said that the NCAA has made “inadequate progress” in addressing the disparate treatment of men and women athletes.

The letter blames the NCAA for failing to implement several key recommendations from an external review commissioned by the NCAA last year to address gender inequities. The review, which was prepared by law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP (“Kaplan”), focused on gender inequities after the NCAA was publicly criticized last year for the disparities in facilities and amenities between the men’s and women’s March Madness tournaments. Kaplan’s review resulted in two reports on NCAA’s policies and practices related to gender equity and recommended a total of 39 recommendations to address gender inequities.

“Although [the] NCAA has taken some short-term steps to avoid repeating the public relations catastrophe during last year’s March Madness championships, it has been notably slow to commit to or implement recommendations that will ensure structural, long-term changes to advance gender equity,” the letter states. The letter goes on to say: “In creating and perpetuating structural inequities between men’s and women’s post-season championships and failing to implement substantive changes that would rectify these inequities, [the] NCAA is violating the spirit of gender equity as codified in Title IX.”

In response to the letter, the NCAA said, “The shortcomings at the women’s basketball tournament last year have been well-documented and extensively covered. Although our work is not done, we are focused on the many improvements made since then that provide students across all our championships with a lifelong memorable experience.” The NCAA has recently taken several steps to correct the gender inequities identified by the Kaplan report, including changes to the women’s March Madness tournament. In October 2021, the NCAA launched on its website a “Gender Equity Updates” webpage, which identifies steps to fix the issues outlined in the Kaplan report. The NCAA also expanded the women’s March Madness tournament field to 68 teams this year, the same number as the men’s tournament. In addition, the NCAA extended its “March Madness” phrasing and branding to the women’s tournament.

But, the U.S. House members explained in their letter that the NCAA’s efforts to address gender inequities in men’s and women’s sports are still inadequate. “You have failed to take meaningful steps to correct deficiencies identified by the Committee and by [Kaplan], and you have failed to ensure gender equity across NCAA’s athletic programs,” the letter states. Specifically, the letter said that the NCAA’s “Gender Equity Updates” webpage is not comprehensive and provides too few details to fully understand the NCAA’s plan for each recommendation, including whether a particular recommendation has been rejected by the NCAA. In addition, the letter calls out the NCAA for failing to implement several recommendations from the Kaplan report. For example, the letter says there has been no progress by the NCAA in changing the leadership structure of Division I basketball to ensure that men’s and women’s basketball leadership have an equal level of seniority. Another example cited by the letter is that the NCAA “failed to create or commit to creating a chief business officer role to oversee NCAA’s media partner relationships with CBS/Turner and ESPN, the Corporate Partner Program, and branding and marketing for all championships.”

The letter also cites several internal communications from the NCAA that highlight the NCAA’s response, or lack thereof, to the gender inequities at last year’s March Madness tournaments. According to the communications, the NCAA declined offers from corporate sponsors and other individuals, such as WNBA player Chiney Ogwumike, to donate food or food-related gifts cards following complaints by women’s basketball players and coaches that the quantity and quality of meals were not equal to those given to the men’s basketball players and coaches.

The letter does not make any specific demands to the NCAA, nor does it provide any details of potential consequences for failing to address gender inequities. But, the message is loud and clear from the three members of Congress: the NCAA has failed to adequately address gender inequities and Congress is calling for the NCAA to step up its game to fix such inequities.

Ryan Whelpley is an Associate at Morse in Waltham, Massachusetts, where he is a member of the firm’s Corporate Practice Group and focuses on venture capital financings, M&A transactions, and general corporate work for startup and emerging growth companies. He is a graduate of Albany Law School (2019) and Union College (2016). At Union, Ryan was a member and three-year captain of the Men’s Basketball Team. You can connect with him via LinkedIn.

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