Why women's basketball still fights for equal recognition

The gender disparities that were exposed by the 2021 NCAA tournament are just the latest in a long battle for equal resources and pay for women athletes.

The Iowa Hawkeyes join hands for the national anthem before their first game at the 2021 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament in San Antonio, Texas, on March 21, 2021. The women’s sparse accommodations forced the sports community to confront lingering gender inequalities.
Photograph by Carmen Mandato, Getty

When then-President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law in 1972, the door seemed to open for women’s sports. Women’s athletics programs began to form at colleges and universities that had previously only sponsored men’s sports teams. Women’s collegiate programs gained funding and began to play competitive sports against other women’s college teams.

The Title IX federal civil rights law states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

But in the nearly 50 years since Title IX came into force, women in sports have consistently faced gender inequality. In recent years, the United States Women’s national soccer team has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging discrimination on the basis of sex. And in professional tennis, women players have demanded prize money equal to that awarded to men players. Most recently, college basketball has had a very public reckoning of its own.

Inequality at the NCAA tournament

Disparities between the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball programs were brought to light during the 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA followed the NBA’s model of creating a “bubble,” hosting the men’s and women’s tournaments each in a single city and assigning players to designated hotels and practice facilities. (Discover the history of basketball—from peach baskets in Springfield to global phenomenon.)

When the teams arrived at the facilities in San Antonio, Texas, where the women’s tournament was hosted this year, photos on social media caused an immediate uproar. Ali Kershner, a strength coach from Stanford University (which ultimately would claim the tournament crown) posted a photo to Instagram comparing the men’s weight room to the women’s. The men had professional squat racks and plenty of space while the women were provided with only yoga mats and dumbbells.

Sedona Prince, a player on the Oregon Ducks women’s basketball team, also posted a video of the weight room to Tik Tok, in a post that reached millions. Prince panned her camera across the women’s facility showing the large amount of empty space where weight racks could have been and told her followers, "If you're not upset about this problem, then you’re a part of it."

Marissa Banfield, a senior guard for The Stephen F. Austin University Lady Jacks, says initially she was excited to get to her first NCAA national tournament—but that changed when the uproar began.

“The next day you see it all on social media, literally the difference,” Banfield says. “And this is disappointing. It kind of hurts because both men's and women's teams are working toward the same goal: [to win] a championship or to win that first game.”

Banfield added that not only were the weight rooms different but so were the swag bags that each team receives for making it to the national tournament. Social media also displayed pictures of major disparities between the food furnished for the men’s and women’s tournaments. Banfield noted that she and her teammates did not think some of the meals were adequate, even though it is vital for players to be nourished for a sporting event like the NCAA national tournament.

“We were getting food that we couldn't eat and we did not want to eat,” Banfield says. “We probably didn't eat breakfast for like three or four days, and then you see men's teams getting steak, shrimp, and all that stuff. So, it was just kind of disappointing and confusing. “

But the controversy was hardly new. Women have been fighting for equity in sports for years.

A long battle

The disparity between the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball facilities were all too familiar to Jasmine Williams, a recent Texas A&M women’s basketball alumna. During her time playing for the school, the women’s program did not receive any facility upgrades—not even in a season when they reached the “sweet 16” rounds of the tournament. Meanwhile, the men’s basketball team didn’t even reach the tournament and got a newly renovated facility.

“Upon the men’s coach’s hiring, all of a sudden the entire facility got a face lift on the men's side.” Williams noted. “They got a brand new weight room, they updated their offices, they updated their practice gym, they updated everything.”

Williams added that it was a struggle just to obtain a new locker room for the women’s team.

“It took us to get outside sponsorship to get a new locker room,” she said. “Our locker rooms are in the same facility as the men’s and ours looked like [they date back to] 2002.”

Collegiate and professional women’s basketball players have been fighting for equality and respect for years.

In the 1970s, schools were slow to implement the changes required by Title IX. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did not have a women’s athletics department or competitive sports teams when Title IX was passed—and when it launched one in 1974, it did not initially give scholarships to women athletes. The following year, Illini women’s athletes became eligible for three-year tuition waivers, but had to hold a higher GPA than male athletes. The school also gave the women’s athletic department around $80,000—compared to more than $2 million given to the men’s athletic department.

In 1977, two Illini athletes filed suit against the University of Illinois Athletic Association to force compliance with gender equity. In 1978, the suit was settled out of court and the women’s athletics department’s budget tripled.

But funding disparities have remained into the modern era. Earlier this year, ESPN reported that the NCAA budgeted nearly twice as much for the 2019 men’s basketball tournament as it did for the women’s—a $13.5 million discrepancy.

Inequities extend beyond the collegiate ranks. Women’s basketball wasn’t recognized by the International Olympic Committee as a medal event until 1976—40 years after men’s basketball was recognized in 1936. Meanwhile, WNBA players have been fighting for the league to recognize their value—both as teams and individual players—since its earliest years.

The Houston Comets, one of the original WNBA franchises, is a prime example. The Comets won the league’s first four championships back-to-back from 1997 to 2000, immediately creating a dynasty. Yet the team was dissolved in 2008 after the team was sold twice within a span of two years. Other founding teams also have been sold.

Though the WNBA has remained resilient as a league, for a long time players also had to compensate for inequities of their sport by playing two seasons. To make ends meet, they’d play one season in the United States with their WNBA team and, once that was over, they would play in a different country for the remainder of the year. (Wheelchair basketball in Cambodia changed these women's lives.)

In June of 2020, however, major changes arrived as the WNBA reached a new collective bargaining agreement that amounted to a 53 percent pay raise. The agreement raised a player’s base salary to $130,000 and created additional bonuses and prize pools. Top players can now earn more than $500,000 a year in cash, which is more than triple the previous maximum cash compensation for the league.

Though this new agreement is nowhere near the NBA’s average of $7 million per player, it is a step in the right direction for the women’s game—and for women’s sports overall as they continue to battle for equity in the nearly half a century since Title IX became law.

A reckoning

Following the social media outcry over the weight room at the women’s college basketball tournament, NCAA vice president of women’s basketball Lynn Holzman released a statement explaining that the lack of amenities was due to a lack of space inside the NCAA bubble.

"The original plan was to expand the workout area once additional space was available later in the tournament," Holzman said.

Holzman, who was the captain of the Kansas state women’s basketball team in 1994, said in a later interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe that the mistake was unacceptable. The NCAA “immediately starting working to rectify the issue” once it realized the difference between the practice facilities, she said, ultimately providing the women’s players with an upgraded weight room with more equipment in a larger space.

“We've been fighting uphill battles for years—in sport and in many other aspects of our lives,” Holzman told Rowe. “We have to be diligent and we have responsibilities as leaders to make sure that there are equitable opportunities for our student athletes so that they really have the best experience possible. In the case of this year, that was a miss.”

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