Making a statement

Top-seeded women’s basketball ensures its voice is heard at NCAA Tournament

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Tara VanDerveer’s team has never shied away from making a statement. Whether it was a 68-point margin of victory in the season opener, sophomore Fran Belibi throwing home the first dunk in the sport since 2013, six straight weeks atop the AP Top 25 or entering the NCAA Tournament as the first overall seed for the first time since 1996, Stanford has made headlines all year long. 

Now faced with as many as six games under the bright lights in San Antonio, Stanford made one more statement: Women’s sports demand equal treatment. 

On Thursday, Stanford sports performance coach Ali Kershner sent a tweet. 

Kershner is no stranger to working with what is available. She has been with the team while it has operated out of hotels as part of a two-month road trip away from Stanford due to county COVID-19 guidelines. No doubt, along the way there were weight rooms that did not meet the standards of the Arrillaga Gymnasium and Weight Room next to Maples Pavilion.

This time, Kershner put the picture of the weight room her team, and the rest of the 64-team field in San Antonio, was offered next to a picture of the weight room in Indianapolis, where 68 men’s teams would play in their tournament. 

The outrage was immediate. 

The NCAA started putting out fires an hour later, first with a statement from Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s vice president for women’s basketball.

“We acknowledge that some of the amenities teams would typically have access to have not been as available inside the controlled environment,” Holzman said in the initial statement. “In part, this is due to the limited space and the original plan was to expand the workout area once additional space was available later in the tournament. However, we want to be responsive to the needs of our participating teams, and we are actively working to enhance existing resources at practice courts, including additional weight training equipment.”

A day later, the NCAA held a press conference with Holzman, vice president for basketball Dan Gavitt and Chair of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee Nina King.

“We have intentionally organized basketball under one umbrella, with the goal of consistency and collaboration,” Gavitt said. “When we fall short of these expectations, that’s on me. I apologize to women’s basketball student-athletes, to the coaches, to the women’s basketball committee for dropping the ball, frankly, on the weight-room issue in San Antonio. We’ll get it fixed as soon as possible.”

There were two things at play. The first is that, as Holzman said, “we became aware first through social media.” Without Kershner’s social media post, the NCAA claimed to have no idea had no idea there was something disturbing about the best athletes in college basketball working with a yoga mat and dumbbells no heavier than 30 pounds for three weeks while they played nationally televised games on ESPN that produced millions of dollars for the organization. It took the sports performance coach from the No. 1 overall seed at the entire tournament for the NCAA to recognize its error. 

The second is that, while Kershner and Stanford and the hundreds of other athletes, coaches, journalists and stores point out the glaring disparities in the weight room, that is just the tip of the iceberg. In the face of public pressure, the NCAA found a way to upgrade the weight room. 

But discrepancies in the gift bags of “swag” given to the players on arrival, the food options and even the types of COVID-19 test were a yearly reminder that the NCAA undervalues women’s sports. 

While the men’s players were administered the standard PCR test, the women’s players have been getting cheaper, but less accurate antigen tests. 

Yet the current backlash is not simply about the weight room and other tournament disparities, but rather part of ongoing discourse about the entire ecosystem in which women’s basketball is produced and consumed. The NCAA knows that it has been asleep at the wheel. Holzman played basketball at Kansas State and did not hide her emotions when explaining the situation on the press conference call. 

“I think there are inherently questions and appropriate challenges relative to equality,” Holzman said. “I have lived in this world. I’ve experienced when you don’t have something that’s the same. This is also why it hits such a nerve with me. It’s our responsibility to give them a great championship experience, and one they can be proud of. It’s disappointing. I don’t even have the words to describe how painful it is personally.”

Anyone who has been around VanDerveer’s program knows how personal the fight for equality is. From an all-women coaching staff to the two-year old Women’s Sports Foundation Tara VanDerveer Fund for the Advancement of Women in Coaching, Stanford is always ready to make a statement. 

That’s why current players and alumni alike make sure their voices are heard. 

“Women want to lift too,” senior guard Kiana Williams told KSAT 12. “We’re not asking for the equal, or to have the exact same thing that the men get, but they can do a lot better than that little single rack.”

Of course, Stanford did not travel to San Antonio to receive subpar amenities. Stanford arrived at the NCAA Tournament with the goal to win a national championship. Unfairly, the excellence of Stanford was overshadowed by the NCAA’s blunder, yet another case of inequality overshadowing women’s sports on the field.

In the first round, Stanford will face Utah Valley (13-6, 10-4 WAC), the representative of the Western Athletic Conference due to California Baptist being ineligible for the tournament as a result of its transition from Division II to I. Utah Valley’s second-place regular season finish set up a date with Stanford.

Utah Valley had games against UNLV and Utah canceled, meaning the two teams do not share a common opponent. Utah Valley, which will be making its first NCAA Tournament appearance, has never played Stanford in women’s basketball. 

The Wolverines are light on depth. The two top guards, Maria Carvalho and Shay Fano, will likely play the entire 40 minutes. The leading scorer is 6-foot-5 center Josie Williams, who will be an interesting matchup for freshman forward Cameron Brink in her first tournament game.

Utah Valley averages 16.4 turnovers per game and had 25 in its WAC Tournament semifinal loss that snapped a six-game winning streak. 

As for Stanford, it seems to have adjusted well to Williams’ hometown.

Stanford will begin its tournament run Sunday at 7 p.m. PT from Alamodome North.

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Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a staff writer in the sports section. He is a Biology major from Berkeley, California. Please contact him with tips or feedback at dmartinezkrams ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.