On Tuesday, the Democratic Women’s Caucus (DWC) gathered virtually with members of the public to discuss equity in women’s basketball and beyond. Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer and rising sixth-year guard Anna Wilson were present on the call to give their thoughts, urging Congress to take action against gender discrimination and inequality in collegiate athletics.
The event focused on the gender discrimination allegedly demonstrated by the NCAA during the Men’s and Women’s NCAA Tournaments — commonly referred to as March Madness — earlier this year.
The virtual event opened with words from DWC co-chair Congresswoman Jackie Speier (CA-14), who has been spearheading an initiative to combat blatant perpetuation of sex and gender discrimination in college sports. Speier called out the NCAA, stating that “their caveman approach to women’s athletics doesn’t cut it.”
“[DWC member] Congresswoman [Mikie] Sherril (NJ-11) and I introduced our resolution today that affirms that the NCAA is subject to Title IX and must make every effort to prevent sex discrimination in its programs and activities,” Speier added. “It also calls on the NCAA to make public all findings and recommendations.”
Sherrill then gave a few words to acknowledge her dedication to the fight, announcing the immediate action she took after the first pictures of inequality between the two tournaments surfaced on social media, many of which portrayed drastic differences in the quality and quantity of weight lifting equipment at the men’s tournament in Indianapolis and the women’s in San Antonio. Sherrill was responsible for penning a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert, expressing her disapproval of the unequal conditions and standards.
Emmert and Sherrill met to further discuss the situation, ultimately leading to the resolution introduced Tuesday.
The floor was then given to women’s basketball head coach at University of South Carolina and former Olympic athlete, Dawn Staley. Staley opened with a powerful story about her experience playing college basketball over twenty years ago and the experiences she had as a young child, which immediately enlightened her to the uphill battle she would fight.
“I’m here today to ask you as members of Congress to call for a hearing on this issue, and ask this question: How does the NCAA, an organization that purportedly exists to serve our student athletes, allow gender-based discrimination at their flagship event?” Staley said. “And as importantly, I am here because the time is now to level the playing field that exists in our sport, so that the inequities I felt, and that the world saw this spring, are a thing of the past.”
The message struck home for many in the call as congresswomen recalled similarly frustrating experiences as young athletes.
VanDerveer was then given the floor to recount her experience at the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament this past March. She began by comparing the meals received to a household dinner.
“I grew up in a family of seven,” VanDerveer said. “Dinner wasn’t hot dogs for the girls and steak for the boys. In fact, that’s what it was at the NCAA Tournament. This spring, the men had lobster bisque and ribeye. [Women] had a salisbury steak and had to order out from DoorDash.”
The inequality did not stop at the food, VanDerveer explained. “The women had no outdoor space to walk around in. The men had the baseball stadium open to them and planned ahead.”
“Our games and scores weren’t promoted like the men’s; the swag bags for our teams were very different,” she added.
However, it was not the material items and public awareness that enraged VanDerveer the most.
“What really got me was a difference in testing — antigen for the women and PCR for the men,” VanDerveer said. “This really upset me because I didn’t feel like the NCAA valued my health or the health of our women’s players or staff. Anna Wilson was one of the players that had a false positive and that’s very upsetting and really stressful when you’re trying to play in a tournament.”
Vanderveer then posed the question: “Why does the NCAA leadership get away with March misogyny for the women and March Madness for the men?”
The Stanford coach closed her powerful remarks by once again calling on the congresswomen in the call to stand against the injustice.
“The NCAA Tournament is a tip of the discrimination iceberg through lack of vision and pure sexism. Women’s basketball has been systematically held back,” said VanDerveer. “Our players and coaches have been harmed. Please join us in righting a wrong by holding the NCAA leadership accountable. Please insist that the report be made public. I want to thank you very much for your time, and I really hope that we can look forward to giving future young athletes a fair shot.”
Wilson was then given time to recount her journey through collegiate athletics and the mountains she has had to climb as a female athlete.
“I am not here because I see myself as a victim, but because I believe that the system in which I’ve given all of my physical and mental energy can be and should be better,” Wilson said. “However, what is obvious to me, and thousands of other female athletes, is not obvious to those uninvolved in college athletics.”
“I chose Stanford because I knew that I needed options after college,” she continued. “As the NCAA says, 99.9% of student athletes will be professionals in something other than their sport. That percentage is even greater for women because of the lack of opportunity that exists. Many young female athletes come to college thinking they’ve accomplished what they set out for because they do not see opportunities available beyond the collegiate level.”
Wilson closed out her words addressing the congresswomen directly.
“Congresswomen, you are the leaders, the women leaders of our country,” Wilson added. “Can I count on you? Can I count on you to create change and hold the NCAA accountable for their mistreatment of women? The inconsistencies are exhausting.”
Wilson was met with applause and an immediate response from Sherrill.
“Anna, you have our collective word that you can count on us,” Sherrill said. “You are an extraordinarily gifted young woman with an incredible career ahead of you, and you have our collective word that we will not settle for anything less than fair, equitable standing for women in sports. That’s what Title IX demands and that’s what you should be receiving.”
Sex and gender discrimination was not the sole focus of the afternoon, however. DWC member Congresswoman Lori Trahan (MA-03) took the floor to share the work she has been doing to advance the standings of NCAA athletes as a whole.
Trahan explained that, along with Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), she introduced legislation called the College Athlete Economic Freedom Act. If adopted, the act would override previous legislation that barred college athletes from profiting from the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) or athletic reputation. Additionally, aside from establishing the federal right for college athletes to market their NIL, the act would prohibit organizations like the NCAA from restricting that right.
“But we can’t just stop at name, image and likeness,” Trahan said. “Senator Murphy and I also introduced legislation to guarantee college athletes the right to organize and collectively bargain for fairness and safety.”
Trahan then introduced high school senior Nora Fairbanks-Lee, who gave a few words on her outlook heading into collegiate athletics. Fairbanks-Lee spoke about her experience as a high school athlete and the disrespect she received even as a highly sought-after player. She concluded her remarks reminding lawmakers in the room to advocate not only for top tier athletes competing in Division I, but for athletes across all divisions and age groups.
Neena Chaudhry, Title IX Legal Expert with the National Women’s Law Center was then introduced to discuss Title IX violations beyond the March basketball tournament.
“Even today, high schools still provide boys with about a million more sports opportunities than girls,” Chaudhry said. “And girls of color in particular received the fewest opportunities to play sports in school. We at the Law Center continue to hear regularly from parents and students across the country, particularly about unequal playing fields, literally.”
“It’s not just women’s basketball,” she continued. “The women’s college softball World Series was recently on and had about the same viewership numbers as the men’s baseball World Series, but the women’s stadium for the championship tournament was too small to hold all the fans who wanted to attend. It was about half the size of the men’s stadium, it had no showers, so players and coaches had to instead shower at their hotels.”
Chaudhry also described how softball teams at the College Softball World Series rarely, if ever, had off days between games, and some teams even played multiple games on the same day. According to Chaudhry, the demanding schedule increased the risk of injury for the female athletes, while the male athletes competing at the College World Series were given off days, treated to a golf outing and massages and presented with a celebratory dinner for coaches and players.
“And of course we know that when we get to the professional level of women’s sports, the disparities and inequities continue,” Chaudhry said. “Right now our U.S. women’s soccer team is fighting in court for equal pay and equal facilities. The WNBA players regularly have to squeeze into coach seats even though they’re over six feet tall, while the NBA players take private charters. This is just simply unacceptable.”
Chaudhry closed her remarks by echoing the calls of previous speakers, asking Congress to take action.
The call closed with remarks from Sherrill thanking members of Congress, the media and athletics for their support in highlighting and standing up against these inequalities.