Separate, Not Even Equal

The first piece of writing I got published in actual print was a letter to the editor of the Denver Post, when I was 15. It was in response to a sports columnist whose name I remember but the jerk isn’t worth mentioning, who had written an idiotic column proudly bragging how he had taken a female companion to the ballpark to show her how a woman would never be able to hit a Nolan Ryan fast pitch.

Never mind that most people (including that ass of a sportswriter), female or male, were unable to tag a Ryan pitch, his larger point was that women didn’t belong in sports, a notion that made me mad even at 15. My sister Terri earned 11 varsity letters for athletics in high school and four more for college basketball, and Tia played varsity volleyball in high school, but this wasn’t so much about rights for one specific girl as it was about basic human equity. And this guy’s column — all these years later, and I still want to smack his smug face.

Sports weren’t much of an arena for me, until they popped up in a fashion I never expected: I got a general reporting job at the Gunnison Country Times that within a few months led to me being completely in charge of the sports section.

I had to get crash courses in sports from people like Terri and a co-worker named Josh who had been a wrestler and went with me to my first high school tournament to explain it. I signed up for a course in volleyball officiating to better learn the game, which led to a side job I still hold.

From the outset of my decade-long position as the sports editor at the Times, I determined to provide equitable coverage, of boys and girls, men and women, from college to city recreation programs. I called one coach — I think it was the freshman boys’ basketball coach — to get results from their game, and there was this long pause. “No one’s ever covered us before,” he said. “Well, I am,” I replied.

[To be perfectly technical, there had been a very good sportswriter at the paper when I was growing up, named Mike Towne, who did cover all the sports, both male and female, but he had been gone a long time and it was a downhill slide for many years, so it was easy for me to look good.]

None of this is really intended to toot my own horn. I was mostly hoping to establish that gender equity in sports is a long-held belief of mine, so that when I write today’s version of a letter to the editor in the form of yet another blog rant, I don’t come across as hopping on the band wagon du jour.

What is with the NCAA?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association runs — or perhaps that’s “ruins” — the lives of so many men and women, mostly ages 18-21, and it does so with near impunity and fistful upon fistful of billions of white male privilege dollars.

Telling you everything that is wrong with the NCAA would take far more words than I have time for today, and is better left to those who have been in the trenches than some has-been armchair quarterback (which was the name of my weekly column, which I used mostly for cadging jelly doughnuts from my readers), but as every day goes by and yet another ugly revelation about the treatment of the female players at this year’s Division I basketball tournament comes to light, I want to make sure we are all as angry as that teenager who felt compelled to take up a typewriter in defense of athletes who happened to be women.

Had one player not posted pictures on her social media showing the difference between the men’s weight room and the sorry stack of home weights that the NCAA figured would be sufficient for women, I might have continued in dark ignorance for who knows how much longer.

I did not know things that we should all have been aware of for decades:

The NCAA devotes as few resources as possible to the women’s basketball program, and insists that it is a financial drain on its gargantuan basketball empire in what many economists have recently called “creative accounting.”

If a men’s team wins a first-round game, as 32 of them do, it receives a payout of $2 million. The payouts increase each time one of these “amateur” teams wins. What does a women’s team get for winning? Not a penny. Not even if that win is the national championship.

The NCAA, which touts its “core values of fairness, safety and equal opportunity for all student-athletes” while providing cheaper, less-accurate covid tests for the women, likes to tell people there is no interest in women’s sports. But when its website offering photos from women’s games is completely blank, compared to the hundreds if not thousands of photos available from the men’s games, don’t we suppose this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The NCAA provided massive swag to the male participants of this year’s tournament. What the women got, suggested late-night host Trevor Noah, seems like the NCAA forgot there was a women’s tournament at all and looked around at the last minute for things lying around the house that could possibly function as commemorative memorabilia.

I have been listening this past week as sports columnists and coaches, most of them female, have articulated decades of not-even-back-of-the-bus treatment. In fact, at one point there weren’t buses, and one coach had to get her players to games in her Chevy Impala. So she had a roster of eight, which was all she could cram into her car.

Despite the best, most tireless efforts of the NCAA, something has happened along the way. Without so much as a single assist from the agency which purports to support all student-athletes, women have made their tournament a marketable commodity. One sports columnist detailed the number of advertisers who have signed on for the women’s tournament games, noting also the number of games that sell out their attendance in recent years.

I have no faith in the ability of the NCAA to police itself, and even less in the member institutions whose gravy is piled on by this corrupt body that knows no shame. The outcry has to come from us. We should stop asking these women to do all their standing for themselves, and lend them a hand.

There should be an immediate call for the ouster of NCAA president Mark Emmert, who orchestrated all of the disparity between this year’s men’s and women’s tournaments but who would like to blame others, and there should be multiple suggestions to all member schools (which includes Western Not State at the Division II level) that donations might suffer until there really is “equal opportunity for all student-athletes.”

There are turning points, and after 40 years of letting NCAA women’s teams fend for themselves, it is time for all of us to get mad. And to demand justice. These women, who take their sports every bit as seriously as their male counterparts, deserve no less.

You want mad? Try these: columnist Sally Jenkins has a pithy review of the NCAA’s treatment of women’s basketball, and here is Coach Muffet McGraw on CBS.

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