Mid-March is the best time of year to be a college basketball fan, when you can bounce between the NCAA tournaments in the men’s and women’s games with all the effort it takes to switch channels. While the men and women play the same sport for the same colleges on the same brackets at roughly the same time of night, however, disparities between the tournaments are stark and distressingly exaggerated by the NCAA itself.

The latest malpractice on the part of the overlords of college athletics was reduced to an Instagram post last week by Ali Kershner. The Stanford University conditioning coach took a picture of the spartan workout facilities available to athletes in the women’s tournament bubble — a stack of yoga mats next to a rack of a half-dozen sets of hand weights — and posted it next to a similar photo taken by someone in the men’s tournament bubble. The latter, you might imagine, was outfitted as it should be with dozens of workout benches, squat racks and sets of free weights.

Don’t think for a second that athletes in one tournament are more interested in training than their counterparts in the other. Nor should one assume this was a singular oversight. Menus for athletes in the two settings were vastly different, as well — steaks, lobster mac and cheese and the like for the men, versus some indiscernible protein and mushy vegetable medley for the women. Players in the men’s tournament shared photos of a rich pile of giveaways and souvenirs offered to every athlete, while those in the women’s tournament got something more suitable for a wizard kid living in the closet under the stairs.

Worse still was the revelation that the two tournaments have used far different approaches to COVID-19 testing for players inside their respective bubbles. Men are screened using the top-level polymerase chain reaction tests that detect the genetic material encoded in the coronavirus even among people without symptoms.  Athletes in the women’s tournament are screened with the cheaper, quick reporting and less precise antigen tests.  

NCAA President Mark Emmert insists the safety programs at the tournaments are equally effective, according to the New York Times: “All of the health experts say the protocol that they’re using right now in all our venues and all our championships is one that has no difference at all in our ability to mitigate risk.”

Really, all of it shows the NCAA considers the women’s tournament to be a backwater less deserving of its interest or support.

The dissembling response from the NCAA to the predictable fury all of this caused on social media only served to make things worse. Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s vice president of basketball, apologized for “dropping the ball,” according to the Times.

At one point another NCAA official suggested the spare women’s facilities had something to do with a lack of space — an excuse undone by a player from Oregon who posted a video of the cavernous, unused convention center surrounding it.

If we’re being honest, the most important contrast between these two tournaments, as far as the NCAA is concerned, is the difference between the $850 million it gets in television rights for men’s tournament games, compared to $42 million the Times reports it will receive for the women’s tourney.

That the NCAA should be so callous as to let that affect the amenities for these student athletes is painfully dismissive of the women who’ve worked hard to earn an opportunity to play in the national spotlight. And it sends a poisonous message to fans of the game as well as the legion of young players whose dreams and ambitions are shaped by what they see playing out in front of them.

For college basketball players, there may be nothing better than earning a trip to the “Big Dance.” It’s just too bad the NCAA has to be the chaperone.

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