Eight years ago, in a report the NCAA asked Big East commissioner Val Ackerman to write, she recommended the men’s and women’s Final Fours be played at the same venue on the same weekend.
She also suggested the women’s basketball tournament have its own television contract, not one combined with other sports as is currently the case, and that the NCAA streamline its governance structure, among other things.
After Tuesday’s release of a report ripping the NCAA for failing to uphold gender equity in its management of men’s and women’s basketball, Ackerman said she’s confident changes are coming because momentum is on the side of the women’s game after the embarrassing revelations of unequal treatment of athletes at the 2021 tournaments.
Some of the recommendations by the law firm hired to investigate rang familiar to Ackerman, like her ideas about combining the Final Fours, negotiating a stand-alone TV contract and restructuring the NCAA organizational chart.
“What I don’t know is how long it will take,” she said. “I hope quickly. That remains to be seen. My questions will continue to revolve around structure and how best to navigate the NCAA bureaucracy to bring these ideas into being.”
Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP was hired in March after the NCAA failed to provide similar amenities to the teams in the men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments. The situation blew up on social media amid player complaints and prompted apologies from NCAA executives.
Ackerman, founding president of the WNBA and past president of USA Basketball, said she was interviewed twice for the Kaplan report and she provided investigators her 2013 white paper and other materials.
The Kaplan report gave a nod to Ackerman’s work and other studies of the NCAA’s treatment of women’s basketball, noting that “while it is true that some progress has been made, all too often, the proposed reforms that came out of these efforts ended up doing no more than sitting on a shelf.”
Ackerman praised the thoroughness of the 113-page Kaplan report and said, “This can’t be a report that sits on a shelf for the next eight years. That can’t happen. It can’t happen again. I hope many see that and that everybody can be part of the solution this time.”
Ackerman said the problems, and solutions, are rooted in the NCAA’s structure.
The Kaplan report found the organization of men’s and women’s basketball leadership makes it difficult for women to get a fair hearing of its issues with some of the NCAA’s top leaders.
“You have this sort of multitude of committees, and I think we make it hard on ourselves by having a murky pathway to decision-making,” Ackerman said.
The senior vice president of basketball, Dan Gavitt, is supposed to oversee both the men’s and women’s games. Gavitt acknowledged in the report he has devoted most of his time to men’s basketball, the NCAA’s cash cow with a tournament whose TV contract value approaches $1 billion. NCAA staff told investigators that vice president for women’s basketball Lynn Holzman has been left to run women’s basketball autonomously.
Gavitt, as a senior VP, is on the senior management team and attends meetings led by the NCAA president. Holzman, as a vice president, does not.
Under that setup, women’s basketball is not fully represented in important discussions within the NCAA or with broadcast and corporate partners.
Despite having the same senior vice president, the report found the men’s and women’s basketball staffs operate largely independently of one another and that there is little communication between the two.
“When you’re working in the same company,” Ackerman said, “I think there is an expectation that the right hand is talking to the left hand.”
Former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, now an ACC Network analyst, said the lack of collegiality between the men’s and women’s staffs troubles her.
“That’s something that should be a much better situation for the women’s staff, to have the help of the guys that are running the men’s tournament and get some feedback and some comments,” McGraw said. “We just haven’t had a good working relationship there. That can change overnight.”
Kaplan recommended that the leadership of men’s and women’s basketball should be at equivalent levels of seniority within the organization and should coordinate to ensure gender equity in the athlete experience. They should report to a head of championships who would review budgets and participation opportunities with an eye toward spotting disparities.
Several coaches expressed interest in looking at a combined Final Four weekend.
“You know I’m an advocate for the synergy of the men’s and women’s game and think creative thinking should always be valued as we chart the future course for the NCAA and (women’s basketball) in particular,” USC women’s coach Lindsay Gottlieb said
Also recommended was a reset of the budgeting process to make spending more equitable, and that the NCAA allot an equal number of staff to work both tournaments.
“It’s hard work and it’s going to require some real leadership and a better effort at organization, pulling together the governance structure in the right way to implement this with all due speed and effectively,” Ackerman said. “That’s what I’ve got my eye on. Now what? How do we take this and do what we’re supposed to do to make this come to life?”
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli and Janie McCauley contributed.
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