The Big Question: When Will Women Athletes Receive Equal Treatment?

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This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve today’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been condensed and edited.

Joe Nocera: Over the course of a 43-year coaching career, you’ve won more games than any other women’s basketball coach, including three national championships — the most recent of which took place last week, when Stanford defeated the University of Arizona, 54-53. 

One of the most striking moments in this year’s NCAA March Madness tournaments took place off the court. It was when someone took videos of the men’s fully-equipped weight room and compared them to videos of the women’s nearly-empty weight room. It seemed to symbolize the inequities that women face in college athletics. What are your thoughts about the disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments?

Tara VanDerveer, Stanford University women’s basketball head coach:  Usually, the NCAA tournament is run differently for women. The higher seeds play their first and second round games at home. The men are playing in predetermined sites, usually on neutral courts. But once they moved the tournament into one bubble for men [in Indianapolis], and one bubble for women [in San Antonio], the disparity became really obvious. The difference between the men’s and women’s weight rooms was so visual that people could see the disparity. But I was upset with the difference in Covid-19 testing protocols. The women got an antigen test every day, while the men got the more accurate PCR test every day.  Our team had a number of false positives during the tournament. That just causes more stress and more anxiety. And that was one less thing that the men had to deal with.

Also, the food was really different. And the branding on the court was different. There’s just a more focused effort by the NCAA to run a first-class men’s tournament, and the women’s tournament felt like an afterthought. The differences were not wasted on me or our student-athletes.

JN: Of course, what the NCAA would say is that the men’s tournament makes hundreds of millions of dollars and the women’s tournament breaks even or loses money.

TV: Which I think is debatable. It’s all about how you do the books.

JN: Do you think that if the NCAA was willing devote the time and the effort — and marketing muscle — to the women’s tournament that it devotes to the men’s, women's basketball could be close to where men’s basketball is?

TV: Men’s college basketball started sometime around 1939. When did the women really start with the NCAA? The early 1980s.  You’ve got so many things working for the men in terms of promotion, media coverage and all the rest of it. And, yes, I think if an equal amount of energy was put into the women’s game, people would see benefit.

Some schools have figured it out. When we played our conference rival Oregon, a great Oregon team, it was sold out. Arizona sells out. The crowds are coming. Are they the same? Not yet. I would ask one question, though. We are an educational institution, a nonprofit. Is making money really the name of the game?

JN: One thing you had to deal with this year, obviously, was the pandemic. How did that affect the team?

TV: It was really hard. I’ve never spoken about this, but one of our players brought this up so I feel I can talk about it. I was really strict in terms of masking and social distancing and not being around people because obviously I’m older and I have a 93-year-old mother. But when September rolled around and we came to school, every player had to be on a five-day test regime. On about the fourth day, they decided to play some pickup basketball — and then someone tested positive on the fifth day. And that really caused our team to think hard about dealing with process and honesty. We had a very emotional Zoom meeting. And everyone had to go into quarantine for two weeks.

So that’s how we started our year. And quarantine at Stanford meant you were in your room, food was delivered to you, no working out, no going anywhere. It was very strict. After that, we did not have a single positive test among our players. And I think in the end that dealing with the strictness and the discipline off the court helped us on the court.

JN: Is that because you got to be really focused all the time, no just about basketball but about Covid-19?

TV:  We just developed this mantra of basically, Bring it on. Covid is not going to defeat us. We weren’t allowed to practice in our gym because of Covid restrictions in Santa Clara county. We had to move to a high school gym in Santa Cruz. The floor was slippery, and one time the power went out during a storm. So we practiced in the dark.  We played our games at the Golden State Warriors’ G-League facility, which is basically a warehouse with a court. The Warriors were fantastic. But that’s not your home gym. We had no fans, no locker room, no weight room. I think what really helped us was that we approached the season in small chunks. We didn’t look at the schedule and say, “Oh, my God, we’re going to be on the road for ten weeks.”  Instead, we said, “We’re going to Las Vegas this week. We’re going to Northern California next week. Arizona the week after.” And so on.

JN: I’d like to switch gears. Coaches are leaders, obviously, and you’ve been a head coach since the late 1970s. How would you characterize your leadership style?

TV: More than anything, I see myself as a teacher. My philosophy as a coach has always been that I would try to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. I want to put you together with people who had different strengths and weaknesses so that every ingredient in the recipe is different.

JN: Your first year at Stanford, 1987, was the only time the team didn’t make the NCAA tournament. You’ve been in 11 Final Fours with three championships. But that also means you’ve come away empty more than two dozen times. How do you help your players handle those devastating losses?

TV: When you go to the Final Four, you’re so thrilled to be there. And then obviously, only one team is going to win. To win it all, honestly, I think the stars have to be in alignment. I mean, we could have easily lost in the semifinal game or the final game this year. Those games could have gone either way.  But I really try to preface it going into the Final Four, or even going into the championship game, that we’re not defined by whether we win or lose the national championship. Let’s compete and be able to look in the mirror afterwards and just say, “I gave everything I could for my team.” And sometimes that is not going to be enough.

JN: There is a tremendous amount of controversy right now around the idea of paying college athletes, particularly men’s basketball and football players, and also allowing them to be able to exploit their name, image and likeness with such things as paid autographs and endorsements. Do you have any thoughts about those issues?

TV: I know that this is where we’re going, but I don’t know that we have a great roadmap for how it’s going to really work and how it will really affect college athletics as we know it. I do think that, when I look at how someone benefits from a Stanford degree, I just don’t want to underestimate that benefit. I think it’s good to pull back the curtain and say, “Alright, let’s really look at who is benefiting from the money that comes into college athletics.” It should not be a situation where certain athletes [in football and men’s basketball] are generating an incredible amount of money for administrators or coaches, or even supporting a lot of other sports. And I think that this is where even race can be involved, with a lot of football and men’s basketball being Black athletes, and they’re supporting other sports that are mostly played by white athletes.

Ultimately, I feel like we are definitely going in that direction. And we just have to figure out what the guardrails should be, and how to proceed into this new world of college athletics. In the same way that Title IX created a new world for college athletics — you know, name, image and likeness will create a new world for college athletics.

During the NCAA tournament, Vanderveer described the testing difference as “evidence of blatant sexism” that was “purposeful and hurtful.”

Because of Santa Clara county restrictions, Stanford played most of its games on the road.

Stanford won both of its Final Four games by one point.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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