The Las Vegas Invitational never should have happened, but it’s merely emblematic of a far bigger problem in women’s college basketball.
It’s been 20 months since Sedona Prince‘s TikTok Heard Around the World. You know it — the one that highlighted the vast disparities between the 2021 women’s and men’s NCAA Basketball Tournaments in their respective COVID bubbles.
In that time, the NCAA has made real progress toward righting its horrific wrongs and advancing something that passes for gender equity. But as LSU’s Angel Reese posed to Boardroom earlier this year: “Are you just doing this to shut us up? Or are you doing this because, ‘oh yes, we made a mistake and we’re going to change?’”
It’s a question that deserves far more of our attention, because it appears that all these months later, too many are willing to accept the bare minimum in women’s sports and chalk it up as that notoriously ill-defined thing known as “progress.”
If you’re willing to accept the bare minimum, your sport will at times fall well short of it. That’s when it all becomes a story, and for anything but the right reasons.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the woeful conditions under which several women’s basketball teams — including the No. 5 Indiana Hoosiers — had to play at an event called the Las Vegas Invitational. For the uninitiated, here’s the ballroom that hosted the games:
Aside from just looking like this event was thrown together haphazardly, other problematic details soon emerged, including:
- As the photo indicates, there was no formal spectator seating; merely folding chairs pulled up to the sidelines
- Teams were told to bring down hand towels from their hotel rooms, as the event would not be providing them
- An inadequate scoreboard that kept coming unplugged
- Unfulfilled promises of a setup similar to what the Athletes Unlimited pro competition uses
But by far the most concerning part: There was no medical staff on-hand.
When an Auburn player went down with an injury, she lay on the court for 45 minutes before paramedics arrived.
Dig deeper and it just gets worse:
There’s plenty of blame to go around here. On tournament organizers, obviously, for putting together such a sub-par event. On the Mirage hotel and casino, which hosted the tournament, for the same reasons. On the participating schools’ administrations for not doing their due diligence as to who was running the event and for sending their teams somewhere that didn’t even have a plan for spectators. Even the head coaches need to be able to answer for bringing their teams to this ballroom, surveying the conditions, and deciding to play anyway.
No matter how you divvy up the blame — and we can debate how that should happen all day — it all boils down to one idea that even the most well-meaning ambassador for the game cannot seem to escape:
That woman athletes should accept the bare minimum accommodations that they receive, especially if it represents even a minimal upgrade over previous conditions.
It might sound harsh to pin something like that on a university like Indiana. The Hoosiers pride themselves on their basketball programs, they have a top-five women’s team, and have a star of a women’s basketball coach in Teri Moren who has taken IU on consecutive second-weekend NCAA Tournament runs.
But ask yourself this: Which elite men’s program would go play in a Thanksgiving MTE (multi-team event) that did not allot tickets for its fans? Which elite men’s coach would ask his own players to use their own hotel hand towels on gameday? Which coach, athletic department official, or event administrator would let their team play with no medical staff on-site?
I understand each of those coaches’ dilemmas. The system of facilities, organizers, and athletic directors had failed them. For her part, Moren was vocal after-the-fact about how disappointing the event was. As she told members of the media:
“It’s not a fan-friendly environment. As I said to the site coordinator, as women’s basketball coaches, we are trying to move our game forward. It felt like because it got so many ticks on social (media) that we had taken a couple of steps backwards in this moment, and I shared that with the site coordinator. We have an obligation to grow our game, and we completely missed on this opportunity because you have a lot of really good teams here.”
Those missed opportunities happen every day, often on a much smaller, less dangerous scale.
Take Nike’s basketball bonanza of last week as an example. To celebrate founder Phil Knight’s 85th birthday, the Swoosh organized two men’s and two women’s tournaments in Portland for a breathtaking week to highlight the sport. It was the second iteration of such an event and the first that included women’s programs.
So, there’s your improvement. Nike gave women’s basketball a platform last week. But did anyone stop and ask why 16 men’s teams were invited and only eight women’s teams? Facility availability was not an issue — Portland has two full-sized pro arenas a block away from each other, as well as a pair of Division I gyms at its disposal. And even if infrastructure was limited, why slice the women’s tournaments in half?
It’s also not a matter of quality — while the men trotted out Portland, Portland State, and Oregon State, the No. 2 Stanford women were nowhere to be found. Neither was Tennessee, one of the most iconic brands in the sport.
But you didn’t hear anyone talking about this, as there were women’s tournaments happening. In terms of severity, the Phil Knight events pale in comparison to the actual physical dangers presented in Vegas, but the issues stem from the same place:
The women are getting a platform. They should be happy with what they have.
It’s not just about what’s on-site, either. FOX’s Kim Adams pointed out the disparity between nationally televised men’s and women’s games last week in a Twitter thread that went viral:
A quick caveat: There are far more Feast Week men’s tournaments (which in itself is an issue), but there were quality women’s matchups either not available to watch at all or hidden behind a streaming paywall like FLO Sports, a $30 per month platform that’s often mocked on Twitter for its sub-par production quality.
Beyond Feast Week, the Big East — a conference that is more competitive than ever in women’s basketball — buries the bulk of its non-UConn conference games on FLO Sports as well. If you want to be a Marquette or Creighton women’s basketball fan, it’s going to cost you.
But don’t complain! It wasn’t long ago that you couldn’t stream those games at all!
This sport needs to stop being satisfied with merely being in the room — that’s how you end up with a shameful Las Vegas Invitational. That’s how you get organizations like the NCAA to do just enough to save face.
The sport deserves better. The players deserve better. Starting with the athletes themselves, it’s time to declare that enough is truly enough and to start making demands in the name of dignity that’s for so long been denied.
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