In call, Dawn Staley and Tara VanDerveer ask Congress to help equity fight in NCAA sports

June 29, 2021, 11:59 PM

South Carolina's Dawn Staley and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer on Tuesday called for Congressional involvement regarding the NCAA's treatment of its tournaments for women' sports, including basketball, in the wake of allegations of gender inequity.

In a video call with several members of the Democratic Women's Caucus, both coaches spoke about the differences specifically between the men's (Indianapolis) and women's (San Antonio) basketball tournaments that received criticism this spring. Those differences included a vast disparity in weight room facilities, the lack of an outside exercise area for the women and variations in COVID-19 testing and dining options.

The furor prompted NCAA president Mark Emmert to acknowledge that with the women's tournament, "We dropped the ball."

"It's more like they've always taken the air out of the ball," said VanDerveer, whose Stanford team won the national championship. "The NCAA tournament is the tip of the discrimination iceberg. Through lack of vision and pure sexism, women's basketball has been systematically held back. Our players and coaches have been harmed. After 49 years of Title IX, we still have work to do."

Added Staley: "I believe it is not only important but imperative that Congress address the inequities that currently exist between men's and women's basketball. I graduated from college in 1992, and I've coached collegiately for 21 years. And sadly, these inequities still exist."

Staley then made reference to the report commissioned by the NCAA in March to examine championships in all three divisions in order to, as Emmert said then, "identify any other gaps that need to be addressed, both qualitatively and quantitively, to achieve gender equity." The report is being done by the law firm of Kaplan Hecker and Fink LLP, and is expected to be finished this summer.

VanDerveer and Staley said Tuesday they hope all the contents of that report are made public.

"Let's be honest: This is the NCAA. We need to trust, but verify," Staley said. "The way this investigation is set up, the NCAA is the investigator's client and, due to attorney-client privilege, we may never know the full story. They will release what they want us to know, not what we need to know.

"So I'm here today to ask you as members of Congress to call for a hearing on this issue. And ask this question: 'How does the NCAA, an organization that purportedly exists to serve our student-athletes, allow gender-based discrimination at their flagship event?' The time is now to level the playing field ... so the inequities that the world saw this spring are a thing of the past."

Stanford guard Anna Wilson also spoke to the lawmakers on the call.

"I am not here because I see myself as a victim, but because I believe the system in which I've given all my physical and mental energy to can be -- and should be -- better," Wilson said. "However, what is obvious to me and thousands of other female athletes is not obvious to those uninvolved in college athletics.

"Equity is about access to resources, and it considers the needs of everyone, not a chosen gender. I have four nieces who attended our national championship run. I hope their experience playing collegiate athletics, if they choose to do so, is better than mine. I recognize there have been major improvements in gender equity and collegiate athletics. However, it's not good enough."

DWC co-chair Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California said a letter would be sent to the NCAA requesting that the Kaplan report be made public.

"I'm now contemplating even asking the General Accountability Office to do their own review as well," Speier said.

Congresswoman Lori Trahan of Massachusetts spoke about the government involvement in the name, image and likeness (NIL) debate, and said the issues with gender inequity need to be given as much attention.

Neena Chaudhry, Title IX legal expert with the National Women's Law Center, also spoke on the call and brought up the issues raised by coaches in other women's sports championships this spring, including volleyball, softball and golf. Among the complaints with those sports were problems with facilities or venues and scheduling issues.

"And high schools still provide boys with about a million more sports opportunities than girls," Chaudhry said. "Girls of color in particular receive the fewest opportunities to play sports in school. We know that almost 90% of NCAA schools offer disproportionately higher rates of athletic participation opportunities to male students compared to their enrollment."

On June 25, the DWC, with the support of Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced the Even Playing Field Act to ensure equal pay, investment and working conditions for U.S national team athletes, coaches and other personnel. It would require that national governing bodies ensure that female athletes are provided wages and working conditions equitable to those of male athletes, along with equal investment and promotion of women and their teams. It would also require every NGB to submit reports to Congress on their gender equity progress. Similar legislation has been proposed in years' past.

Those on Tuesday's call suggested that some kind of additional government oversight might be beneficial for gender equity in collegiate sports, as well.

Along with her job at South Carolina, Staley is currently coach of the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team. She was a three-time Olympic gold medalist as a player for Team USA, including in the 1996 Atlanta Games, when VanDerveer coached the team. So the parallels between gender-equity struggles for national teams as well as in the college world are well-known to both coaches.

VanDerveer echoed Staley in saying that a good step would be a Congressional hearing.

"I think with a hearing, that would just bring a little bit more out in the open," VanDerveer said.