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NCAA scores positive gender equity review from St. Louis firm

Eric Berger//September 15, 2023

A view of the outside of the NCAA headquarters with the letters "NCAA" prominently displayed between windows

National Collegiate Athletic Association Headquarters in Indianapolis. The NCAA regulates athletic programs of many colleges and universities (Photo by jetcityimage2)

NCAA scores positive gender equity review from St. Louis firm

Eric Berger//September 15, 2023

The NCAA has made significant progress in its effort to correct gender inequities that received significant attention in recent years, according to a review conducted by a St. Louis-based law firm.

Lewis Rice, which has offices in Missouri, Kansas and Illinois, interviewed student-athletes and NCAA staff members and reviewed thousands of documents. They determined that the organization has a “markedly heightened awareness of, and focus on ensuring, gender equity,” according to the report, which was published July 31.

“Of course, as to all matters of equity, there’s still work to do,” Sarah Mullen, the lead attorney on the assessment team, said.  “We know from our interviews with NCAA leadership, including committee leadership and the national office leadership, that they are committed to taking those additional steps.”

Sara Mullen

The organization hired Kaplan Hecker & Fink, a New York law firm, in 2021 after backlash over photos and videos shared on social media showed the disparity between the women’s and men’s weight rooms at their respective NCAA basketball tournaments.

The NCAA vice president of women’s basketball acknowledged the group “fell short this year in what we’ve been doing to prepare” and said the group was “actively working” on improving the women’s facilities.

The New York firm determined the organization had not lived up to its stated commitment to “diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators.”

The primary problems identified were: an organizational structure and culture that prioritizes men’s basketball; media agreements that perpetuate gender inequity; a revenue distribution model that prioritizes investment in men’s basketball; and a disparity in participation opportunities for men’s and women’s basketball.

The report also stated that fewer disparities existed in Division II and Division III men’s and women’s basketball than in Division I basketball because neither men’s nor women’s basketball in the lower divisions brought in significant revenue for the organization.

The law firm’s recommendations included changing the leadership structure of Division I basketball to prioritize gender equity; taking steps to maximize value through gender equity in marketing, promotion and sponsorships; and holding the men’s and women’s Final Fours in the same city.

Last year, the association hired a different law firm to review its progress at the Division 1 men’s and women’s basketball championship. The organization did not identify the law firm at the firm’s request, Meghan Durham, associate director of communications, told the Associated Press.

That report found that the association had addressed nine of 25 recommendations and made progress in six others outlined in the Kaplan Hecker & Fink report, including responding to an inequity in staffing between men’s and women’s basketball by hiring three full-time employees and establishing regular communications between men’s and women’s basketball committees.

Roberta A. Kaplan

The organization had not, however, implemented ideas such as holding the men’s and women’s Final Fours in the same city.

Still, “it’s very clear to me and my colleagues that the NCAA has taken really great strides and exerted serious attention to our report and made most of the recommendations,” attorney Roberta A. Kaplan told Missouri Lawyers Media.

Since the Kaplan form evaluated its progress at the Division 1 men’s and women’s basketball last year, the NCAA asked Lewis Rice to limit its focus to other sports, according to Meghan Durham, NCAA associate director of communications.

Lewis Rice interviewed NCAA staff and Division I, II and III student-athletes; reviewed student-athlete surveys; and conducted site visits of 16 NCAA championships.


The attorneys determined the organization had improved gender equity by implementing an assessment tool which asked student-athletes 230 questions to evaluate their experience at each championship, including food, lodging and travel, and then compared data across different sports “to identify any divergent responses that might indicate a gender-based disparity,” the report states.

If there were differences, the tool helped determine whether they could be connected to gender.

If so, the NCAA can “address them quickly in a systematic way. That is a huge step forward,” Mullen said.

The NCAA also responded to a recommendation that the group consider opening bidding rights for its Division I women’s basketball championship because it could unlock “considerable value,” rather than just keeping it grouped with 28 other championships.

The organization hired Endeavor, a sports and entertainment company, to examine the potential value of those media rights and whether it made sense to sell the media rights among the sports in smaller packages.

“There are several of those types of Kaplan recommendations where the NCAA is taking substantial steps and is implementing what Kaplan has recommended,” Mullen said.

Despite that progress, there are still areas in which the organization has not yet completed recommendations, Mullen said. For example, the Kaplan report stated that the NCAA should improve its process for collecting and maintaining financial and non-financial data to better allow the organization to compare sports.

The gender equity tool does not feature “a robust database for collecting and storing data. The NCAA continues to maintain data in various platforms and systems” which makes it “difficult to capture and catalogue,” the report states.

To address that, the group is considering investing in information technology infrastructure for data collection, maintenance and analysis.

“It really could take further steps to improve its management of its own data from everything from ticket sales to corporate sponsorships to financial data,” Mullen said. “It would really benefit to streamline its data acquisition and management. It would also help it ensure gender equity because it would have access to accurate data.”

The NCAA has also seen recent turnover in its president, chief financial officer and senior vice president over the Office of Inclusion positions. That has contributed to a lack of ownership among senior leaders on the gender equity problems, the report states.

“A lot of important decisions about aspects of the championships are left to member-led committees” who then must coordinate with NCAA staff members, Mullen explained. “Sometimes that leads to delay and complications in rolling things out.”

Still, Mullen said she was encouraged by the NCAA’s efforts. The NCAA plans to continue conducting annual reviews to examine its progress in implementing Kaplan’s recommendations, the report states. Lewis Rice hopes to continue working with the association, Mullen said.

“We were grateful to have the collaboration with the NCAA staff,” Mullen said. “They were quite transparent, and I think that our report will help move the important work forward.”

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