Selection Sadness: Gender bias hinders March’s full magical potential

alicia-sadowski

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If I asked what your March Madness picks were after this weekend’s Selection Sunday, I would expect a lot of picks for Virginia, the No. 1 overall seed. I would also expect some picks for the classics in Duke, Kansas and Villanova, among others. I would even respect picks for Arizona’s talent to push it through to the championship.

While all these teams display promising potential in the tournament, I probably wouldn’t receive answers for the most dominant team in college basketball: the undefeated University of Connecticut.

So why wouldn’t I get more picks for the Huskies? The simple, unfortunate answer is that the only team UConn will have playing basketball in March is composed of women — and to the NCAA and sports media, that is enough to disregard its worth.

Despite the equally competitive and dramatic nature of the women’s tournament, there is an unambiguous gender bias that prioritizes the men.

During the 2017 March Madness tournament, men’s basketball was three times as likely to be featured on the home page as women’s and twice as likely to be featured in top headlines, according to a study published by ThinkProgress. Simultaneously, men’s basketball was nine times as likely to be in a featured spot on ESPN’s home page.

Two excuses have created the dominant narrative for excusing this disparity in representation: UConn’s dominance has made the women’s branch of March Madness predictable and boring, and economics, not sexism, is the reason for the media’s imbalance.

The Huskies are the only team in history, male or female, to have a 100-game winning streak, and they did it with more ease than previously seen: Their average margin of victory during the streak was 38.4 points and 25 of their wins came by a margin of at least 50 points. As ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas put it, UConn is “the most dominant program in the history of college basketball. Period.”

Its game isn’t defined by competitive recruitment or dominant players on the court, but rather focuses on a methodological ethic of hard work. As UConn guard Kia Nurse said, the ethic is ingrained in “the importance of each little detail in what we do.”

This should be exciting to fans who care about the quality of the game, regardless of the gender of the athletes on the court. Any implication that UConn’s dominance devalues the excitement of basketball is rooted in a sexist belief that women’s sports are inferior to those of men.

Furthermore, as demonstrated by last year’s upset of Mississippi State, UConn’s dominance was an unpredictable and even misleading narrative — making the possibility of another upset in the next couple of weeks more exciting.

The second excuse disguises institutional discrimination as sensible economic practice. The lack of women’s basketball popularity lies within the lack of representation, creating a cycle of interdependence that reflects a set of social values that prioritize the relative status of men over women.

At Cal, you have to buy tickets to witness the worst men’s team in recent history. Meanwhile, you can see the women’s team, a team headed to March Madness as a No. 7 seed with 20 regular-season wins, for free (What’s good, Obama?).

This isn’t just a Cal problem. A study by the Wellesley Centers for Women that compared ticket prices for men’s and women’s Division 1 college basketball found significant gender gaps at every pricing and seating level that did not correlate with differences in attendance between the women’s and men’s games.

The lack of attention to women’s collegiate basketball reflects a deeper sentiment of sexism present throughout the NCAA. The organization monetarily rewards men for their success while not offering the same benefits for women.

In the men’s circuit, a conference earns approximately $260,000 for each game a team plays during the tournament. That conference also earns approximately $260,000 per year over the next five years for every team it sends to the tournament. By contrast, the NCAA does not offer the same incentives for women.

If Virginia fulfills its high expectations and earns its “One Shining Moment,” the Atlantic Coast Conference will receive about $1.56 million. If UConn does the same thing, the American Athletic Conference will earn zero dollars.

I guess this leaves us with a (literally) million dollar question: What makes Virginia’s bid for the championship more impressive than UConn’s that doesn’t rely on sexism for the answer?

Alicia Sadowski writes the Thursday column about the intersection of sports and politics. Contact her at [email protected]