College softball: Fewer benefits and even less recognition

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All the women across the 286 universities with Division 1 softball teams spend countless hours on the field and in batting cages and gyms, vying for a shot to play in the Women’s College World Series, or WCWS — an event highly anticipated by many, especially since its cancellation last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite all the cuts, bruises, strains and tears, softball players are overlooked, underestimated, undervalued and underappreciated. In this year’s NCAA softball tournament, their mistreatment was undeniable.

From June 3 to June 10, eight universities (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, James Madison, Georgia, Alabama, Arizona, Florida State and UCLA) competed against each other at the Hall of Fame Stadium for a chance to win the NCAA national title. After five days of grueling battles, the No. 1 Sooners and No. 10 Seminoles made their way into the best-of-three final series. By the end of their third game, the Sooners came out on top to win their fifth championship in program history.

Winning the WCWS is an amazing achievement, but what makes the Sooners’ victory even more impressive is the circumstances that they had to play in. Even though games frequently sell out and amass a large television audience on ESPN (this year’s WCWS averaged a record-breaking 1.63 million viewers), compared to the NCAA’s Men’s College World Series, softball is treated like a second-class sport. According to various WCWS coaches and players, the women receive fewer opportunities and unequal treatment.

Patty Gasso — Oklahoma’s head coach for 30 seasons — spoke out on the ESPN+ show “Stephen A’s World” on her thoughts about the continuous inequities between men’s and women’s sports.

“We deserve a better bracket, better timing; we deserve instant replay,” said Gasso. “We deserve locker rooms. We deserve showers. We deserve batting cages.”

Lacking video review, teams were plagued by poor calls during the 2021 series. They were forced to improvise a batting practice station that would help keep them out of the hot sun and persevered through a compacted schedule full of doubleheaders, including a game that lasted until well past 2 a.m. because of rain delays. On the other hand, the men benefited from small but impactful amenities such as a bigger stadium capacity, free golf outings and massage days.

The absolute minimum is given to softball, ultimately limiting the sport’s ability to grow. This discrimination shows how necessary it is to invest beyond baseball, investing in its counterpart as well.

Such criticisms prompted the NCAA to release a statement Wednesday that the softball committee is “soliciting feedback” on adjustments to the WCWS.

Slow moves toward change are beginning to emerge. Broadcast exposure included all WCWS games and the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium expanded its seating capacity and added team facilities such as locker rooms, bathrooms, meeting rooms and training rooms under the stadium.

However, the sport can still stand to improve. There should be more player perks, the implementation of an oversight committee and further enhancement of the stadium with amenities such as showers and batting cages.

As a softball player and fan, it is both physically and emotionally draining to know that women’s sports are lower than an afterthought and athletes must fight to obtain basic amenities.

Similar to the WCWS, inequality issues were prevalent at the NCAA’s basketball and volleyball tournaments. During March Madness, women received considerably less workout equipment than the men, even though both roughly had the same number of teams participating in their respective tournaments. While the men had a full gym with multiple socially distant stations, women only had a few workout mats and a set of dumbbells.

During the women’s college volleyball tournament, the event’s setup garnered public outcry. ESPN streamed the first two rounds on its digital platforms without play-by-play announcers or analysts, no allocated locker room or bathroom spaces because of COVID-19 protocols and below-adequate playing surfaces.

The overall glaring discrepancies seen in softball and all other women’s athletics is hardly fair and just as frustrating. There is no justification for favoring one gender more than the other and it is time that the world of sports reflects that. While the Sooners may have gained another trophy to their collection, all softball teams should have won something during the WCWS — a chance for something better.

Contact Kiana Thelma Devera at [email protected].