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Women’s Basketball Coaches Challenge N.C.A.A. Leaders Over Gender Inequity

Wednesday’s session came as college sports leaders struggled to move past disparities that sometimes seemed to overshadow games.

Top coaches in women’s college basketball privately pressed N.C.A.A. executives on Wednesday over what they condemned as years of failures to promote the sport, including vast disparities in conditions at this year’s men’s and women’s tournaments.

During a 70-minute videoconference, the coaches — including some who have spent many seasons leading teams on deep postseason runs — directly confronted the N.C.A.A.’s president, Mark Emmert, and top basketball officials over how they could allow stark differences between its men’s and women’s events at a time when women’s basketball has become a mightier force in college athletics.

“We’re going to miss a huge window if we don’t change things now, if we don’t really step up to the plate at the N.C.A.A. as a whole to really water this sport, to really give it the attention that it deserves,” Nell Fortner, Georgia Tech’s coach, said during the session, which the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association organized and The New York Times viewed.

Fortner noted, for instance, that this year’s men’s tournament had courts that amounted to “eye candy” for casual television viewers while many of the women’s games were played on floors that did little to suggest the gravity of the competition.

“If you were flipping through the TV to find the women’s tournament, you would not have stayed on the game,” she said, “because you might have thought it was a high school game. That was really disappointing.”

Emmert told the coaches that the association recognized it had “some serious work to do” around women’s basketball and that “there’s no question that we dropped the ball, that we had some serious misses” around some planning for this year’s women’s event, which will culminate on Sunday night with the championship game.

The meeting between the executives and coaches came less than two weeks after the N.C.A.A. offered the first of its repeated apologies for disparities around its marquee basketball tournaments, especially for workout facilities that were flimsily stocked for the women and well-supplied for men. Last week, with the association facing sustained criticism, Emmert announced that he had hired a civil rights lawyer to lead a review about gender equity at championship events.

The next day, The Times reported that the N.C.A.A. had budgeted nearly double for its 2019 men’s basketball tournament than what it allocated for its women’s competition — financial information that longtime college sports executives said they had never seen. (N.C.A.A. officials insisted that the budget differences that showed a $13.5 million gap were primarily connected to differences in the formats and popularity of the tournaments.)

Questioned by Cori Close, the women’s basketball coach at U.C.L.A., on Wednesday morning, Dan Gavitt, the N.C.A.A.’s vice president of basketball, said that 12 N.C.A.A. employees were dedicated to planning the men’s tournament, while six were focused on the women’s competition.

Lynn Holzman, the N.C.A.A.’s vice president of women’s basketball, who reports to Gavitt, told the coaches that she and other association executives anticipated “that we’re going to see some pretty substantive changes here in order to elevate the championship where it needs to be at, and that extends to the type of support we need to create the environment we need.”

N.C.A.A. officials had hoped that the public furor around the tournaments would fade, particularly as the competitions advanced to their later rounds.

But N.C.A.A. executives appeared to misjudge the depth of the outrage. Danielle Donehew, the executive director of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, released a video message on Tuesday and detailed a letter she had sent Emmert in which her influential group said it could not “accept an external review that is conducted by a law firm of the N.C.A.A.’s choosing.”

Instead, Donehew and her group called for an independent commission to examine, among other subjects, “documented inequities that exist with the treatment of women’s basketball.”

Similarly, Dawn Staley, the women’s coach at South Carolina, told Emmert on Wednesday: “Whoever is paying the piper, you know more than likely they’re going to give you what you want to hear.”

Emmert, who asserted that the N.C.A.A. had no previous relationship with the firm that is conducting the inquiry, stopped short of agreeing to change the approach to the review.

“I understand there’s both the reality and the perception,” he told Staley. “I have a high level of confidence in their independence in reality, but I also understand that there’s this perceptional issue there, and that’s what you’re asking about. I’m more than happy to continue to look at it.”

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