Kaplan Hecker & Fink Releases Phase II Independent Review and Recommendations around Gender Issues in NCAA Championships

October 26, 2021 – Kaplan, Hecker & Fink LLP (Kaplan Hecker, KHF) is pleased to report that it has completed the second phase of its review of gender equity issues in connection with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), with a focus on NCAA championships. A 150-plus page written report of the firm’s Phase II findings and recommendations has been delivered to the NCAA Board of Governors.  KHF’s report is publicly available online here.

Kaplan Hecker’s Phase I report, which was released on August 3, 2021, focused on gender equity in connection with the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships. The Phase I report was made publicly available at the request of the NCAA in August 2021 and can be found online here.

For Phase II, Kaplan Hecker was asked to assess gender disparities in the experiences of male and female student-athletes at the NCAA’s 84 other championships, which impact more than 500,000 student-athletes, across 23 sports and three divisions. Rather than placing any single sport under a microscope, as the Phase I report did with basketball, the Phase II report looks at NCAA championships through a broader lens, identifying patterns and trends in the ways in which the NCAA’s policies, practices and culture around gender equity impact the student-athlete championship experience.

The sports reviewed in Phase II include baseball, beach volleyball, bowling, cross country, fencing, field hockey, football, golf, gymnastics, ice hockey, indoor track and field, lacrosse, outdoor track and field, rifle, rowing, skiing, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, volleyball, water polo, and wrestling.

“The broader Phase II review allowed us to deepen our understanding of the causes of gender disparities in NCAA championships, and also to isolate the characteristics that more equitable championships share, which can provide guidance for how to advance gender equity across the NCAA’s championships moving forward,” said KHF founding partner Roberta Kaplan. “We are grateful to all those who provided us with valuable information and insights throughout this process. As with Phase I of our firm’s review, we hope that this report will lead to positive change toward greater gender equity in collegiate sports.”

In the Phase II report, Kaplan Hecker found that the same structural and cultural issues that caused gender disparities in the NCAA’s basketball championships (as described in KHF’s Phase I report) have shaped its treatment of other championships, placing a priority on revenue-producing championships, resulting in inequitable experiences for men and women student-athletes within several sports. The report also describes how men’s sports have had a significant head start at the NCAA, which did not sponsor a women’s championship until the fall of 1981, 75 years after the association was founded.

“In the last 40 years, women’s sports have effectively been playing catch up at the NCAA,” said Gabrielle Tenzer, a KHF partner, who led the review with Kaplan. “But there are several examples we found during our review showing that, where concerted efforts to advance gender equity in the NCAA are made, improvements in the student-athlete experience can be achieved.”

The report goes on to identify a number of championships that stakeholders considered models for gender equity, and that demonstrate how collaboration between committees and staff, combined championship structures, and equitable financial and staff support are potential ways of addressing gender disparities.

Despite the numerous NCAA championships in which resources are allocated equitably, KHF found that spending per Division I and National Collegiate championship participant (excluding basketball) in 2018-2019 was $4,285 on the men’s side compared to $2,588 on the women’s—a difference of $1,697 per student-athlete.

As in Phase I, Kaplan Hecker’s investigative process was both independent and comprehensive. It relied on information learned in Phase I, as well as thousands of internal NCAA documents, interviews with key stakeholders, targeted questionnaires, and website submissions to KHF’s nccaagenderequityreview.com, which as of the date of the Phase II report had received nearly 19,000 unique visitors. The NCAA cooperated fully with the investigation and did not approve KHF’s report or change any of its recommendations before it was issued.

Key Findings:

KHF identified three key ways in which the NCAA’s policies, practices, and culture around gender equity generally impact the student-athlete championship experience and offered concrete recommendations for how the NCAA can improve gender equity in championships.

  •  First, the NCAA’s organizational structure and culture prioritizes revenue-producing sports, contributing to gender inequity.
    • Due to the pressure to maximize revenue distribution to its membership, the NCAA dedicates substantially more resources to championships that are revenue-producing or potentially revenue-producing and attempts to minimize the expenses for championships that are not. 
    • Because those handful of championships that the NCAA views as revenue-generating are exclusively men’s championships, this allocation of resources has significant implications for efforts to achieve equity between the men’s and women’s championships in those sports.
    • Recommendations:
      • The NCAA should conduct a “zero-based” budget over the next five years for each championship to ensure that any gender differences are necessary, appropriate, and equitable.
      • The NCAA should perform a real-time gender equity audit of all championships and prepare an annual report on the results.
      • The NCAA should ensure that items impacting the student-athlete experience at all championships are gender-equitable.
      •   The NCAA should establish a system for collecting and maintaining standardized data across the NCAA’s 90 championships in a way that facilitates future gender equity reviews and audits.
  • Second, the NCAA lacks a clear and transparent process for allocating resources among championships that takes gender equity into account.
    • The NCAA does not have a transparent system to consider or monitor whether the differences between championships within a sport are appropriately tied to a championship’s particular characteristics—such as more student-athletes, a larger audience or venue, or more broadcast coverage—or whether they result in unacceptable gender disparities in the student-athlete experience.
    • Recommendations:
      • The NCAA should develop clear criteria for resource allocation among championships that integrates gender equity principles and transparency into the process.
      • The NCAA should create a transparent process for changing the size of a championship’s bracket/field, squad, bench, or travel party size that takes gender equity into account.
  • Third, the structure and terms of the NCAA’s existing media agreements encourage disparate investment in men’s and women’s championships.
    • As detailed in the Phase I report, the NCAA’s media agreements prioritize corporate support for men’s basketball to the exclusion of all other sports and, as a result, many sports have little to no corporate sponsorships at all.
    • Corporate sponsorship dollars—and the associated benefits, including fan fests and other items that contribute to a championship’s “look and feel”—are disproportionately spent on men’s championships.
    • The NCAA’s contract with ESPN significantly undervalues at least women’s basketball, just one of 29 championships that ESPN agrees to broadcast, suggesting that there is lost revenue the NCAA could earn through a fully realized media agreement.
    • Recommendations:
      • The NCAA should consider commissioning an independent valuation of the media rights of other championships.
      • The NCAA should ensure equitable branding for all championships, including, but not limited to, gender modifiers in championship titles.

KHF’s Phase II report also highlights two factors that can lead to more equitable championships: a combined championship structure for men and women and a combined or well-coordinated sport committee.

  • Those sports where at least some portion of the men’s and women’s championships are combined and those sports with joint men’s and women’s sport committees tend to offer more equitable experiences for their student-athletes.
    • Joint championships allow for more coordinated planning, increase equity in the goods, services, facilities, and resources provided at the championships, and eliminate or reduce disparities between the “look and feel” of the tournaments, including as a result of combining corporate sponsorships and promotions.
    • Joint committees help to advance gender equity by facilitating communication and collaboration in the planning and execution of the championships.
  • Recommendations:
    • The NCAA should assess and develop a plan for combining or co-locating men’s and women’s championships where appropriate.
    • The NCAA should, for non-joint committees, ensure regular communications between the sport committees, with an emphasis on coordinating strategic decisions and achieving gender equity in the student-athlete experience.

The report explores and details these gender equity themes through nine case studies exploring Division I and National Collegiate championships in baseball and softball, ice hockey, lacrosse, volleyball, gymnastics, tennis, swimming and diving, soccer, and golf.   The report also provides data-driven fact sheets for all NCAA sports besides basketball.

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