COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sitting in the corner of the North Carolina locker room, UNC junior point guard Deja Kelly opened her teammate Malu Tshitenge’s backpack.
The Tar Heels burst into laughter as the inside of the bag displayed more than 10 spray deodorants stuffed into the outer pocket. The Degree and Dove products were part of a care package that was given to each individual player.
According to several members of the UNC women’s basketball team, it’s a sign of steps in the right direction for equity between the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
As they start their 2023 March Madness run — and yes, the women's tournament now uses March Madness branding — several Tar Heels have reflected on how their tournament experience has changed over the years.
“It was really bad,” junior forward Alexandra Zelaya said. “Now, just our access — even our hotel, the stuff that we’re getting, our gear — being able to see the change just through my three years of being here, it’s just so encouraging."
In 2021, Oregon’s Sedona Prince was angry when she saw discrepancies between the NCAA Tournament’s workout facilities and equipment for men and women. Her TikTok highlighting the differences went viral. The NCAA commissioned a 118-page report to review gender equity problems in women’s basketball, citing Prince’s video as “the contemporary equivalent of 'the shot heard round the world.'"
Before last year, Zelaya said the team was gifted with off-brand items that were low quality. Tshitenge and Kelly joked that, at most, they may have gotten a towel, hoodie and water bottle.
"It was just bad," Kelly said.
Now, the players are gifted with name-brand products that are neatly placed on top of their individual lockers. March Madness bucket hats were also part of the swag bags — redshirt senior Eva Hodgson proudly wore a white bucket hat with March Madness pins in Sunday's players' press conference.
"Those small changes may not seem big, but as female athletes — and being able to actually experience the inequality throughout the men and women — it’s been really nice to see that change," Zelaya said.
Head coach Courtney Banghart, who competed in the NCAA Tournament before her time at UNC as the head coach at Princeton, has a more big-picture view of the situation, citing that the "financial model needs to shift" to achieve full equity.
In August 2021, the NCAA’s extensive report found that, on average, the association spends more money on male athletes than female athletes. This discrepancy is because the organization views men’s championships in a different regard than women’s championships.
To the NCAA, men’s championships fall into the “mere handful” of revenue-producing contests.
“If Orange Theory — which I’m obsessed with — wants to donate to women’s basketball, they have to first donate to the men’s tournament,” Banghart said. “That trickles down to the units situation that the men’s (tournament) has. (UNC Director of Athletics) Bubba Cunningham would make more money on our run right now if there were any units involved. Because of the way that the structure’s in place, it’s more lucrative for your men’s basketball team to be more successful. The politics of that is real.”
Sure, there have been improvements in tournament swag bags, but Banghart doesn’t get involved in all that. To her, that’s the NCAA’s way of “changing the low-hanging fruit.”
“It just takes time because the TV contracts are long,” Banghart said. “Some of this we have to just have to live out until some of those things can renew.”
Despite the lack of complete equity, many Tar Heels believe the cause is moving in the right direction. Several players noticed the difference from the past few years and have acknowledged the association's efforts in closing the gap.
Kelly said there's been more coverage of the women's tournament on TV and on social media. Tshitenge added that finally being able to use the March Madness title is a "huge step for us."
“It’s gotten a lot better,” junior forward Anya Poole said. “When I first got here my freshman year, it was not the same as it is now. Even the food is a lot better. Sedona really used her platform to speak up for the women’s side because it shouldn’t be as it was back then. I feel like it could take a step up, but it’s gotten a lot better.”
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