UCLA players say WNIT run highlights gender inequality in college basketball
When UCLA junior guard Charisma Osborne scored 31 points during a win at Oregon State that vaulted the Bruins into the WNIT Final Four, it locked in another costly, grueling day of travel.
After 13 hours of travel to get to Brookings, S.D., funded by UCLA, she wasn’t going to let the moment pass without pointing out the inequity of the WNIT that gets far less financial support than the men’s NIT.
“Just talking with the team, I think it’s important to just bring awareness,” she said before the Bruins played South Dakota State. “So that people in the future can have better opportunities than what we have right now.”
Osborne tweeted after that game, “This needs way more attention! It took us 3 different flights resulting in 13 hours of travel to get to Oregon. There’s no reason the WNIT shouldn’t be receiving the same benefits as the men! Why does the @NCAA own the Men’s NIT but not the @WomensNIT ? Women deserve better!”
Inequity across the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments has become a hot topic as women’s players and coaches began to point out the disparities between the two.
The gap in the men’s and women’s NIT tournaments, though, is likely larger, and UCLA decided to highlight it during its postseason run with the hope it helps future teams enjoy a more equitable experience.
Unlike the men’s NIT, which is run by the NCAA, women’s teams have to hope their respective athletic departments will take on the cost to keep their seasons — and, for seniors and graduate students, their careers — going.
The women’s tournament is operated by Triple Crown Sports, a for-profit company that created the tournament in 1994. The NCAA fronts the cost for men’s NIT teams to charter across the country and pay the schools to participate; the women do not enjoy the same financial support.
It becomes challenging for schools to find flights, especially charters, since they are paying essentially on a game-by-game basis. UCLA coach Cori Close said after the Bruins’ win at Oregon State that UCLA put in a bid to host South Dakota State, but the Jackrabbits ended up with the home game. Teams have to bid on each game, meaning they have to absorb the cost of hosting or quickly coordinating team travel.
That led to UCLA traveling to Corvallis, Ore.; Laramie, Wyo.; and Brookings, none of them with easy commercial flights from Los Angeles.
“It’s an opportunity to grow our mental toughness,” Close said. “.... But when you talk about a difference in experiences, wanting to have the best student-athlete experience and the most competitive equity we can, it doesn’t quite line up.”
Close has led her Bruins through the WNIT before, winning the championship in 2015. They fell short this season, falling to South Dakota State in the Final Four during the Bruins’ their third consecutive road game.
UCLA fell short of avenging an earlier loss of the season on Thursday, falling to South Dakota State 62-59 in the WNIT Final Four.
Close wanted to make it clear, the Bruins weren’t using those road games as an excuse, but that they happened at all was a notable difference between the WNIT and NIT.
“I feel really grateful for our athletic department, this is a cost, to play in this tournament,” Close said. “It is an inequitable experience.”
UCLA had to take five different commercial flights to reach Sioux Falls and then make a one-hour drive to get to Brookings, S.D., for its semifinal game on Thursday. The Bruins got to Brookings at 1:30 a.m. the day before their game.
UCLA grad student Jaelynn Penn won a WNIT title with Indiana, but her 2022 WNIT journey with the Bruins was uniquely challenging.
“My experience was a little different,” Penn said. “I had the privilege of playing all of our games in Indiana at home, so we didn’t have to travel at all.”
A WNIT trip wasn’t what UCLA envisioned entering the season, but the Bruins will make the most of it when they open play Friday against UC Irvine.
Ahead of the 2021 women’s NCAA tournament, Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a viral video of the weak accommodations the women had in their bubble training room compared to what the men had. In 2022, the women were allowed to use the NCAA’s March Madness branding for the first time.
Those inequities have been highlighted for a year, but UCLA athletes say the WNIT format has to be part of that conversation.
Close tweeted about the differences between the Texas A&M men’s team’s experience compared to what UCLA had to deal with just for the chance to compete ahead of the Bruins game with the Jackrabbits.
The NCAA paid $5 million this season to close some of the gap between the men’s and women’s tournaments. The UCLA women’s basketball team sees it as a good start, but far from true equity.
“We have a much more equitable experience than the generations before us,” Close said. “We need to be grateful and full of joy about how far we’ve come, [but] we need to have a relentless quest for how far we still need to go.”
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