Is March ‘the cruelest month’ in sports as well as weather? It might well seem that way to women hoopsters and their fans

Journalism Professor Marie Hardin

Penn State Coach Coquese Washington

Photos by Charles Hallman

Gender equity has to some degree existed in sports for some time, but not where March Madness is concerned. For women’s basketball followers such as me, it’s more like March inequity, which makes me mad.

The annual month-long hoop-a-thon officially began last week — all but the Ivy League hold post-season tournaments to decide their so-called official league champions — and the winners usually get the automatic bid to the NCAAs.

As early as New Year’s, self-crowned tournament bracketologists start spouting their “who’s in-who’s out” prognostications for the NCAA men’s tournament, scheduled to begin next week. But on the women’s side, it’s Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” instead.

When asked a couple of weeks ago for her thoughts about her sport’s post-season coverage, Michigan State Women’s Basketball Coach Suzy Merchant responded, “I don’t think I’ve heard one thing about seeding, brackets, who’s in or who’s out. [But] you have been watching that on the men’s side since the last week of January.”

Even the most causal male hoops fan can tell you this week’s Top 10, or maybe even tell you the 10 teams immediately after the top 25. But ask them to name the top five women’s squads in rank order, and you’ll get head-scratching responses instead.

Ask that same fan where the road to this year’s Final Four will end up and he may well say Houston, but he couldn’t find the road to the women’s Final Four even with GPS. (It’s in Indianapolis, the same city where the Big Ten women’s and men’s post-season tourneys are held — all unnecessary except that they make more money for the schools.)

Did you know that Merchant’s team has been in the national polls all season, reaching as high as ninth overall? Michigan State won the Big Ten’s regular season “title” but lost to fifth-seeded Ohio State in the conference semifinals last weekend.

“It seems like the media is really driven by two or three teams that are very talented,” continued Merchant.

Penn State Assistant Journalism Professor Marie Hardin did two reports for the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2006 and 2007. Both concluded that sports editors, most of them male, had a jaded view of women’s sports. They didn’t see any value in covering them.

Those 2006-07 reports noted that most mainstream newspapers carried little coverage of women’s sports. Whether it’s newspapers, magazines, television, radio or Internet, it’s no different four years later.

Sports Illustrated annually devotes reams of pages to the NCAA men’s field, but sneak in barely a couple of paragraphs afterwards for the women’s field. The scant coverage for the women’s field pales in comparison to the same magazine’s annual women’s swimsuit issue — the only time each year that a female graces its cover.

While Fox Sports Net has been promoting the Pac-10 men’s tournament with hoops highlights, this same network uses dancing girls wearing the member schools’ jerseys to promote the women’s tourney — and both sessions are being staged this weekend at the same Los Angeles arena.

The subliminal message being sent here is way too obvious: Show the men hoopin’, but not the women. Show the women dancing provocatively instead.

USA Today and others will devote Texas-size space for tournament brackets and team breakdowns. The two local dailies will fall all over themselves doing the same, and the hometown Gophers are not even involved this year, save for the NIT.

Next Monday is “moaning Monday,” the day after the men’s selections have been announced. It unfortunately overshadows the women’s field selections, which were moved to Mondays in hopes of better coverage. That decision several years ago had Titanic written all over it.

And while the men have got CBS, TNT, TBS, CBS College Sports and TruTV as their March Madness homes, the NCAA women’s tournament hoops home is ESPN, where their studio hosts, analysts and announcers are more hell-bent on out-eyebrow-raising each other to emphasize a point than they are on offering meaningful insights.

The men will get the late Luther Vandross serenading the champions with “One Shining Moment” in April, but there will be no Luther for the women.

Did you know that Penn State, coached by Coquese Washington, was one of three nationally ranked teams coached by a Black woman? Her squad finished second in the regular season and reached the Big Ten finals last Sunday. That is a story worth telling, but outside of Happy Valley, no one knows this.

I love March Madness, and next week I will be sequestered for at least three days watching it. I only hope that one day I can do this watching both sexes compete for a national hoops title.

“We’re, like, 20 years behind the guys,” admits Merchant on expecting at least balanced if not equitable coverage of men’s and women’s post-season action any time soon. This is an annual disappointment that women’s hoops fans have sadly come to expect.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to