Public shaming can be very effective. Last year, amid a global reckoning on gender equity, University of Oregon basketball star Sedona Prince exposed the egregious disparity between the men’s and women’s training facilities at the NCAA Division 1 basketball tournament in a viral Twitter video. The NCAA at first made excuses. And when that didn’t quell the outrage, it was forced to cop to the obvious, apologize and do better.
Female athletes have been fighting for gender equity since the dawn of women’s sports. But the NCAA’s unequal treatment of the men and women participating in March Madness (until last year, that branding was exclusively used for the men’s tournament) felt even more egregious because Title IX, the landmark 1972 federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in schools that receive federal funding, was supposed to root out the unequal treatment that Prince’s tweet exposed.
Title IX began to address systemic inequality in educational settings. But as Prince showed, the legislation’s history is complicated. A new NBC News and NBC Sports podcast “In Their Court,” coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Title IX in June, examines the legislation through the lens of women’s basketball.
“Women’s basketball obviously is a lot more ubiquitous today than it was in the ‘70s,” says executive producer Steven Roberts. “Because of the prominence of basketball, we were able to look at the start of a lot of major programs, like the University of Tennessee’s Pat Summitt and Sonja Hogg and the Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters, that had their beginnings in the early ‘70s. We’ll also follow some of the friction that it faced — from the Senate or the NCAA — and follow that all the way through today.”
The five-part podcast explores the fallout from Prince’s social media wakeup call, the nuances of the 1972 ruling (in fact, the NCAA has successfully resisted the application of Title IX to this day), and the struggles — and triumphs — of the preceding half century of women’s athletics. Hosted by U.S. Olympic fencer — and barrier breaker — Ibithaj Muhammad, the first two installments drop Monday; subsequent episodes will drop weekly on Mondays on platforms including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
“I love that through vehicles like social media, we’re able to get real-time information and, in a way, have a real-time response,” says Muhammad, referring to Prince’s viral tweet. “We can all say we didn’t know that that was happening. But to see it firsthand from a collegiate basketball player, it forced the NCAA and everyone else to take a real look at the way we perceive women in athletics.”
The NCAA was forced to make quantifiable changes; this year, the women’s tournament was expanded from 64 to 68 teams, the same number as the men’s competition. There is something approaching staffing parity between the tournaments, and the women’s tournament referees now earn the same salary as their counterparts for the men’s tournament. The women also received identical swag bags and comparable food choices.
The latter may not seem like a giant leap for womankind, but the swag and food at the women’s 2021 tournament was a source of much mockery. And many media observers contend that the TV rights to the women’s NCAA tournament are under-valued. ESPN pays about $42 million annually to the NCAA for the rights to broadcast the women’s tournament and the postseason games of 28 other college sports. Some media analysts predict a price hike when ESPN’s current deal comes up in 2024.
[And even as we mark the 50 years of landmark equality legislation in Title IX, the Supreme Court is poised in June to strike down nearly 50 years of abortion protection for women, an earthquake in the battle for equality.]
Muhammad, who hosted a series of NBC podcasts during the network’s Tokyo Olympics coverage, is well positioned to guide listeners through the evolution of equity in sports. She became the first Muslim woman to compete for the U.S. at the Olympics in a hijab. A three-time All American at Duke University, five-time Senior World medalist and World Champion, Muhammad was part of the women’s saber team that won a bronze medal in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. Her story inspired Mattel’s first hijab Barbie and Nike’s debut line of hijabs for athletes.
Her entrée into fencing — a predominantly white sport — came when her mother suggested she try it because it was one of the few sports that comported with the tenets of modesty prescribed by her Muslim faith. Several years ago, Muhammad and her sisters launched a clothing line, Louella, which features modest ready-to-wear day and evening attire. Muhammad views the line — which is manufactured in the United States — as giving back to her community.
“When I was growing up, I couldn’t find modest clothes,” she says. “If you bought a spaghetti-strap dress, then you had to buy a long-sleeved top to go over it or underneath. And now, we’ve made modest dressing really easy.”
An activist and author, Muhammad is an ambassador with the U.S. State Department’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport initiative. She has written three books including a 2018 memoir “Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream” and a children’s picture book, “The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family.”
“She pushed us to look at this from a more contemporary perspective, and also to speak to women of color, women from the LGBTQ+ community,” says Roberts. “I think because of her involvement, we’ve been able to expand or open the aperture to tell a more robust story.”
Muhammad is quick to point out that her dream of becoming an Olympic fencer would not have been possible without Title IX, but she also knows that sport — and society at large — have a lot more work to do. The plight of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has been wrongfully detained in Russia for more than 75 days, has exposed the precariousness of inequality. Like many WNBA stars, Griner plays for a team in the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason because Russian teams pay far more than the WNBA salary cap, which maxes out at $228,094. She was detained by Russian officials last February, for allegedly attempting to enter the country with vape cartridges containing hashish oil, days after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.
“The conversation around inequity in sport is so deep and so multilayered,” says Muhammad. “I have a very unique experience living at the intersection of faith and gender and also race. Title IX specifically addresses discrimination on the basis of sex. But when we look at Brittney Griner’s situation, there’s a lot more than just gender inequity. The WNBA is predominantly a Black league. We all have to learn the history of why this even exists, how long it took these different entities like the NCAA to really get behind women’s sports. We’re in 2022 and I don’t know if there was real meaningful effort until the ‘90s. So it hasn’t been that long. I still think we have a long way to go.”
The series features Interviews with Title IX and college basketball trailblazers including Margaret Dunkle, the activist who created and implemented Title IX; 1996 women’s Olympic basketball and Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer; 2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson; Big East Conference commissioner Val Ackerman, and former Notre Dame head coach (and two-time NCAA Champion) Muffet McGraw.
“We have to understand the history of Title IX and understand the real efforts that these women made,” adds Muhammad. “I hope that people feel empowered when they finish listening to this podcast. I hope they feel motivated to support women in sport, whether that’s your local soccer team, your favorite WNBA team or your favorite snowboarder. When you look at athletes, there’s no difference in how much any of us are putting in based on gender. We’re all working just as hard to achieve. So why not support and show up for each of us in the same way?”