2021 NCAA Basketball Tournaments: It’s time to stop making men the default

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As someone who has the joy of writing almost exclusively about women’s sports, you may be surprised to learn one of my favorite words.

Men’s.

This word – just four letters and one apostrophe – has the ability to make stories more accurate and inclusive.

[RELATED: Not just the weight rooms: disparities at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament]

Any yet, many sports writers choose to omit it from their own stories, forcing me to fill it in with my own internal red pen. These ‘red pen moments‘ become especially common every March, when the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments get underway. Just yesterday, I read an Associated Press story that – without making any reference to men’s basketball – explained how “Drexel is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years.”

I imagine the conversation I’d like to have with the author of that story.

I’m confused. I thought that Drexel’s women’s basketball team qualified in 2009. 

Oh, you were talking about the men’s tournament?

Then why didn’t you write that?

But I already know why. These writers are used to men’s sports – known to them as just “sports” – being the norm.

The absence of the word “men’s” also represents a lie: that men’s college basketball is inherently more popular than women’s college basketball.

While I won’t argue the fact that men’s college basketball is currently more popular than women’s, there is nothing inherent about it.

Instead, the centering of men’s basketball as the norm is the result of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions to prioritize, promote, and invest in men’s basketball. Over time, these decisions have become self-fulfilling prophecies. A study of the 2014 NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments found that – for every story local affiliate stations aired about the women’s tournament – there were 13 stories about the men’s. Audiences are told that the men’s games are worth tuning into, and so they tune in.

It is especially disappointing that the NCAA perpetuates the normalization of men’s basketball, from the branding of the tournaments to the official logos, which feel like the gender bias edition of the “Spot the Difference!” pictures handed out to children on restaurant placemats.

The official logos of the 2021 NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Basketball tournaments

And next month, after successfully negotiating its way through the 68-team bracket, the winner of the men’s tournament will hoist a trophy. Want to take a guess at what word won’t be on it?

Why does the NCAA choose to omit the word “men’s” from the official logo and winner’s trophy? It certainly can’t be a space constraint given that the word “women’s” includes two additional letters and yet still manages to find its way onto all of the branded materials. Does the NCAA think the inclusion of the word “men’s” would cause fans to suddenly become less interested in men’s basketball? Somehow, I don’t think so.

What I do know: if your logos are biased, your tournaments are biased. If your hashtags are biased, your coverage is biased. If your headlines are biased, your articles are biased.

While decades of biased coverage won’t be undone overnight, there is good news. There is an easy, no-cost choice that all sports writers and social media gurus can make whenever they write a story about men’s sports.

It’s four letters and one apostrophe. You can even feel free to copy and paste it from this very story to save yourself a bit of time. Men’s. 

It’s a beautiful word. Use it.

[RELATED: Stanford, UConn, NC State, South Carolina are top seeds for 2021 NCAA women’s tournament]

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