Searching for context behind who is and isn't canceling their college basketball season, and why

Over the last 22 days, once every 88 hours a DI woman's basketball program has canceled the rest of its season, on average

On Wednesday, South Carolina State’s women’s basketball team canceled the remainder of its season due to health and safety concerns, then Canisius did the same on Thursday, as they became the eighth and ninth Division I women’s basketball programs to do so this season, joining Duke, SMU, Dixie State, Virginia, San Jose State, Vanderbilt and Vermont. Cal State Northridge, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman, plus the Ivy League, previously opted not to play women’s basketball this season, prior to the first day of competition on Nov. 25.

Similar to Vanderbilt, the official announcements from South Carolina State and Canisius included injuries as a contributing factor in their decisions. “The decision was made after the team was plagued with injuries, leaving the Lady Bulldogs player roster depleted,” South Carolina State’s press release stated.

"When we lost that last player to fall to seven kids, it just seemed like that was really the last straw for everybody,” Vanderbilt coach Stephanie White recently told the Daily Herald.

The announcements from Duke, SMU, South Carolina State, Vanderbilt and Vermont made it clear the decision was made by the players. Canisius described its decision as “collective” between players, coaches and administrators. Virginia offered a succinct, 25-word, one-sentence announcement.

Duke coach Kara Lawson, SMU’s Travis Mays, Vermont’s Alisa Kresge and Virginia’s Tina Thompson each declined an interview request for this newsletter through a spokesperson.

Starting on Jan. 14, when Virginia and San Jose State made their season-ending announcements, six DI women’s basketball teams have ended their seasons early in the last 22 days, which is roughly 1.7 percent of the sport and an average of one canceled season every 88 hours, in an admittedly limited, but growing, sample size.

Since the Chicago State men’s basketball program ended its season in December, the longest stretch without a cancellation has been nine days.

“It is interesting how the men’s teams have gotten a lot more attention than some of the women’s teams that have chosen not to play,” said Dr. Kate Lavelle, who’s an associate professor in Communication Studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and whose research program focuses on the representation of race, gender and nationality in sports. “It’s been kind of a loss of conversation about why they are choosing not to play.”

With about five weeks remaining in college basketball’s regular season, and using the college football season as a guide after many programs forewent bowl opportunities, there’s a chance the number of college basketball teams that choose to end their season early could continue to increase, and potentially at an increasing rate, too.

This week, the Albuquerque Journal reported that New Mexico’s men’s basketball program could potentially end its season early, as “It also remains unclear when the Lobos (5-11, 1-11 Mountain West Conference) might again have enough players to resume play this season, if at all.” While Chicago State’s men’s basketball team was the first DI men’s or women’s basketball program to end its season – back on Dec. 23 – after deciding to play, every program that has since reached the same conclusion has been a women’s program.

It raises questions that are worth asking and worth attempting to answer, such as, are the wage disparities in the NBA and WNBA, and other professional basketball leagues, reflected in the increasing number of women’s basketball teams that are choosing to end their seasons, while only one men’s program has canceled its season after choosing to play?

Has the sheer magnitude of the revenue and publicity from the men’s NCAA tournament minimized the number of programs that have opted out? Could the number of women’s teams that have opted out potentially impact the structure or composition of the women’s NCAA tournament?

Could the canceled seasons potentially lead to Title IX or even reverse discrimination lawsuits?

The last time there was a men’s NCAA tournament, Duke was the No. 1 overall seed and Virginia won the tournament. This season, Duke and Virginia’s women’s basketball programs played a combined three conference games before ending their seasons.

It’s worth analyzing the societal, cultural and financial factors that have potentially led to this increasing disparity in terms of which programs have decided the season is no longer worth playing.

The intersection of sports, identity and potential professional opportunities

“I think the fact that there are so many women’s basketball programs that have opted out is illustrative of the difference between men’s and women’s basketball,” said Barbara Osborne, an adjunct professor of law at the University of North Carolina, where her teaching and research interests include sport law, legal issues in college athletics, and discrimination and sport, “in the sense that what other research shows is that female athletes in general tend to identify themselves as multi-dimensional. They’re an athlete but also a student, and they’re also a sister or a friend, or this or a that, you know, whatever, whereas male athletes tend to identify themselves as ‘athletes.’ They’re still many other things but they identify themselves as athletes and so it could be that women’s programs are opting out because women are looking at themselves and their total identity and saying, ‘Is all of this worth the risk of playing this season, especially since I have eligibility for another year?’”

“I think there are tons of different factors that could be playing into it,” said Katie Lever, a former cross country and track and field athlete at Western Kentucky, who now studies NCAA rhetoric as a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas.

“I don’t know how much gender plays into it,” Lever said, but she also said she could relate to the idea that she was competing for more than herself. “I do know when I was an athlete, I definitely felt like I was not just competing for me. I’m a third-generation Hilltopper athlete and so I felt like I’m doing this for my family or I’m doing this for my team. My coaches actually got really good at kind of manipulating that mindset into me because when I got injured, they started saying like, ‘Oh, Katie, you have to push through this injury for the team. Don’t be selfish,’ and I really bought into that.”

Lever wonders if, in another form of potential external influence from coaches or administrators, there’s pressure on men’s programs to finish the basketball season for financial reasons. “I remember over the summer, the University of Wisconsin, the athletic department, tweeted out this big press release about how Wisconsin was going to lose like $100 million or something like that if football didn’t happen,” she said. “I do wonder if there’s any kind of internal pressure from the athletic departments that maybe women’s teams aren’t experiencing as much.”

Osborne, the University of North Carolina professor, said she believes most athletic department administrators are operating with athletes’ health and safety in mind, but she can’t say the same for all of the coaches.

“Having been a former college athletics administrator, I can honestly say that I think more of the people on the administration side are really looking at it from a health, safety, welfare perspective more than a ‘What are we going to do about our budget? We have to play in order to make money’ sort of thing,” Osborne said. “Now, coaches, totally different story. I’ve been honestly horrified by some of the statements coaches have made about ‘They have to play,’ ‘these boys want to play,’ ‘we need to play,’ ‘the country needs us to play’ kind of mentality. And I think that probably also goes to whatever type of mentality the leadership has relative to what they believe about the virus in the first place. Because that plays into it as well.”

There’s potentially some combination of a push and a pull going on in men’s basketball, with schools pushing to the finish line to get a share of the nine-figure NCAA tournament revenue, as well as the potential pull felt by athletes themselves to be able to profit through future professional contracts.

“Male athletes, especially in Division I basketball, if their primary motivation is to go pro, I would say that they are less inclined to be willing to take a pause,” Osborne said, “whereas even female athletes that desire to go pro, the money that’s being thrown at them is not nearly as much as the money that’s thrown at men when they get to the NBA. So female athletes may just be taking a much more balanced approach to it, whereas male athletes are more sports-identity, pro-athlete driven in their decision-making.”

For the 2020-21 season, the minimum salary for an NBA player with zero years of experience in the NBA is $898,310. In the WNBA, the minimum salary under the new CBA is $57,000, which, while dwarfed by the minimum salary in the NBA, is actually a notable percentage increase compared to the previous league minimum of $41,965 for players with two years of experience or fewer.

One league-minimum salary for an NBA player with no experience in the NBA could fund 1.3 rosters’ worth of WNBA players if each player is in the bottom bracket of WNBA experience and makes the league minimum.

“Even though more players are leaving early than they were because the pay is better with the [new] WNBA CBA, there’s still not as much focus on them as ‘you’re going to go and make millions of dollars at 19, 20 years old,’” said Lavelle, the professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “WNBA players can go overseas and make a lot more money, but then you’re playing two seasons, so that’s how Breanna Stewart got hurt a couple of years ago, was in her EuroLeague game. She missed an entire year of basketball and then had to pay for her own rehab, so I can’t even imagine – I won’t say it – but if that’s LeBron James, which I hope it is not, the Lakers are going to pay for that treatment and at the time, there was just not that support for the women’s players.”

Will the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments have the same format?

The NCAA announced on Nov. 16 that it was in preliminary talks with the state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis to host the entire, 68-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The announcement for the women’s NCAA tournament – one that said the NCAA was in preliminary talks to hold the 64-team tournament in San Antonio – didn’t come until Dec. 14, nearly a month after the men’s announcement.

“I’ve actually noticed that too,” Lever said. “They’re saying the quiet part out loud, it’s like women are almost an afterthought in this situation. It’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to take care of the men’ and then ‘Oh yeah, we have women athletes as well.’ And that’s honestly just something that I noticed a lot of – just being a female athlete in college – even the descriptor ‘female athlete,’ it’s like when you think ‘athlete’ you automatically think ‘male.’”

On Jan. 4, the NCAA announced “further details” for the men’s NCAA tournament, which was followed two days later by an announcement about health and safety protocols for the men’s tournament. On Jan. 15, the NCAA announced new bracketing principles for the men’s tournament.

And it wasn’t until Jan. 19 that the NCAA finally “provided several planning updates for the 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship.”

“It seems like women are almost an afterthought,” Lever said, “and it’s not just in press coverage either, if you look at the NCAA’s financial research, it shows that women receive much less scholarship funding, recruiting dollars, marketing dollars and so that attitude just permeates college sports and professional sports.”

In a story that Chantel Jennings reported for The Athletic in late January, she surveyed four athletic directors, four women’s basketball head coaches and four assistant coaches, granting each of them anonymity in exchange for their honest evaluation of the basketball season. The NCAA had recently confirmed that a 64-team bracket “will be in play for the 2021 championship” in March and April, and Jennings asked the athletic directors and coaches if they believe there will actually be a tournament, and if so, how many teams they think will be invited.

One coach from the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC said he or she thinks it should be a 16-team tournament field this season for safety reasons. An assistant coach from one of those leagues said he or she thinks it’ll be a 32 or 64-team field. Another head coach from one of those six conferences said he or she wouldn’t be shocked if it’s a 32-team tournament.

Another assistant told Jennings, “I’m hoping for one, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we did not have one.”

Several ADs and coaches said they expected there to be a 64-team tournament. An athletic director at a mid-major university said he or she expects there to be a 64-team NCAA tournament, “only because the optics of it are terrible otherwise.”

If there was, say, a 32 or 16-team women’s tournament and a 68-team men’s tournament, then there would likely be cries that this hypothetical decision would be a violation of Title IX.

Except it wouldn’t be.

The NCAA’s member institutions have to abide by Title IX, but the NCAA itself doesn’t have to because it’s not an educational institution that receives federal funding.

“If the postseason tournament eliminates a bunch of teams – you know, you don’t have the full tournament, you have an abbreviated tournament – then teams that might have made that tournament could claim a Title IX problem,” Osborne said, “but the NCAA does not have to comply with Title IX because the NCAA is not an educational institution. It’s the educational institution that has to provide equitable opportunities, so people might file Title IX lawsuits against the NCAA but those who have in the past have lost because the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA does not need meet the criteria to have to comply with Title IX, even though all of their members do.”

Out of Bounds submitted a media request to the NCAA, asking if there’s any circumstance in which the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments would have different formats other than their currently scheduled 68 and 64-team brackets, respectively – while ignoring potential changes due to positive tests once the tournaments start – but the NCAA has not responded at the time of publishing.

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Speaking of Title IX, let’s talk about potential reverse discrimination lawsuits

“People forget that Title IX works both ways,” Osborne said, “that it protects that you can’t discriminate on the basis of sex, which means that it protects men from being treated differently than women, as well as women from being treated differently from men.”

Historically, reverse discrimination lawsuits in college athletics have been filed after a men’s athletic program has been cut, Osborne said, but the schools aren’t usually Title IX compliant, as far as participation opportunities, so the plaintiffs lose their case.

But – theoretically – there could be a reverse discrimination lawsuit if members of a men’s athletic program believe they were not granted the same opportunity as a woman’s team to opt out this season.

“This would not go to a participation opportunities aspect, this would go to the equal treatment aspect of Title IX, where the analysis is you look at the benefits and treatment of the athletes and are the men getting the same thing as the women and are the women getting the same thing as the men?” Osborne said. “Because this isn’t really about participation opportunities. You’re all on a team, your team hasn’t been cut, so there is no precedent on the reverse discrimination from an equal treatment perspective but going through the equal treatment analysis, it would be really easy to see how they could win.”

While many of the announcements regarding canceled women’s basketball seasons have made it clear that it was the players’ decision to call off the rest of the season, there’s also the possibility that a women’s basketball player could file a Title IX lawsuit against her school if she believed she didn’t have a say. “If it’s possible that a women’s team might feel like they didn’t really have the choice to opt out, that they were being pushed out,” Osborne said. “That’s definitely a Title IX problem.”

A conversation with Osborne circled back to a few common refrains. “This is all total speculation,” she said, in the context of a hypothetical undue influence case. “None of this has ever happened.”

“Because although there have been global pandemics before, we’ve never experienced them in the age of big-time college athletics, that’s for sure.”

Another point she made is that schools could be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Cancel an athletic program’s season? You potentially get sued.

Continue playing and risk a potential negligence or undue influence case? You potentially get sued.

“I think that the industry goes to that potential for undue influence,” Osborne said, “that schools are like, ‘We need this revenue’ or the NCAA is saying, ‘We’re still running this tournament.’ But on the flip side you have athletes and their parents suing conferences, suing schools that choose not to participate because they want their kids to participate.

“So there’s the potential for litigation on both,” Osborne said, laughing, “whether you do or whether you don’t.”

Could more teams choose to end their seasons early?

At the end of the 2020 college football season, more than 20 FBS programs declined potential bowl opportunities, and even with definitions of success that were adjusted for 2020, the teams that declined to play in the postseason weren’t all afterthoughts. USC opted out of a bowl game, finishing the year with a 5-1 record and a No. 17 ranking in the final AP poll.

Those decisions could prove to be instructive for every other college sport that’s played during the pandemic. Teams – some high-profile ones, too – declined potential bowl bids and everything that comes with them – the free swag and gifts for the players, the travel to what’s often a warm-weather location and high-profile, non-conference matchups after a regular season that was generally devoid of them.

The bar was set by teams with winning records, proud traditions and maybe even a ranking next to their name deciding not to compete in a postseason that, for them, wouldn’t involve a chance to win a national championship.

The women’s basketball programs that have ended their seasons early had a combined 15-36 record this season, including a combined 5-18 mark in conference play.

Only Vermont (4-2) and Duke (3-1) had a winning record.

Despite the differences among many of the programs that have canceled their seasons, such as conference affiliation and location, one of the common threads among them is that many were predicted to finish near the bottom of their respective conferences. However, in a very basic sense, if the purpose of a sport’s regular season is to compete for a spot in the sport’s postseason, and if Power 5 college football programs have already set the precedent of athletic programs opting out of postseason opportunities, then we shouldn’t be surprised if some athletic programs, especially those plagued by injuries, multiple pauses due to COVID-19 and some early losses, choose to cut out the middleman – the regular season.

That goes for any college sport in any division, but right now in the sports calendar, as March Madness approaches, the focus is obviously on college basketball and those who play it.

“I think there was a lot of attention [on mental health] at the beginning,” Lavelle said. “There’s a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and all of that information found that collegiate athletes, youth athletes, were just [experiencing] higher levels of depression, anxiety because they were separated, but now it becomes an interesting question that ‘OK, you have sports back but at what cost?’ You can play basketball but you can’t physically interact with teammates or opponents. You’re playing in empty gyms and you’re going on road trips but you’re not doing anything, and so it’s an interesting question about the stress and strain of playing right now versus not playing at all, that I think it’s going to be a while until we really know what that looks like.”

What it looks like, in the moment, is that midway through the 11th week of the college basketball season, one DI men’s basketball program and nine women’s programs that started playing this season have since called it off, and the latter number is growing by the week, if not by the day.

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Recap of the last newsletter

(Click the image below to read)

“There’s a host of reasons why boosters could be turned off right now – or why they could be rallied in the face of budget cuts, furloughs, and postponed and canceled games and seasons. Boosters who throw their weight around, especially in college football, have existed since the dawn of the sport, but the pandemic has brought to the forefront even more reasons and even more urgency for schools and donors to try to leverage the latter’s ability to write checks to the former.”

Read the full newsletter here.


Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.