Women's volleyball stakeholders ask for 'support from 40-50 administrators ... to get behind these issues and make real change' during NCAA equity review

DI women's volleyball coaches would like for Taraflex courts to always be used during the NCAA tournament, increased roster sizes at the tournament and a day off in between tournament matches

Welcome back to Out of Bounds, a free, weekly newsletter about college athletics. Feedback, tips and story ideas are always welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or you can connect with me on Twitter.

On Saturday, the 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship between No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 4 seed Texas will be broadcast at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN2, where it will likely be one of the most-watched NCAA championships of the calendar year. But despite the sport’s sizable and passionate following, leaders in the women’s volleyball community believe it might require dozens of coaches and administrators to individually provide feedback that’s unified in its messaging during the external review of the NCAA’s championships in order for the sport to reach the future they want.

What you need to know

Here are the highlights from today’s newsletter:

  • Two days before the NCAA’s official announcement that it had retained Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP (“Kaplan Hecker”) for an external equity review into the NCAA’s championships, Mid-American Conference (MAC) Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher expressed concern about the potential for a review of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament led by NCAA President Mark Emmert. Steinbrecher wrote in an email, “I wonder if it would be more appropriate for the Board of Directors/Board of Governors to take charge of this and perhaps hire a group to conduct this review?”

  • When Nebraska women’s volleyball head coach John Cook heard that there were NCAA tournament matches that were planned to be broadcast without announcers, he wrote in an email to the conference’s volleyball coaches, “Is that what volleyball deserves?” He also asked if the Big Ten, which is one of the strongest conferences nationally in women’s volleyball, needed to take a stand, regarding the concerns about the lack of broadcasters and locker rooms in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament.

  • Leaders of the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) believe “we need support from 40 - 50 administrators to get started along with student-athletes to get behind these issues and make real change” during the Kaplan Hecker review, which potentially sets the bar for what it might take for the concerns of a single sport’s stakeholders to be acknowledged in the firm’s report and then addressed by the NCAA and its membership.


‘I wonder if it would be more appropriate for the Board of Directors/Board of Governors to take charge of this’

In a previous edition of Out of Bounds, I outlined how the NCAA has defended differences in the COVID-19 testing, meal offerings and “swag bags” at the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments by comparing the expenses of the two tournaments, and how a line-item comparison, rather than a comparison based upon quality, could be a potential cause for concern for women’s basketball players, coaches and fans amid the ongoing external equity review that Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP is conducting of the NCAA’s championships.

Roberta Kaplan of Kaplan Hecker told The New York Times that the review will be “completely independent.”

We have a reputation for calling them as we see them,” she said. In March, a Division I conference commissioner and a university president who sits on two prominent NCAA boards expressed concern about the potential for a review of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament led by NCAA President Mark Emmert, according to new emails obtained by Out of Bounds through a Freedom of Information Law request.

“I understand that Dr. Emmert has released he will conduct a review of what occurred with the women’s basketball championship,” MAC Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher wrote in an email on March 23, two days before the NCAA officially announced it had retained Kaplan Hecker. “I wonder if it would be more appropriate for the Board of Directors/Board of Governors to take charge of this and perhaps hire a group to conduct this review?”

University at Buffalo President Satish Tripathi, who’s a member the NCAA Division I Board of Directors and Board of Governors, responded to Steinbrecher, “I think you are right. What would be the best approach to raise. The issue? (sic)

When contacted by Out of Bounds, Tripathi deferred comment to the NCAA through a university spokesperson.

“Perhaps ask the chair of the Board to convene a meeting to review the matter and discuss appropriate measures,” Steinbrecher wrote to Tripathi. “Would have [redacted], and [redacted] review the matter, go to executive session and move to bring in an external group to review basketball operations (and perhaps other equity issues if identified). The group to conduct the external review could be an outside firm, or could even be a group appointment by the Board that comes from the membership (commissioners, ADs, senior administrators, coaches, student-athletes, FARs, presidents).”

An NCAA spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding who was involved in selecting Kaplan Hecker, and whether an internal review – conducted by either NCAA employees or appointed individuals from its member institutions – was ever considered.

The Board of Governors didn’t appoint a group of administrators, coaches and athletes to conduct the review, as Steinbrecher suggested as an option to Tripathi, but the highest-ranking member of the Board did offer public support for Emmert on the Board’s behalf in late March. “We have confidence in Mark’s continuing leadership of the NCAA,” Georgetown University President and Chair of the Board of Governors John DeGioia told The Associated Press.

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‘Is that what volleyball deserves?’

While conference commissioners, athletic directors, senior administrators, coaches and athletes aren’t conducting the gender equity review, those stakeholders can and will be a part of the review process. However, a feeling exists among some members of the women’s volleyball community that it might require at least 40 to 50 administrators, plus current athletes, to each voice the same concerns to Kaplan Hecker in order for any significant changes to be made in the sport, according to emails obtained by Out of Bounds.

Kaplan Hecker created a website that’s dedicated to soliciting feedback during the firm’s external review. “Kaplan Hecker strongly encourages anyone with relevant information to contact us by using the below form,” the website states. “If you elect to provide your contact information, we may follow up to arrange a time to speak directly. We will carefully consider all information provided, and then address those issues and concerns as part of our review, analysis, and recommendations.”

Kaplan Hecker said it will protect the identities of individuals who wish to come forward anonymously. The online form has a box that participants can check if they would like to remain anonymous and another question asks if participants are willing to be contacted by the firm.

Just weeks after inequities were highlighted between the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, many women’s volleyball stakeholders disapproved of the resources provided to the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship – namely the lack of locker rooms and broadcasters for early-round matches. Similar to the women’s basketball tournament, the resources that were available at the women’s volleyball tournament went viral before the tournament even started.

“Rumor going around the ncaa matches will be streamed with no announcers….Is that what volleyball deserves?” Nebraska head coach John Cook wrote in an email to a Big Ten Conference administrator and the conference’s volleyball coaches earlier this month. “Along with no locker rooms or bathrooms during the matches? At least we have some taraflex floors. Does the Big 10 need to make a stand on this?”

The Big Ten produced six of the top 16 teams in the women’s volleyball tournament, including No. 1 seed Wisconsin. “If nothing else, could ESPN3 take the audio from the radio broadcasts?” Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield responded to Cook in an email.

Ohio State Deputy Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator Janine Oman responded later, “The NCAA is working with ESPN on the announcer piece,” and a Big Ten Conference assistant director for sports administration then inquired if any Big Ten programs that qualified for the NCAA tournament planned on traveling to Omaha with a radio crew. A list of answers to frequently asked questions that was provided by the NCAA to women’s volleyball sports information directors before the NCAA tournament noted that schools were not allowed to add announcers to ESPN3 coverage to cover their matches.

As I reported last month, notes taken during an NCAA Division I Council meeting in March listed “misses in communication” before “admitted misses in execution” regarding overall conclusions from the differences between the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. NCAA executives might similarly view the operational shortcomings at the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament as more of a communication issue than a procedural one.

The 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship marked the first time the entire championship has been broadcast by ESPN, but the expanded early-round coverage wasn’t planned to include broadcasters. As University of Minnesota Director of Communications Michelle Traversie wrote in an internal email before the social media firestorm, “there will be no commentators for the first two rounds of the tournament on the ESPN3 feed. Just video.”

Two days later, a flurry of broadcasters and fans responded to Big Ten Network analyst Emily Ehman’s viral tweet (shown above), offering to broadcast the matches for free.

Similarly, it was planned that locker rooms wouldn’t be available during the tournament’s early rounds. According to a copy of the 2020-21 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship participant manual, which was obtained by Out of Bounds, participating teams were told, “Locker rooms will not be available until Regional Finals and will be assigned by the NCAA Tournament Committee.” Some teams were required to advance three rounds in the NCAA tournament to earn the chance to have a locker room.

“The NCAA is working with Omaha organizing group for changing options so more to come on that,” Ohio State Senior Woman Administrator Oman wrote in an email. “There will be dedicated student athlete restrooms during the rounds with no locker room availability.”

While acknowledging the logistical challenges presented by the pandemic, Kaplan Hecker’s review should ask, if not also attempt to answer, why locker rooms and broadcast crews weren’t planned for the entire tournament. Because before the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship officially started, the NCAA was forced to simultaneously release a trio of statements. They were labeled statements on broadcast, changing rooms and flooring, respectively.

A few weeks after the DI Council’s first listed conclusion from the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments was “misses in communication,” the NCAA’s statement on the women’s volleyball tournament broadcasts started with the acknowledgement, “As in previous years, there is no requirement to produce coverage of or provide live commentary in the first and second rounds of the Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.”

‘We need support from 40 - 50 administrators to get started along with student-athletes to get behind these issues and make real change’

The day before the NCAA released statements on broadcasts, changing rooms and flooring, there was an AVCA DI Head Coaches Committee meeting, which concluded with a call to action.

“All coaches are strongly encouraged to share their input as the current climate provides a window of opportunity for coaches to act and make their voices heard,” AVCA Assistant Executive Director Jason Jones wrote in an email, which was obtained by Out of Bounds.

AVCA Executive Director Kathy DeBoer suggested six topics for coaches to offer feedback to Kaplan Hecker, regarding the women’s volleyball tournament and other legislative issues, which have been outlined below:

  1. “The DI Championships should always be played on the best surface and Taraflex courts should always be used,” Jones wrote.

  2. “Squad sizes should be increased at the championship,” Jones wrote. “Student-athletes that have trained all year shouldn’t be left at home. Women’s volleyball squad size since 2000 has gone from 13.3 to 16.6 and that growth is coming from walk-on athletes many of which fill important roles on the team.”

  3. The AVCA said the NCAA should add a day between first and second-round matches, as well as regional matches, as is typical between the national semifinals and finals. “This would allow student-athletes to have proper recovery time and allow the sport to present itself at the top level meaning giving coaches time to prepare,” Jones wrote.

  4. “Women’s volleyball gets one-third of an NCAA staff person to manage the DI Volleyball Championship,” Jones wrote. “Kristin Fasbender does an outstanding job managing the championship but also has responsibility to manage the Frozen Four and DI Beach Volleyball Championship. The DI Women’s Indoor Championship can’t have the prominence it deserves from the media with the current NCAA staffing level.”

  5. Increased access to training over the summer.

  6. A solution to the compression of the women’s volleyball preseason. “Football gets over eight weeks to train,” Jones wrote.

Illinois head coach Chris Tamas wrote in an email that, in DeBoer’s opinion, the two changes that could have the biggest impact on the sport are improvements to NCAA tournament staffing, presentation and promotion, which includes the use of Taraflex courts as the safest possible flooring, and improved summer access and timing of matches, including the elimination of both multiple games in one day and quick turnarounds in tournament play.

Coaches had requested the use of Taraflex courts for several years.

“[AVCA President and Butler University head coach] Sharon Clark emphasized volleyball coaches have a window of opportunity to make their voices heard right now,” Jones wrote. “She noted the NCAA won’t change without hearing from the membership meaning conferences and institutions. We need to move beyond comparing women’s and men’s sports. The focus needs to be on female student-athletes and their sports being respected and promoted with the potential they have to be bigger and better.

“Kathy noted we need support from 40 - 50 administrators to get started along with student-athletes to get behind these issues and make real change.”

And that’s for DI women’s volleyball, which is one of the most popular sports that will being examined as part of Kaplan Hecker’s review of all 90 NCAA championships across the Division I, Division II and Division III ranks.

From 2017 through 2019, the DI women’s volleyball championship averaged 827,000 viewers, according to annual television ratings data from Sports Media Watch, compared to the 2015-to-2019 averages of 694,000 viewers for the DI wrestling championship, 625,000 viewers for DI men’s hockey and 333,000 viewers for DI men’s lacrosse, which were compiled by Sportico. If it takes at least 40 to 50 administrators providing the same feedback to Kaplan Hecker about DI women’s volleyball in order to create change, then what will it take for stakeholders of a sport that competes at a lower division or one that has a smaller following to have their voices heard?

“Kathy D is very hopefully (sic) we can see some changes IF we are all fairly unified in messaging and what we are asking for since most of our changes are not financial in nature on our end,” Tamas wrote.

When Emmert announced that the NCAA had retained Kaplan Hecker, he noted in a statement, “As part of this effort, we are evaluating the current and previous resource allocation to each championship, so we have a clear understanding of costs, spend and revenue,” and the NCAA has cited its spending on the women’s basketball tournament in defense of the inequities compared to the men’s basketball tournament.

While most of the women’s volleyball community’s requests don’t require additional financial investment, according to the AVCA, the organization believes its coaches’ requests will require unified messaging from at least 50 administrators, plus athletes, which potentially sets the bar for the amount of organization and feedback that’s required for the concerns of an individual sport’s stakeholders to register with Kaplan Hecker and then to ultimately be addressed by the NCAA and its membership.

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“Texas Tech University System Chancellor Dr. Tedd Mitchell responded to the email the next morning, ‘Chairman - It’s been an emotional week for everyone. Chris Beard’s callous treatment of [Texas Tech University President Dr.] Lawrence [Schovanec], Kirby and [Board of Regents member] Dusty [Womble], only confirms the serious misgivings many (including me) have had about his character for quite some time. I believe our family will be better off in the long run for his departure.’”

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