Wellesley Centers for Women Discusses March Madness and Collegiate Sports

Wellesley junior Laura McGeary ’19 fights for a ball in a February 2017 game against Babson College.
Photo provided by Julia Monaco '19
March 29, 2018

This month, college basketball fans have been glued to the marquee events of the NCAA Tournament—better known as March Madness. At stake are national championships for the men’s and women’s teams.

To coincide with this season of “madness,” the Wellesley Centers for Women recently held a lunchtime seminar that explored NCAA women’s basketball and the social discrimination, policy, and bureaucratic issues that affect women in the organization. A panel of WCW researchers, including a Wellesley student-athlete, spoke at the Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center.

Laura McGeary ’19, who plays basketball for Wellesley and is a research intern at the WCW, opened the discussion with a look at the history of women’s basketball. The first organized women’s game was organized by Senda Berenson at Smith College in 1892, and was soon followed by games between Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley, she said. The teams played according to three-on-three, half-court rules, which limited the distance players had to run, said McGeary, because of the belief that “women shouldn’t overexert themselves.” 

The new sport became popular among young women, particularly in rural Iowa. In 1925, the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union organized a league with a rule book, tournaments, and coaching academies. Not until 1982, however, did women’s basketball become popular enough for the NCAA to hold its first women’s tournament.

McGeary said that today, women’s basketball is still considered less exciting than the men’s game, in part because talent is more evenly spread among teams and thus “outcomes are more predictable.” Talent in men’s basketball is unevenly dispersed, which allows for more upsets. Overall, she said, women’s basketball benefits from player development, good recruitment, good coaching, and a focus on teamwork and fundamentals.

Laura Pappano, writer-in-residence at the WCW and co-author of Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal in Sport, spoke about Title IX. “Title IX is viewed as this kind of equality-making piece of legislation, but it never demanded equality at all,” she said, pointing to the fact that women’s sports in the NCAA operate with fewer resources for athlete recruitment, travel, money, equipment, and operations.

Bridget Belgiovine, director of athletics and chair of the Department of Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics at Wellesley, said the opportunities for women to hold leadership positions on women’s sports teams has diminished since 1972, when Title IX was enacted. That year, 92 percent of head coaching positions on women’s teams were held by women and 8 percent were held by men. By 1996, the statistics were very different: About 43 percent of women’s teams’ head coaches were women and 57 percent were men. In 2016, women coached about 40 percent of the women’s teams and men coached almost 60 percent.

What’s behind that significant shift? Money. As women’s sports “have become more popular, more lucrative, and the dollars for coaches has become much more significant,” women’s access to the top coaching positions declined, said Belgiovine.

Georgia Hall, associate director of the WCW and director of its National Institute on Out-of-School Time, and Lisette DeSouza, postdoctoral research scientist at the WCW and at the institute, organized and facilitated the panel.

The program was part of the WCW Lunchtime Seminar Series, which is made possible with support from the Cowles/Sulzberger Fund, an endowed gift to the WCW.

Photo: Wellesley junior Laura McGeary ’19 fights for a ball in a February 2017 game against Babson College.