It was a conversation that needed to happen, or should I say, a conversation that needs to continue as 2021 marks the eve of Title IX’s 50th anniversary. University of Oregon player Sedona Prince’s spotlight on the disparity between weight rooms, or lack thereof, at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament seemed to be just the spark needed to light a fire and fan the gender equality flames brighter once again.
Prince’s TikTok video showing the difference between the men’s and women’s training facilities has now been viewed over 17 million times and while it was not the attention San Antonio wanted or needed during the first week of the tournament, the NCAA owned it and worked tirelessly with their partners and supporters to identify San Antonio resources and to rectify the situation overnight.
As the executive director of the San Antonio Local Organizing Committee for all of our NCAA championships, I have been a part of every Final Four in San Antonio since 2002. This has clearly been the most unique NCAA event I’ve worked on because of the pandemic and the decision reached in early February to move the entire 64-team Championship to San Antonio. It’s been an epic sprint for everyone involved to pull off a championship 16 times bigger and more complicated than ever before, and to do it in a massively condensed timeline. When we’ve hosted Final Four events in the past, we start planning and preparing at least 18 months in advance.
San Antonio jumped into action when we learned in November that this could be a real possibility. Our local organizing committee checked all the boxes from needed hotels, buses, game, and practice venues, armed with a “we will figure it out” attitude. What has transpired since then has been nothing short of remarkable and unlike any other event I’ve ever been a part of in my 22-year sports career.
With this once-in-a-lifetime, historic event behind us now, I look forward to the change that undoubtedly will come from Prince’s weight room video and her call for equity for women. We’ve already witnessed some of the response in real time with boots on the ground, working behind the scenes, because I’ve seen first-hand how San Antonio has been part of the solution. I’ve played sports my entire life, focusing on basketball and tennis in college, so I’m very familiar with gender inequity and I am dedicated and working to be part of the solution.
But there is another important story here and that story is how this community came together to make this event happen in true San Antonio fashion.
It started with our volunteer committee co-chairs, Susan Blackwood and Cyndi Taylor Krier, who have focused all their energies to be helpful in any and every way possible. Their role evolved because of the pandemic challenges we’ve all faced. The co-chairs worked intensely, texting their ideas, observations, and solutions from afar and provided an experienced, objective perspective.
One of the first, great needs was to establish a virtual team host program for all 64 teams. Enlisting friends, former coworkers, community leaders, coaches, and nonprofit and corporate representatives, we assembled an incredible team of hosts and supporters for each participating team.
We wanted to put our best San Antonio foot forward and roll out the virtual red carpet for our visiting teams. Our team hosts ran multiple errands a day fetching ice for player ice baths, and hot coffee and food for nearly all of the teams. San Antonio cascarones, piñatas, and everything in between were called in from around the city. Team hosts were assigned to one of four tournament regions and had a regional captain to call on with questions and for any support they required to get the job done.
And then there is what has taken place on the basketball courts in San Antonio. The two host institutions, the University of the Incarnate Word and the University of Texas at San Antonio, recruited volunteers to help staff the games and media operations teams. Local high school coaches and athletic directors have been shagging balls, mopping floors, and disinfecting everything in sight since the first day of practice. They have taken time off from their day jobs to be a part of this history.
Tina Camacho, head girls basketball coach at Judson Independent School District’s Veterans Memorial High School, had student-athletes she had coached playing in the tournament for Arkansas and Texas A&M, along with Stanford guard Kiana Williams, who helped lead her team to the national championship game. Camacho sat on the court with mop in hand, game after game, while soaking in the opportunity to watch her former players shine brightly on the court.
With 64 teams comes 16 times the amount of needed equipment, sponsor products, and supplies. It wasn’t easy to receive and physically move everything to the venues and hotels where it was supposed to go. The NCAA had daily requests for us to move materials, which required muscle. When the first ask came in, we rounded up three local girls high school basketball teams, and they answered the call in less than 24 hours, moving pallets of soft drinks and water to seven of the downtown team hotels.
We also called on the San Antonio Basketball Officials Association to round up local referees from all over the city to help us move equipment. They kept answering our calls, helping several times as the tournament picked up speed.
One of the most challenging NCAA requests came before teams even started arriving on March 16. At 9 p.m. on March 14, I got the call for more staff to help and stay in team hotels through the first two rounds of the tournament. We filled the request for 10 people by noon the next day, and these folks packed their bags for 10 days away from their families and friends, and headed downtown.
There are many more stories like these I could tell, but I will save them for my daughters one day, or perhaps for a book that might one day need to be written about this powerful experience. When I tell those stories and show my 9- and 5-year old girls my photo diary from this past month, I will probably show them the photo standing with Mayor Ron Nirenberg in the newly built women’s weight room. The mayor, like so many others in San Antonio, had called to offer support and ideas about how to get this critical need met and to demonstrate our city’s commitment to gender equality.
Like with so many injustices in this world, it will take a village and continued conversations to bridge the gender equity gap. For me and the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament in San Antonio, my village showed up and answered the call as I know San Antonio to always do.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you San Antonio.