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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Making more from less

Photo by Courtesy of Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos

Guest Contributor, Jordan Burbank comments on the on the unfair treatment female athletes at the 2021 NCAA basketball tournament received, through the perspective of the Texas A&M women’s basketball team. 

Flipping through 95 pages of instructions, Tanna Burge, Texas A&M assistant athletic director for sports performance, thought the 2021 National Tournament manual could not be serious. Burge and the rest of the basketball staff knew after reading the manual and arriving at the facilities that the team would be facing extra challenges. But knowing how the Aggies had faced adversity all season long, head coach Gary Blair and his staff agreed they would not allow being affected by NCAA’s slack. Burge packed five duffel bags full of workout equipment, snacks and anything easy to take that she felt the team could use to prepare better for the tournament. Arriving at the NCAA facilities, Burge realized the manual was not lying. The team was offered a single-weight tree that only went to 25 lb. and some yoga mats.
The basketball staff said the team chose to flip their mindset, search for the positives and make more from less. This mentality took them to the Sweet 16.
Blair said focusing on the negatives of the NCAA Tournament would not be the answer to winning. Rather, he said he pushed his team to find the positives and continue the battle for one of A&M’s best seasons, on and off the court.
Blair, who has coached for 18 seasons, said no one in the arena, himself included, had ever experienced this kind of tournament.
“Whether you are 85 years old, you’re 18 to 23 or an 11-year-old who was sitting there in the audience, nobody has ever gone through this, and hopefully nobody will ever have to go through it again,” said Blair.
According to the NCAA website, Title IX has been around since 1972, yet there are still issues when it comes to the differences between men’s and women’s athletics.
No other sport in the country makes as much revenue as the men’s March Madness tournament, but Blair said whether or not they had the same equipment as the men did not matter.
“What we do for the game cannot be measured by dollars and cents,” said Blair.
Before officially competing in San Antonio, the team first had to travel and compete in Austin.
Thinking it was a joke on the team, Blair said he thought the NCAA was testing the maroon and white to see how good they were when they were sent on a two-hour bus drive to Austin.
“They bring you back to San Antonio, but, by the way, you have to win,” said Blair. “And we found a way to win.”
Learning to survive and laugh at the situation is how Blair said his team grew while at the tournament.
Blair said leadership pushed his team to a new level through the adversity of the 2020-2021 season. Blair commends Ciera Johnson, Kayla Wells, Aaliyah Wilson and N’dea Jones for their leadership.
“Our kids were resilient all year because we handled the problems, a lot of it internally, and made sure we were making the right decisions,” said Blair.
With that type of leadership, Blair said the younger players listened and were ready to follow leaders who pushed in a positive direction to learn to adapt.
Considering all of the uncertainty with COVID-19, senior Ciera Johnson said she was grateful to be on a court again, even with the adversity.
“It was pretty exciting just considering everything that’s been going on with [COVID-19],” said Johnson. “I didn’t know what to expect…actually playing a tournament this year was exciting.”
To survive and advance in the tournament is what Johnson said she and the team wanted to remain focused on, not the issue outside the court. Working on the aspects the team could control is what Johnson said helped her lead the team.
But Johnson said it was hard to focus on practice, games and other things when the NCAA had made clear the large signs of inequality, especially when it came to the weight room. Johnson said she initially thought the little weights were just for fun and were not the weight room.
However, they were not just for fun, and Johnson said the NCAA should not have let this happen in the first place.
“It is definitely not fair on our part as athletes, female athletes especially, to put in the same amount of work in the same amount of time and not get the same resources,” said Johnson.
Similarly, senior Kayla Wells said she and the team were excited for the big dance and a chance to compete for another championship after winning the SEC Conference.
But Wells said she was very disappointed by the inequality.
“It really wasn’t a surprise,” said Wells. “We always get the back end of things.”
Disappointed as the team may have been, Wells said they tried to remain positive and remember that they came to San Antonio with one goal in mind: a chance to win a second national championship.
Burge said adaptability was the new focus when the staff first read the manual.
According to the Host Operations Manual offered by the NCAA, they strive to follow their eight guiding principles. One of these principles includes student-athlete welfare, which helps administer the championship with a positive and involved student-athlete experience as its highest priority.
Considering this is what the NCAA claimed to be an example of a positive student-athlete experience at the highest level, Burge said she assumed that it would not be the best environment.
Focusing on what the men had compared to the women amid preparing for a game is what Burge said the staff did not want the players to do.
Being upset was not the solution to the issue, and Burge said that the team turned an unfair situation into a chance to have fun and still get better.
“I had them pick up cases of Powerade and use that to squat with,” said Burge. “They were like ‘load me up, put me a case of Dasani on there too!’”
Burge said her job is focused on training college athletes to perform to the best of their ability, but what they received for tournament preparation did nothing to make these athletes more prepared for the biggest stage in their career.
The NCAA released a statement saying that lack of accommodations was due to spacing, but it seemed the weight room was not the only difference between the men’s and women’s tournament.
Sheri Walters, director of Olympic sports, athletic training and physical therapy, said the men’s teams received the more expensive and more accurate Polymerase Chain Reaction Testing, or PCR, offered at their facilities. All 64 women’s teams received a rapid antigen test every day and would receive PCR testing around every fourth or fifth day of their stay, Walters said.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, rapid antigen tests were comparably cheaper to PCR tests and have a higher chance of missing an active infection.
“We would typically have one or two a day that would end up being a false positive,” Walters said. “The inconvenience of having to go through that process was kind of an issue.”
Inconveniences seemed to be a common theme in San Antonio, and A&M coaching staff said it was not just the weight room and COVID-19 testing but also when it came to feeding the athletes.
Former A&M basketball player and 2011 National Champion Sydney Carter said she has never experienced this type of disparity, even back when women’s sports were not as popular as they are now.
Athletes must eat and fuel their bodies, but Carter said the food options were a bit challenging. Additionally, Wells said there were a few meals missed because of how poor the food was.
Carter said she was shocked by the expectation that any elite athlete, man or woman, would be expected to be fine with this type of situation at the national tournament, but her players handled it like professionals.
“Our kids did a good job of not complaining and just rolling with it and understanding if I’m hungry today I can be okay with just eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or something like that because this is just the cards that I’ve been dealt,” said Carter.
Carter believes there would not have been a fuss and it would not have gained as much national attention if social media had not produced the pictures and videos of what the men were offered.
“Unfortunately, as women, we expect this and it’s just the reality of everything unfortunately for us,” Carter said.
Staying in the same hotel as Oregon, Carter said the team for the most part were experiencing everything that was posted on social media that Oregon forward Sedona Prince uploaded.
Carter said as women, this should not have to be accepted and was grateful Prince pulled out her phone to enlighten the public.
“Why do we always have to be the ones to push through adversity?” Carter said. “Guys shouldn’t have to accept it and women shouldn’t have to accept it.”
With national attention around the disparities, Carter said the Aggies exemplified what it means to do more with less, and it was never truer than when they got to the NCAA Tournament.
When the Aggies won the Iowa State game, Blair said it was an opportunity to start a positive movement for the support of female athletics.
“Everybody in the nation, from Lebron James to Gabrielle Union watched that game,” Blair said. “That was a movement for young ladies, not just for Texas A&M, but a movement in that people were believing in our product.”
Blair said he does not want his team or any female athletes to be seen as Title IX survivors, but instead as elite athletes that give their all and want to be seen.
What his team has gone through between March of 2020 and March of 2021 is what Blair said has made the team stronger and able to face all that is thrown at them. Even though the Aggies lost in the Sweet 16, Blair said he feels his team won more off the court.
“We stared adversity in the eyes and won,” Blair said. “Sometimes you don’t have to be champions to be winners.”

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