November 23, 2022
Column: NCAA chooses Final Four sites without regard to choice
How abortion doesn't figure into NCAA Final Four news
No one — well almost no one — was happier than I was to see the choice of Portland for the 2030 Women’s Final Four on Monday. The Final Four hasn’t been contested on the West Coast since 1999.
Yup, 1999, the year Prince wanted to throw a party. A long long time ago.
Phoenix will go first in 2026, less west coast than west of the Rockies. But a step in the right (or west) direction.
Or at least it was until Arizona joined the long list of states attempting to remove a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Abortion is still legal in Arizona for now, but a lack of legal clarity is already having a chilling effect on medical practitioners and women seeking care.
The Women’s Final Four is one of the highest-profile women’s events in the country every year. It draws national television and media coverage. It draws tens of thousands of fans supportive of young female athletes. It draws leaders from the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, and often governors and congresspeople, and one year, back in the day, the then-Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden.
It is an annual billboard for female strength and skill. A showcase of empowerment and accomplishment. And, to put a fine point on it, it doesn’t belong in a place where a woman doesn’t have basic rights.
But the NCAA, despite hearing that message loud and clear, doesn’t seem to have any intent to change its current course.
In addition to announcing the Portland Final Four, the NCAA announced that it will also be returning to Columbus, Indianapolis, San Antonio and Dallas – all previous host sites. All in states that restrict or ban a woman’s right to end a pregnancy.
I’ve covered Final Fours in all of these cities. Nice places. Good food. They throw a nice party and a good tournament. They are also places where women’s bodily autonomy is being denied and that should be enough to deny them the right to host.
But it won’t be, because the NCAA has already shown that it is unprepared – and perhaps even unwilling – to deal with the issue of abortion following the Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court in June.
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There have been questions for months about how schools will handle situations with female student-athletes should they become pregnant in states with restrictions and bans.
Just last month at Pac-12 media day, I asked Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff whether he had received any guidance from the NCAA on the issue.
His response was pointed: “I haven’t had a single conversation with the NCAA about that.”
No question, this is complicated for the NCAA. It’s difficult to issue blanket recommendations when each state is in a different situation. Hard to put the realities of the lack of support many schools will be able to provide its athletes into writing and understand how those realities might impact a school’s ability to recruit.
But this is the world that’s been imposed on us now. A situation that women don’t have the luxury to ignore or push off in a hope that a better answer might be coming down the line.
Someone asked me via Twitter today how the issue of the location of the Final Four is different than the location of regular-season games. The difference is that student-athletes will have the opportunity to make informed decisions about where they decide when they go to school to play. I hope they will, but as it should be, that will be up to them. It is their educational autonomy, and the athletes have more of it than ever.
Athletes who have made a conscious decision not to go to college in a state where their rights are restricted, have no choice about the setting in which they will play some of the pinnacle games of their careers. It’s a lousy position to be in.
It should be acknowledged that for the NCAA moving Final Fours isn’t a small thing, not as nearly as simple as just picking another city in another state. Final Fours usually take years to plan for the cities that host. Not every city wants to bid. Not every city has enough hotel rooms or facilities to host such a large days-long event. The pool is always limited to begin with.
But just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking into, or even acknowledging that some of its tournament locations are no longer palatable to many, and there’s no evidence right now that the NCAA has intention to do either of those things.
The NCAA could hold a panel discussion or an event to support a local women’s health care center. They could issue a statement. They could, I don’t know, use the occasion to issue guidance to schools about how to help student athletes who find themselves in a difficult situation.
The NCAA has an opportunity to make a statement to its athletes, its fans, and the states that treat their women as second-class citizens. To do something hard to show just how important it is.
The NCAA has a choice. Too many women don’t.
We will be in Dallas in April for the 2023 Final Four. Some people are going to be really unhappy about it. The ball will go up and people will be there to support some extraordinary young women. Which, I suppose, is the point. But the backdrop won’t be lost on many. I hope that includes the NCAA.
Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.