ESPN’s Flawed College Basketball “Greatest of All Time” Bracket
By mixing genders, the women were set up to fail.
Last week, on the same day the men’s March Madness tournament would have begun, ESPN unveiled a different kind of bracket. They chose 64 of the greatest college basketball players of all time, seeding the group and dividing them into the standard four regions, allowing Twitter to vote on each matchup to determine the best to ever play the game. However, there was a problem.
The general idea was fine — it allows ESPN to fill time on-air while allowing for audience participation as we stay in tournament mode despite the lack of a Big Dance and growing concerns over COVID-19. It also shakes things up a bit while everyone else is busy running simulations of potential March Madness 2020 brackets (to be fair, both ESPN BPI and Joe Lunardi are doing this too).
And while Pete Maravich, the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer who dropped over 44 points per game in his time at LSU, receiving a 13-seed practically invalidates the entire bracket (Maravich did manage to upset Ralph Sampson in the first round, although Sampson in his own right deserved a much more favorable draw), the seeding was also fine for the most part. People could certainly disagree over particulars, but hey — that’s what a bracket is for.
The real issue comes from the fact that the bracket includes both male and female players. Of course, it’s good that ESPN is willing to acknowledge the achievements of women in college basketball. However, forcing direct comparisons to men isn’t the way to do so.
Men’s and women’s college basketball are different sports, making it difficult, if not impossible to accurately judge which players are better in their respective games. It wouldn’t make sense to compare men and women in any other sport, so why do so here?
While seeming inclusive, this bracket is actually setting its female participants up to be quickly eliminated, which will be taken by some as confirmation of the inferiority of the women’s game. The bracket is intended to judge the achievements of each player during their collegiate careers, but it could easily be viewed as a question as to which player would beat the other, in which case the women are at a significant disadvantage.
Even more of a problem is that because of the greater popularity of the men’s game, viewers are likely to have watched the male players much more during their collegiate careers than the women, who many fans may have never seen play at all. Despite it not being part of the question, a male player’s NBA career likely also significantly plays into the thought process of voters.
If you can’t remember exactly how good a player was in college, which is likely considering most players in the field left school a considerable time ago, it may be easy to base your vote off of your knowledge of them as an NBA player. This once again harms the women in the bracket, contributing to upsets such as #12 Stephen Curry over #5 Maya Moore, and #13 Trae Young (who played just one college season, failing to win a tournament game) over #4 Chamique Holdsclaw, who scored over 3,000 points and led Tennessee to three championships.
Lastly, the influence of sexism cannot be discounted in any vote given to the public, particularly over the internet, where time and time again, people have proven to hold strong prejudiced beliefs against women’s basketball. All of this adds up to a bracket where women are not on an equal playing field. It would have made much more sense to eliminate all of these problems by having two separate brackets.
Let’s look more specifically at the women who made the 64-team field and their seeding. A total of 16 women are in the field, accounting for one member of every seed group (one 1-seed, one 2-seed, etc.). The exactness here suggests that ESPN specifically intended for women to take up one-fourth of the field (no less, but more importantly, no more) and be balanced in their seeding. This isn’t an attempt to create a fair bracket — it’s one designed to appease people by appearing inclusive.
If this was the way they were going to do it, they could have at least decided to give the women their own region and allow them to compete against each other. Instead, here’s what we end up with. Only two women — UConn legends Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi — made it out of the first round. They were given the women’s 1 and 2-seeds, respectively. Both then fell in their Round of 32 matchups, Stewart to Allen Iverson and Taurasi to Dwyane Wade, two more examples of NBA bias.
There is no college basketball player, either gender, more accomplished than Breanna Stewart. She won four national championships in four seasons and was awarded Most Outstanding Player of the tournament each time. Stewart was also a three-time AP Player of the Year. However, 59% of voters instead chose to put Allen Iverson through to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Greatest of All Time tournament will continue through the end of the month when the ultimate winner will be announced. But despite only being partially through the second round, it’s already a men’s only event. Perhaps it’s the way it should have been, but only because the women should have had their own bracket to begin with.
Connor Groel is a writer who studies sport management at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium, and the host of the Connor Groel Sports podcast. His book, “Sports, Technology, and Madness,” is available now. You can follow Connor on Medium, Facebook, and Twitter, and view his archives at toplevelsports.net.