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  • Writer's pictureKelly E. Middleton

The NCAA and The "Covid Excuse”

Photo Credit: Sedona Prince via Twitter

How Long Will It Take For The "Covid Excuse” For Bad Service To End After The Pandemic Is Over? As a former school superintendent with 32 years of experience in public education and author of four books on customer service, I am not surprised by much when it comes to subpar or just plain bad customer service. I know this pandemic has caused major problems for businesses. I purchased some furniture two months ago and still have not received it. “It’s Covid,” explained the furniture store manager. Is there anyone who has not heard the "Covid Excuse" this past year for bad service? In my opinion, hiding behind lines like this is a cop out companies use in order to not try their best to ensure customers' needs and expectations are met.

I devote a chapter in my book, Competing for Kids, to this concept. I call it “Don’t Do Dumb Things.” That chapter could have easily been its own book, as there were so many examples of companies not using basic common sense in their business decisions. Last week, I pulled up the tweet from Oregon’s women's basketball player Sedona Prince as I had to watch her video to see if what was being reported was actually true.

In her video, she compared the weight room facility for all the women’s basketball teams in the NCAA Tournament played in San Antonio to the men’s tournament weight room in Indianapolis. Such a video, exposing leadership’s failure to treat male and female athletes equally, can—and I believe will—change how the NCAA treats its female athletes.

“We fell short this year in what we’ve been doing to prepare in the last 60 days for 64 teams to be here in San Antonio,” said Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’S vice president of women’s basketball. In her initial statement, she mentioned limited space in the tournament bubble was a factor. Thus, due to COVID, their time was shorter to prepare, which caused this issue. The "Covid Excuse" strikes again.

I do appreciate the apology of Dan Gavitt, senior vice president of basketball for the NCAA, when he later said, “My leadership may have fallen short this time.” It would be better if he hadn't said "may have," but this level of admission is very rare in leadership. However, it came much later than Lynn Holzman’s apology and the more time passes before an apology is made, the less it weight it carries. At least he didn't blame Covid for his late acknowledgement.

From experience in public education administration, I can tell you that when I was looking into an issue, I would often find several other issues that also needed attention. This seemed to be the case for the NCAA. In addition to the weight room disparity, women's individual gifts (“swag bags”) were not considered equal to what the men’s team received and female players receive a less reliable antigen Covid test each day compared the more expensive PCR test given to the men’s team. It's no wonder that the female athletes interviewed believe the NCAA does not care about the health of female athletes. In the customer service world, perception is reality. So the perception of inequality for female athletes, after a year when equal rights were at the forefront of national conversation, is just unfathomable for me.

In the public school system we conduct Title Nine audits each year where everything is looked at, including comparing athletic programs for girls and boys. Facilities are a major part of this audit along with money spent, number of programs offered for both genders and much, much more. The results of this audit are subject to open records law and available to the public, so any disparity between programs is in plain view. I cannot imagine any scenario where my administrative team would have made any of the mistakes the NCAA made in their treatment of female athletes' basketball tournaments. My female administrative leaders would have objected very loudly, as I would have expected them to do.

In my books I always talk about planning and reflecting on your customer service practices and we always planned with a customer-service mindset. During cabinet meetings with all of my leaders we would plan for major events. I believed in encouraging discourse as we planned for worst-case scenarios that could occur during the event. My teams, which always had an equal number of women and men on them, would have asked about the gym and gifts being equal. We would have discussed Covid testing and types of tests given to both women and men. The ladies on my team would expect and demand equal treatment. As I like to say, a little more planning up front will end up saving you time and energy in the long run. How much more time will be given to this issue by the NCAA than they would have spent simply doing what should have been done in the first place?

I echo John Maxwell when he says, “everything rises and falls on leadership.” I believe you don’t just plan for customer service but that you plan for the perception of service. With regard to the NCAA debacle, leadership should have made sure the female athletes' facility was as nice if not nicer than the men’s facility. I like to walk around the facilities before a major event with the school principal —an exercise I know they did not always appreciate as I would always find something else that needed attention before an event. I would check to make sure the seating was clean, the restrooms were clean and well stocked, everything was picked up outside where our customers entered, etc. One night, right before tipoff, I had custodial staff come in because the glass backboards needed to be cleaned. What does the press room look like? Any place where customers will be, needs to be checked before an event. In this NCAA event, leadership should have flown out to inspect the facilities at both destinations. Since I believe in the power of the perception of customer service, the female athletes' gifts would have been at least equal the mens' and leadership should have pushed for the same high-quality Covid testing for both men and women. If it could not have been accomplished, there should have been an upfront press conference with explanations. In my opinion, these issues are where leadership failed to do its job.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and my leaders and I are not innocent of making mistakes. I remember walking the football field with a principal at the first home game of the year. We missed the fact there was no flag on the flagpole. When the band played the national anthem and no one could find a flag, it was quite amusing to everyone (except me!).

Mistakes are going to be made. However, a good apology and promptly fixing the problem is an expectation of most customers. Just don't make excuses—customers hate that. In my world, I ask my leaders to not blame policy—especially since we are the ones who create it—unless it’s a law. Blaming Covid and not having enough time just does not suffice as an excuse in this situation. I like to say it's really hard to apologize when we do dumb things.

In a few remarks from the coaches and players, they talked about this issue really not being about the weights or the "swag bags." They basically said they are just fed up with the attitude of the NCAA when it comes to inequality. These coaches and players understand that people may always prefer men’s basketball over women’s basketball. However, because of the Covid testing discrepancies, they now even question the commitment of the NCAA to their health and safety.

I know people do not have time to always plan for customer service and the perception of service. However, this inequity issue will now be discussed throughout the entire rest of the tournament on television and in print media. How much time will it now take the NCAA to recover from these dumb mistakes and half hearted, late apologies? The "COVID Excuse" will live well beyond the pandemic. This is one problem a vaccine cannot fix.

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