Gender imbalance persists in college hoops coaching ranks

Senator Birch Bayh runs with athletes from Purdue University in the early 1970s. In 1972, Bayh introduced the Title IX legislation, a milestone for women's sports in the U.S. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Two days before tipoff of the women’s basketball NCAA championship between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Baylor Bears, a video of Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw sounding off on the gender imbalance in collegiate coaching went viral on Twitter. In succession, she railed against a broad number of issues with not only with the NCAA’s poor representation of women, but also failures in broader structures: “We’ve had a record number of women running for office and winning, and still we have 23 percent of the House and 25 percent of the Senate. I’m getting tired of the novelty of the first female governor of this state … Right now, less than 5 percent of women are CEOs in Fortune 500 companies.”

Politicians and economists alike often treat sports as a case study to prove strategies and theories, and if the professional gender gap is most evident anywhere, it is in college and professional sports. In the four major North American sports leagues—NHL, NFL, NBA and MLB—there are exactly zero head female coaches. In McGraw’s field, only 3 percent of male collegiate teams have a female head coach. The greatest indicator of the gap lies in women’s sports; just over 40 percent of women’s collegiate teams are headed by female coaches (NCAA.org, “Where Are the Women?,” 12.2017). On this alarming statistic, the Malcolm Gladwells and Charles Wheelans of the world have been silent.

In men’s sports, female coaches remain an afterthought, and the stigma runs deeper than just the high-powered jobs. In 2003, Kara Lawson was making the transition from accomplished WNBA player to coach. She asked for permission to sit in on a Sacramento Kings practice, simply to observe and learn. At the time, the Kings posed one of the only formidable threats to the early 2000’s Lakers dynasty. However, Lawson’s request was denied by the team. It took her three tries to earn access to observe Kings practice, to learn at the highest level of her sport. When she finally made it to a practice, she was invited to sit with media members, behind a one-way mirror from where she couldn’t hear a thing happening on the floor (High Post Hoops, “Kara Lawson: Sacramento Kings Called Me Distraction, Kept Me Out Of Practice,” 04.04.2017).

In the NFL, there are just three women working as full-time coaches. In the MLB, there are no coaching positions held by women. In the time since Kara Lawson was deemed too much of a “distraction” to stand on the sidelines, the NBA has become somewhat of a vanguard for women yielding the marker and whiteboard. Jenny Boucek and Nancy Lieberman occupy lead roles as assistant coaches in the NBA and as head coaches in the G-League, the NBA’s development league. Becky Hammon, a former professional basketball player, became the first woman to coach an NBA team in Summer League. She led the 2015 Spurs summer squad to the championship. Her success is notable in that it hasn’t received much notoriety at all. She’s just another coach on the bench, and a great one at that, according to her players. (Players Tribune, “Pau Gasol, An Open Letter About Female Coaches,” 05.11.2018). Last summer, she made a short list of candidates for the Milwaukee Bucks head job.

But in the area in which ostensibly the most progress would be made, the most regression has taken place.

In 1972, Title IX made it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of sex in any educational program that receives federal funding. The legislation was a landmark in women’s athletics and is constantly referenced today. However, since then, the proportion of female head coaches of women’s teams has cratered from nearly 90 percent to just over 40 percent in 2016 (NCAA.org, “Where Are the Women,” 12.2017).

Perhaps as a result of women’s sports becoming more competitive, men vied for more coaching spots. Or, as McGraw pointed out, the athletic directors that make coaching hires are around 80 percent male (McKnight Associates, “National Trends Tracing Female Employment as College Athletic Directors,” 10.11.2018).

Sport holds the privilege of escapism, a space to put aside societal issues and relish in comradery, competition and fellowship. To that end, it is an abomination to sports that the failings of society siphon opportunities for female coaches at all levels of competition. Continually using strategies and systems long outdated is a market failure. Imagine halving your hiring pool based on crude assumptions of both men and women. Whether the powers at be want to know it or not, the fans, the leagues and the market demand change.

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