Opportunities Expand, But Women Still Facing Barriers In Sports

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Becky Hammon coached the San Antonio Spurs to victory in the NBA summer league. (Ronda Churchill/AP)
Becky Hammon coached the San Antonio Spurs to victory in the NBA summer league. (Ronda Churchill/AP)

Earlier this month Jessica Mendoza became the first female analyst to call a nationally televised Major League baseball playoff game. In August of 2014, Becky Hammon was hired by the San Antonio Spurs as the first full time female assistant coach in a U.S. professional men’s sport. Thanks to Title IX, budgets for women's college sports and salaries for the coaches have risen dramatically. Seems like a great time to be a woman with sports aspirations...or is it?

Nefertiti Walker, assistant professor of sports management at UMass Amherst, joined Bill Littlefield to discuss.

BL: It's not all good news, and I want to start there. Before Title IX, I'm told, 90% of the coaches coaching women in NCAA sports were women. Today, that figure is 40%. So as those salaries in at least some of the sports have gone up, the opportunity for women to get those jobs has gone down. 

NW: Yeah, you know the toughest part is that participation of women in sports generally speaking has gone up. And these women — they're playing sports more, they’re playing sports at a higher level, but they’re still not getting the opportunities to become leaders in these sports and become coaches and have jobs after their playing careers.

BL: And not only coaches - my understanding is there's still only one WNBA team with female ownership?

NW: Yeah, so every year the WNBA has a really good score as far as the amount of women that they employ in their organization, but if you look at who they're comparing it to, it's not a really good score. If you look outside of sports, they're not doing that well. Trying to fight against those stereotypes of, 'You see leader, you see man,' which has been very difficult for women to fight against in sports.

BL: And this is something you have studied? I mean especially with respect to women trying to get opportunities to coach men in sports?

NW: Definitely, and you know, not a lot has changed. When I started this research — gosh, 2008, when I started looking at the fact that I played college basketball, and I played pick up with guys. But there was no opportunities for me to coach on the men’s side. And if you look at Becky Hammon she’s certainly an anomaly - the fact that she’s been given that opportunity to go up through the coaching ranks, and she's done well so far. I think this summer she won the summer league for San Antonio.

BL: Right. And then when somebody like her, although there isn't anybody exactly like her right now, does well that is at least the possibility that the door swings open and more people follow and more NBA teams wake up to the fact that this is something they should try.

NW: Well, definitely. In a lot of my articles that I write, in the introduction I talk about the fact that you have — and I hate to pick on Lawrence Frank, the basketball coach who once coached at New Jersey — and I joke that he's about 5'7'', about 140 pounds, never really made it in basketball past middle school, yet he can be an NBA coach. And you have women who are 6'4'' and have much more dominant builds and they still don’t have the opportunity. They played in the Olympics, they play at very high levels, and when you look at basketball, the game is so similar as far as skill sets and court size and things like that, that you know there really aren’t a lot of reasons why women aren’t able to coach.

BL: And some of the reasons that people do give are spectacularly stupid, you know, such as, "Well they play with a smaller ball, how can they possibly understand the men’s game?"

NW: Yeah, which you know again, that's not a good reason considering most women, the most basketball that they play in their life, is usually pick-up basketball. So those are just excuses for the situation that we have and the inequities that we have in sports for women.

BL: I want to move to the opportunities players enjoy — or don’t enjoy — for a moment. You chose a career in academia instead of playing pro basketball. You had an opportunity to play in Europe as I understand it. As somebody who taught for 39 years, I gotta say if you looked at academia and saw it as a better financial deal then playing pro sports, man, pro basketball at that point must have really been low on the ladder!

NW: Oh, it was. It was. Playing as a women’s basketball player, there was not a high earning potential. And you know I think about a lot of my friends who played, both overseas as well as those who came back 10 or 12 years ago and played in the WNBA, and they still had to get other jobs. If they didn’t have other jobs they had to live at home with their parents. Generally speaking, the women’s game is trying to catch up to the years that men have had their leagues. But again, that doesn’t explain the access gap that we see. The fact that women don’t have access to these positions where they can then earn some social capital.

BL: There was a delightful photograph on the web a week or so ago of a bunch of hockey players, female hockey players, from the National Women’s Hockey League, waving their first paycheck around. It was not possible to read the numbers on those paychecks, but I have seen so many women's pro sports leagues fail in the last 23 years that I’ve been working on this show. Why is it so difficult for a women's league to make a go of it?

NW: I think there are a lot of reasons why. I think to begin, and this is something my colleague Dr. Janet Fink could talk to you about for days, is the fact that they're not shown on television a lot. If fans don’t know the stories and the names of the athletes, it’s very difficult for them to develop an attachment to that sport and that particular athlete. We know the storylines behind LeBron playing against the Miami Heat. We know that history, we get it, we understand it. So even if we don’t really care about that particular game, we can tune in enough because we know the story behind it.

Women's sports doesn’t have that. People don’t know the story behind Maya Moore - the fact that she’s just a winner. She’s won so many games at so many different levels, more than any other professional athletes. We just don’t know those stories so it’s difficult for us to really develop an attachment to it. And that comes back around to access to watching the games on television.

BL: Do you know the great Rebecca Lobo / Steve Rushin story?

NW: No I do not.

BL: Do you know Rebecca Lobo?

NW: I do.

BL: Okay. So Rebecca Lobo, when she was just starting her professional career, ran into Steve Rushin, the writer at Sports Illustrated. And she knew that Steve had written some very uncomplimentary things about women's basketball. So she went right up to him and she stands about, probably four inches taller than he, and she went right up to his face and said, "Have you ever seen a top flight women's basketball game?"  And he hemmed and hawed and then announced that no, he hadn’t. And she said, "Well come see one." And he did. And now they’re married and have four children.

NW: Well, there you go. All you need is the access. And people will fall in love with women's sports. That's a wonderful story.

This segment aired on October 24, 2015.



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