SBJ/August 13 - 19, 2001/Opinion

WNBA goes to the head of the class

After months of research, the most dramatic conclusion emerging from the 2001 Racial and Gender Report Card is this: When women play sport among men, they do better than men at achieving racial and gender equity in hiring practices.

The WNBA came out as sports' best for both race and gender measurements after the NBA had been on top for 11 straight years. The WNBA also became the first league to get A's in both race and gender.

Growing out of the popularity of women's basketball in particular and women's sport in general, the WNBA was launched five years ago with the NBA's marketing engine behind it. It vaporized the rival women's American Basketball League, which had started a year earlier, by drawing bigger-than-expected crowds and getting a TV package.

I sat in the crowd at the WNBA All-Star game in Orlando on July 16 knowing that the WNBA would be on top of other leagues and sports organizations in the Racial and Gender Report Card, which I have authored or co-authored for 12 years. In the leadup to the game, The Orlando Sentinel gave extensive coverage. A significant portion was about whether or not the WNBA will survive.

Postgame coverage was as much about whether the game was really a sellout as about the game itself. I have been at many a sporting event in my 56 years when the announced crowd was nothing like the actual one, but I rarely read about it the next day. Judging by the in-house reaction, the fans were simply ecstatic to be there watching the best women players in the world go head-to-head.

The WNBA may not be filling the stands the way the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball do. Neither did those leagues at similar stages of their own development.

Nonetheless, the success that WNBA President Val Ackerman has had in encouraging the team and league office to hire the best people available to run the league and the teams should give lessons to other sports. Ackerman has made it clear that representation of women and people of color in decision-making roles is critical to the success of the league. It is not a moral imperative but a business imperative in our diverse nation.

Before becoming WNBA president, Ackerman was a senior official in the NBA, where such values have been part of the culture since David Stern took over in 1983. I suspect that Stern was not too chagrined that the NBA has been dislodged by the WNBA as the best sports organization on issues of race and gender.

Among the men's professional leagues, the NBA still earned the highest grade in virtually every major category, as it has for all 12 years of the publication of the Racial and Gender Report Card. The NBA got a solid A in race and a B- in gender. No other men's league achieved those grades in either category.

There was a huge gap between the combined grades of the WNBA and the NBA (93 and 85, respectively) and the next best, which was college sport at 77. The rest of the sports covered were bunched between 72 and 75, with the NFL on the bottom of the list. In most cases, it was the grade for gender that dropped the averages of these men's leagues.

The National Football League earned a B for race for the second time. The NFL received the lowest D grade for gender, behind the other pro leagues, colleges and the Olympics in this area. Major League Baseball received a B for race and a D+ for gender.

The National Hockey League earned a C- for race and was second to the NBA among the men's pro leagues regarding gender with a C+. Major League Soccer received a B+ for race and a D for gender. Colleges showed the most improvement, moving from C's in race and gender to C+ in both.

The U.S. Olympic Committee received a C+ for race and a C for gender. The national governing bodies of the USOC received a C+ for race and a C- for gender.

Perhaps the best news on racial hiring practices was that there are now 20 head coaches or managers of color in the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball. This is nearly 45 percent higher for what is arguably sports' most visible position than the previous best among the big three sports.

In the WNBA, there were three African-American head coaches and seven women. There was an all-time high for Division I men's basketball coaches of color (22 percent) but a decline for I-A football head coaches of color to less than 5 percent. The percentage of women in head coaching positions dropped in the combined programs in Divisions I, II and III while the ranks of people of color as coaches in general gained in all three divisions.

As far as players go, the biggest story continues to be the internationalization of American sport. There was an all-time high of international athletes in the NBA (11 percent), the NHL (30 percent), Major League Soccer (25 percent), Major League Baseball (19 percent) and in the WNBA (27 percent). This was also true of Division I college sport in general for both men and women. The NFL was the only exception.

While increases of African-American players, especially in the NBA and NFL, were noted, such percentages have been generally declining for more than a decade. The same is true for white players. The percentage of African-American players decreased in the period covered in Major League Soccer, the WNBA and in college sport for men and women. It was at a record 30-year low in Major League Baseball.

At the same time, the percentage of Latinos continued to rise dramatically in Major League Baseball (26 percent, an all-time high), in Major League Soccer and in Division I baseball. Women student-athletes reached an all-time high of nearly 41 percent.

Contrary to what is a widely held public perception, sport in no longer a black-white issue. And as the success of the WNBA in this area proves, it is no longer about men.

Richard E. Lapchick has accepted an endowed chair at the University of Central Florida where he will direct the new DeVos Sports Business Management program in the College of Business Administration.

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