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Volume 21 No. 33
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Is the game changing? Women as decision-makers in sports

The holding of the Game Changers Conference always stimulates important discussions about the continuing disparities between men and women and their access to opportunity in the sports world.

As people gathered in New York for this year’s conference last week, they did so at a time when it’s been a year of great breakthroughs for women in sports:

Sarah Thomas is the first NFL female referee.

Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman will be assistant coaches for the San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings, respectively, in the 2015-16 NBA season.

Jen Welter was a training camp and preseason coach for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.

The power of Michele Roberts as the National Basketball Players Association executive director has grown.

Katrina Adams is the first African-American president of the U.S. Tennis Association, where she is also the chairman of the board and CEO.

And that’s not all. The TV ratings for the Women’s World Cup were record-breaking for both women’s and men’s soccer, and Serena Williams’ quest for the Grand Slam in tennis drew record attention to that sport. The final round of the Women’s College World Series in softball drew more viewers on ESPN than the final round of the men’s College World Series. Jessica Mendoza got high praise for her debut in ESPN’s regular rotation of baseball
Spurs assistant Becky Hammon and NFL referee Sarah Thomas (top) are among the women making strides in male-dominated sports.
game analysts. Stephanie Ready will become the first full-time local NBA game analyst and color commentator in 2015-16 when she takes the air for the Charlotte Hornets. Beth Mowins became the first woman in 28 years to call NFL games when she joined the Oakland Raiders’ broadcast team in August.

In addition, women in professional positions at the men’s professional league offices are doing quite well, with 40.9 percent (A+) at the NBA, 37.4 percent (A-) at MLS, 30.3 percent (B-) at the NFL and 29.4 percent (B-) at MLB.
Lest we get heady with the good news, though, let’s also recall the following realities:

At the college level, more than 60 percent of women’s teams across all three divisions have men as head coaches. Additionally, more than 50 percent of the assistant coaches of women’s teams across all three divisions are coached by men.

Of the 32 Division I conferences, excluding the historically black conferences, there is only one woman of color as a conference commissioner. Among any of the power conferences, there has never been a woman commissioner.

There is a serious paucity of women in leadership positions on teams in men’s leagues, as shown in the most recent racial and gender report cards. Out of the 112 men’s professional franchises in the NBA, NFL, MLS and Major League Baseball, there are only four women — all in the NBA — as team presidents or CEOs.

MLB, the NBA and MLS got Fs as their gender grade for vice presidents at the team level, with each having less than 20 percent of team vice presidents being women. The NFL did slightly better with a D at 22.9 percent.

The gender grade for women in team senior administrative positions in those leagues was a C for MLB, C- for the NBA, D for the NFL and F for MLS, with no league having more than 27 percent of its team senior administrators being women.

The NBA had the highest gender grade for women in professional positions on the teams with a B+, followed by a B for the NFL, C+ for MLB and C- for MLS. In the NBA, 36 percent of the positions were held by women, while the other men’s leagues were all below 30 percent.

It seems as if there is almost no thought for women as general managers and head coaches and just barely as assistant coaches, with only three in recent history.

There is also a disparity between women athletes who are people of color and women athletes who are not. Recently, the coverage of the dominance of Williams has many referring to her as arguably the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. Some of the stories focused on her record as being far superior to that of Maria Sharapova, who nonetheless makes $8 million more a year than Williams in endorsements.

Then there was the mild coverage of Coco Vandeweghe smashing her racket during a match at the U.S. Open. As that story unfolded, I thought of the extensive criticism of Williams whenever she has gone off the traditional tennis script and been outspoken or transgressed tennis etiquette.

But here is a sign of hope. Robert Gulliver, the executive vice president for human resources at the NFL, recently told me that he now asks the following question: “I have a 14-year-old daughter who is a fanatical football fan. When she is old enough and has garnered the experience and skills, will she be able to successfully apply to become a general manager on an NFL team?”

Many people argue that the progress on really implementing Title IX was propelled in the 1980s and ’90s, when fathers of young girls who wanted to play sports joined their moms as advocates. I hope that Gulliver may be at the forefront of something big.

Richard E. Lapchick ( is the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, which annually publishes racial and gender report cards on MLB, the NBA and WNBA, NFL, MLS, college sports, and the APSE. He is also chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick.