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Volume 20 No. 42
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More women are changing the game as college conference commissioners

I regularly write and speak about the need for more women and people of color to get top jobs in college sport. With so much bad news — only 10.5 percent of Division I athletic directors are women and less than 40 percent of all coaches of women’s teams across all three divisions are women, it can be hard to see positive change. However, something extraordinary has been going on: the rise of women who serve as conference commissioners are among the most influential roles in college sport.

Female representation has at least doubled since 1999 in all three divisions to 26.1 percent. In Division I alone, the percentage of women has gone from 6.5 percent to 22.4 percent.

One of those women paving the way is the current commissioner of the Big East Conference, Val Ackerman. After a great playing career she became staff attorney for the NBA and later was special assistant to then-commissioner David Stern. Ackerman became the first president of the WNBA when it was founded in 1996.
 
At the Big East since 2013, she helped rebuild the conference from the ground up.

Ackerman shared with me that “the importance of mentorship in the leadership development process can’t be overstated. I was very lucky to learn at the elbows of David Stern, Russ Granik and Gary Bettman, who gave me the best imaginable preview of what the life of a commissioner entails. I’m inspired every day by my fellow female commissioners in the NCAA and hope our collective work will help pave the way for the next generation of women leaders in the sports industry.”

When she was named as the commissioner of the America East Conference, Amy Huchthausen became the first person of color to lead an NCAA Division I conference.

Now in her sixth year, she helped America East get a partnership with ESPN and launched its first digital network, AmericaEast.TV. America East became the first conference to be included as a member of the LGBT SportSafe Founders Club.

Andrea Williams became the second woman of color to lead a D-I conference when she became commissioner of the Big Sky in 2016. Whereas women as conference commissioners is a breakthrough area in leadership positions for women, Huchthausen and Williams are the only two people of color as commissioners in D-I, excluding the historically black colleges and universities.

The Ivy League’s Robin Harris is one of many women leading the way in Division I.
Photo by: NATIONAL FOOTBALL FOUNDATION / THE IVY LEAGUE
Another woman making strides in the male-dominated world of sport is Robin Harris, who took the helm of the Ivy League in 2009. Since then, she has led the charge in getting more conference games on television with the creation of the Ivy League Digital Network, through agreements with national networks, and from sponsorship agreements with well-known brands. While maintaining the high level of academic excellence the schools are known for, the league has also improved its athletics success under Harris due to the implementation of new conference championship events for a number of sports.

Prior to her current position, she had worked her way through the ranks of the NCAA. As the associate chief of staff for Division I, she provided advice and guidance to the NCAA senior leadership on topics such as academic standards, diversity, gender equality and student-athlete welfare.

Harris recognizes the impact she and other women within NCAA leadership positions make: “It has been gratifying to witness firsthand during the past 6-8 years the tremendous increase in the number of female commissioners in both football and non-football playing conferences. I hope this progress at the commissioner level — where we are also hired by presidents — extends to the hiring of more and more female athletics directors.”

Judy MacLeod is certainly inspiring others — and feels the pressure to do just that. When MacLeod was named commissioner of Conference USA two years ago, she became the first woman to lead a Football Bowl Subdivision conference. At first, she did not realize the historical significance until she received a barrage of congratulatory messages.

“When I got notes from people that I had only met once or had never met at all telling me about the impact my hiring had on them, it makes you take a step back and go, ‘Whoa,’” MacLeod told Champion Magazine. “For me, it is about doing the best job I can for our members.”

These women holding high-level positions is especially rare because college athletics has had a history of relatively poor gender hiring practices.

The fact that 60 percent of women’s teams across the three NCAA divisions are currently led by male head coaches still boggles my mind. It is the single most extraordinarily bad statistic in all the racial and gender reports each year. Not far behind is that more than 50 percent of the assistant coaches for women’s teams are men.

In 1996, 16 percent of athletic directors across all three divisions were women. More than two decades later, the percentage has only increased to 19.6 percent. And it reached that percentage mainly because 29.3 percent of the ADs in Division III are women — nearly double the percentage in D-II and triple that of D-I at 10.5 percent.

Numbers like these make the progress of women as commissioners all the more noteworthy. Female representation has at least doubled in the past 20 years in all three divisions and now stands at 26.1 percent as of 2015-16. In Division I alone, the percent of women has gone from 6.5 percent to 22.4 percent.

It has been 45 years since the passage of Title IX and we are nowhere near equity in the hiring process for women in college sport. However, with women such as Ackerman, Huchthausen, Harris, MacLeod and Williams pioneering the way and being role models for the younger generations, there may be more opportunity for women in the future.

Richard E. Lapchick (rlapchick@ucf.edu) is the chair of the DeVos Sports Business Management Graduate Program and 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. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick. Chelsea Stewart and Blair Neelands contributed to this column.