Why a Woman Coach in the NBA Matters

Becky Hammon, Assistant Coach San Antonio Spurs
Becky Hammon, Assistant Coach San Antonio Spurs

This summer an NBA team was in the news… for hiring a woman to the coaching staff.

During the first week of August 2014, the San Antonio Spurs made history when they hired 16-year WNBA San Antonio Stars veteran Becky Hammon as a full-time assistant coach for the 2014-15 season.

While there are women coaches of men, the Hammon hire matters for a number of reasons:

1.The percent of women coaches at every level of competition has declined since the passage of Title IX in 1972…despite a record number of female sport participants. Based on the data, 20% of all college athletes–male and female–are coached by women and 43.4% of females have a woman head coach. If women are not seen in a position of power or a certain career, it is less likely other females will view that job as a viable and realistic career pathway. Seeing Hammon on the Spurs sideline matters because it communicates that women can (and do!) coach men at the highest level. It communicates a career possibility, and a lucrative one at that.

2. The best team in the NBA, the 2014 Champions San Antonio Spurs and the best coach in the NBA, 2014 NBA Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich, hired a woman coach. What winners do in the most visible and popular sports matters, because winning is valued in sport culture and society. Winners get to communicate what is valued, important and relevant. Popovich’s confidence in Hammon will help quell the gurgle of naysayers who believe women can’t coach men or help “mold boys into successful men” (as was stated by a current male head college coach in a Slate.com piece). If you believe this statement, then by the same logic, men should not coach females because they have no place in molding girls into women. Therefore, all athletes should be coached by the same sex. Obviously this is false logic as we know many male coaches help their female athletes grow and develop personally and athletically, and women coaches provide the same guidance, mentoring and coaching for males. Women can coach males at any level, but are rarely given the opportunity to do so.

Scholars argue the lack of opportunity for women to coach males at the highest level is about preserving and maintaining power. If women are given the opportunity to coach men in pro sports or D-I high-profile college mens’ teams, and succeed, who benefits and who doesn’t? If women are denied the opportunity to coach males–who benefits and who doesn’t?  If women are revealed as competent coaches in a domain historically and currently dominated by males–coaching males, and recently coaching all athletes–then the existing order of power may shift, and this makes some men who benefit from that power and privilege uneasy. All athletes can benefit from a gender-balanced and diverse work force–meaning they are coached by both men and women.

3. Hammon was hired because she is qualified and competent. It wasn’t a publicity stunt. Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich stated in a release that Hammon will be an asset to his championship team. Competence matters and Popovich believes that Hammon’s knowledge and experience as a long-time veteran player and Spurs insider, will provide value to him, the coaching staff and the players. In her NBA press conference Hammon claimed she was hired because of her background, personal skills, capabilities and basketball IQ. She owned her competence.

Kudos to Becky Hammon, a coaching pioneer, as her presence at the highest level of a major men’s sport will hopefully start a national dialogue about why women coaches matter.

Related to the issue of women coaches of male athletes…

In July 2014 Doc Rivers, head coach of the NBA Los Angeles Clippers, asked Natalie Nakase to be an assistant coach for the team’s short summer league and announced she will return as the Clipper’s assistant video coordinator, a position she held last season. Nakase made her debut coaching males when she became the first female head coach in Japanese men’s professional basketball. Nakase’s goal is to be a head coach in the NBA.

In the MLB, Kim Ng is motivated, competent, experienced and poised to become a general manager. She is currently working with Joe Torre again in the MLB executive offices as Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations.

In professional men’s tennis, early in the summer of 2014 Amelie Mauresmo (2-time Grand Slam women’s tennis champion) was signed by ATP Top 10 player Andy Murray, which is in the works to become a long term arrangement.

There are other women like Hammon, Nakase, Ng and Mauresmo who want to and are competent to coach men and I hope 2014 will be the start of a trend…that competent and eager women will be considered, given a real opportunity, and hired for coaching positions, regardless of the sex of the athlete or level of competition.

To learn more about the Alliance of Women Coaches, a group dedicated to growing the number of women in the coaching profession click here.

A response to fans of the NYT “Women Who Hit Hard” piece

In a past post I critiqued the NYT Magazine “Women Who Hit Hard” piece on female professional tennis players, and argued the expose was “soft core porn that had nothing to do with tennis”. While it is a strong statement, I stand by it, even when others disagree with me including Laura Pappano of Fairgamenews.com and a blogger on After Ellen. As always I welcome dialogue about this topic, and present here a critical perspective.

Some more specific reasons based on sport media scholarship to back up my claim are below which further expand why I think this piece is particularly problematic.

Image of Kim Clijsters in NYT Magazine p 30-31, August 29, 2010

1. In sport media, scholars have used the term “ambivalence” (Duncan & Hasbrook, 1988) to describe how female athletes are routinely marginalized in the media. Ambivalence is manifest when two statements, or a picture and the text, are contradictory and conflicting. One seems positive and flattering, and the other has subtle or overt negative, sexualizing or belittling tones.  The NYT piece is classic ambivalence. The article is quite positive and includes discussion of the depth of the women’s field, the increased global audience and prize money, and how much stronger and more fit female players are today. However, the accompanying slide show and particularly the video are what make the packaged piece ambivalent.

Sam Stosur

The 2 biggest pictures, both two-page  color spreads (dare I say centerfolds?), are the most sexualizing. First, the picture of Kim Clijsters (included here) in gold dust has nothing to do with tennis. You can’t tell she is even a tennis player from looking at the picture. Second, the picture of Sam Stosur (also included here) has her playing in a nude tube top, a piece of equipment she would NEVER play a match in.

In fact last night watching the US Open, Clijsters played Stosur in the fourth round in a great match.  So last night when I was watching the match, I thought to myself “Who is Stosur? I’ve never heard of her or seen her.” So I looked her up and found out she is an accomplished Aussie player. Is wasn’t until I sat down to write this blog and looked at the pics again that I put 2 and 2 together…the woman featured in this picture and the woman I watched last night were the same person! My point is, if we want to increase recognition of female athletes, this is NOT the way to do it. Emerging research indicates that sex does not sell women’s sport (I’ve written about this numerous times in the blog but to read one click here, or click on the “sexualization” blog tag)

The videos are also ambivalent. Yes they feature strong female athletes hitting the ball, which many think is really cool, but the slow motion, ballerina music, and the elongated shot time on the buttocks, crotch, and chest areas make it contradictory and sexualizing. Not to mention the make-up, hair down, and wearing of uniforms that most of the WTA players would dare not play.

2. Sport media scholars, study patterns of portrayals of female athletes, namely if the athlete is in uniform, on the court, and in action. The slides and videos do portray all three…kind of (I’ll expand on this point below).

3. Females athletes get so little coverage from sport and regular media, that when they are covered and it is in sexualized ways, it undermines their athletic achievements. In fact, in a recent report “Gender in Televised Sports” by two well-known sport media scholars, Professors Michael Messner and Cheryl Cooky, based on the data they illustrate that network sport coverage of female athletes is at an all time low–only 1.6% which was a decline from 6.3% in 2004!

Therefore, based on the data we rarely see females athletes, and when we do it often resembles soft core porn (or “muscle porn” as one person on the After Ellen blog dubbed it). Even though we disagree on this one, I agree with Laura Pappano’s statement below when she argues in her blog “ We have to find a way to consider athletic female bodies without automatically finding that because they are fit they are sex objects.”  Unfortunately because we see athletic female bodies in primarily sexualized ways, it will be hard to tease out bodies, fitness levels, and athleticism without objectifying those same bodies. The  NYT Magazine pieces only perpetuate the problem by again linking the female athleticism to sexualized bodies. What we have to get away from is the thinking pattern that female athletes and women’s sport is only interesting and marketable when their bodies are highlighted and sold. Highlight their athletic bodies in a natural setting–on the court (the real court, not a blacked out studio setting), in action (hitting real tennis balls not rolled in glitter), and in uniform (a real uniform in which certain body parts would not fly out or be exposed upon moving or hitting a real tennis ball).

To illustrate my point, imagine a similar NYT expose on ATP male professional players such as Nadal, Murray, Roddick, and Federer with their shirts off, chests oiled with gold glitter stuck to their muscles, glammed up, hair spiked, wearing super tight and short tennis shorts, lips slightly parted, hitting balls rolled in chalk or glitter to the same music. Wouldn’t that seem weird?

I invite further dialogue and counter arguments to this blog. What do you think?