Girls’ game: Women making advances in coaching field

By Jessie Wallace / Staff Writer

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I’ve been an athlete my entire life. As “one of the boys” in grade school, I worked out as often as I attended classes. As a track athlete in college, I’ve been more apt to hurl a shotput than brandish a mascara wand.

Every meet, I fall more in love with the “art of competition.” This “art,” this level of commitment, makes me want to work in the sports industry some day.

But as I get older — as my passion for the game deepens — my options for a career in sports seem to narrow.

While men have claimed coaching positions in women’s sports since Title IX passed in the late 1970s, women are largely shut out of coaching positions for men’s teams. According to a 2013 study the University of Minnesota conducted, titled, “The Decline of Women Coaches in Collegiate Athletics,” men coach 96 to 98 percent of all male college athletes. While rosters show that more than half of the coaches in the WNBA coaches are men, and one out of ten coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League is a woman.

But women who have stepped into the pro leagues in the past two years give me hope that the status quo is changing, just in time for me to enter the world of professional sports.

On Jan. 17, Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan decided to promote seven-year-long administrative assistant Kathryn Smith to a full-time assistant coaching position. Smith follows former WNBA player Becky Hammon, who became the San Antonio Spurs’ first female assistant coach in the 2014-2015 season and Nancy Lieberman, a former WNBA star who joined the Sacramento Kings’ coaching staff this year.

That September, the Oakland A’s hired Justine Siegal as a guest instructor for a postseason fall league, making her the first woman to hold a coaching position for an MLB team. Then in 2015, the NFL hired Sarah Thomas as the league’s first-ever full-time female referee.

We’re not just talking water girls and cheerleaders anymore — these ladies are helping run the big leagues.

And seeing female hires — women who, like me, have dedicated their lives to the art of sport — fill positions in the NFL, MLB and NBA gives me hope.

For years, men have dominated the sports industry — pushing aside women’s athletics in the media as sideline coverage and letting women hold less-public spots in sports management, rather than take a spot on the field.

The NFL gets plenty of flack for being a macho-centric league, but by placing a woman in such a prominent role, it is finally diversifying and changing the way people think about sports — especially football — as a “guys only” club.

I’m fortunate enough that my male coaches and friends have always treated me as an equal when it comes to sports, whether I was working with them, writing about them or playing them. Even when I was briefly the only female sports writer at The Pitt News, I didn’t feel the need to defend my ability on the desk.

I’m not sure if this is because I’ve always been a known athlete, or because the men I’ve encountered don’t feel threatened by my presence. But despite my personal experiences, I know it’s a universal truth that women in professional athletics have to outdo themselves just to prove they’re worthy of a spot on the sidelines.

It’s like that episode of Full House where D.J. wants to be like her “cool” cousin Steve, so she starts talking in a manlier voice and tackling people at touch-football just to get the guys’ attention. Remember my previous quip about neglecting the mascara and being “one of the boys?”

Mle-dominated sports culture makethe masses believe that we can’t wear mascara and kick ass on the track field.

D.J. never had to put on a “masculine” front to get respect — she just had to be and do what she does best.

If Smith is going to succeed in this NFL coaching position, she can’t sacrifice her personal brand of femininity. She can’t “pull a D.J.” She can’t pretend.

Like any newly hired male coach, Smith doesn’t have do anything different — she was hired because of her qualifications, and I’m sure she’ll succeed based on the fresh perspective she’ll offer.

A woman in an NFL coaching position will field a barrage of questions challenging her ability to do the job: “Does she know the game well enough to coach?” “Can she handle the pressure?” She’ll be expected to hone her football knowledge down to the detail, more than the men who have filled the position before her.

I have yet to come across much skepticism, because I haven’t been fully immersed into the “business aspect” of sports — I’ve always been the one playing. But being that it’s taken this long to give women a chance to advance into substantial roles only shows how little this field has thought of women’s “sports knowledge” until now.

I’m in a lucky position where I get to watch and follow women like Smith as they pave the way for girls like me.

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