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That’s Ms. Coach to You–Women in Men’s Sports

When women cross any threshold in men’s sports for the first time, it makes news.  Still.

Call it the Mars/Venus Effect where the sexes are just different, point blank.  When a person tried to invade “sacred” space, be it a locker room, a playing field, either you’ve got the required equipment, or you don’t.

Now, thirty-five years after a female reporter entered the first professional locker room post-game, women are coaching at all levels.

Robin Herman

Robin Herman, Former Intrepid Sports Reporter, now at Harvard

In 1975, New York Times reporter Robin Herman, then a 23-year-old reporter, secured entry to the N.H.L. All-Star Game after a year of persuasion.  She, not the game, became the story of the day.  Today, Herman is an assistant dean for research communications at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Then three decades later, Katie Hnida became the first woman to score in Division I-A football, as a kicker for the University of New Mexico.   She had transferred from the University of Colorado after dressing for games but not playing.  She also played in high school.

Now, Nancy Lieberman, a legend in basketball in her own right, has crossed over to the men’s space as the first female coach in the NBA for the Texas Legends, part of the NBA D-League.  The team hasn’t played a game yet, but two of its back office executives have already been called up to the NBA, potentially a good sign for players with dreams.

Perhaps It Just Takes a “Trailblazing” Attitude…

Nancy Lieberman

Nancy Lieberman/Former Player, Current Coach

Nancy Lieberman didn’t just pop on the scene.  At the age of 18, she was the youngest person, male or female, to win an Olympic medal in basketball.  She picked Muhammed Ali as her role model at the age of 9 and then met him 12 years later.   A 30 year career with ESPN was interrupted by a stint in the WNBA–at the age of 50.  It’s not that Lieberman doesn’t let the word “no” stop her–she never even considered it!

“This is normal for me,” she says.  “I’m used to being the only woman or the first woman.  It’s very normal.  It might be strange to other people, but it’s what I do every day and I love being in that capacity to inspire women.  It’s the coolest thing that can really happen to you.  We all want to be respected for our effort.”

She also remembers every step of the way, which keeps her grounded and provides a basis for her philosophies.  Many are very “coach-like,” but inspiring at the same time:

– It’s not being afraid of success. It’s being prepared for success.

– Nobody is harder on me than me.

Many people have memorable stories of how they met legends and role models.  Lieberman is no different, with her Muhammed Ali experience extending decades, even to today.  Perhaps that’s something to think about–what makes people successful is not compartmentalizing opportunities but seeing how a kernel of a moment can have long term impact.

She remembers meeting Ali at the New York Stock Exchange after she had won an Olympic medal:

“He says, ‘Come Here Kid,’ and he looks at me and he says that your mom says that you’re good.  I couldn’t even look him in the eye.  I said I’m not good or nothing, I’m the greatest.  And he says give me a hug, there’s two greatest in the room.  We spent time with him, exchanged phone numbers and stayed in touch my senior year.  Eight years ago, we reconnected and it’s been incredible.  Ali is writing and endorsement for [my upcoming] book.  They have said they’ll be at opening night.”

Opening night is in November when she takes to the court with her team.  Her goal–to lead and to teach, with successful results.

“I’m not in control of my reputation but I’m always in control of my character and that’s what I want to teach my guys,” she says.

Difference between contact and non-contact sports?

Does padding matter?  It seems that women are more welcome with the men when there’s less padding.  Case in point?  Tennis!  Mixed doubles have been played since 1888 at the US Open.  That was five years before Colorado was the first state to pass an amendment granting women the right to vote!

The Women in Sports Foundation notes that while there will always be women who can compete side by side men in contact sports, specifically boxing, the majority of women have less muscle mass per unit of body tissue and therefore,

As long as competing athletes are matched by ability, muscle mass and other standardized physical variables critical to success in the sport, competition between males and females should be permitted.

Regarding other contact sports, the Foundation considers physical development in their recommendations that pre-puberty, girls should only participate in contact sports, such as football, with other girls, and after that, continuing women-only teams are fine too.

Women in their own leagues?

The WNBA has been around for 14 years.  Women’s football leagues have popped up over time.  While Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 covered gender discrimination in a broader sense, the increased opportunities for women in sports have been an unexpected and lasting result.  According to a 2006 study Linda Jean Carpenter and R. Vivian Acosta of Brooklyn College there are nine times more women participating in high school sports and the number of women in collegiate sports has increased by 450%!

The five most frequently offered college sports for women are, in order: (1) Basketball, 98.8% of schools have a team, (2) Volleyball, 95.7%, (3) Soccer, 92.0%, (4) Cross Country, 90.8%, and (5) Softball, 89.2%, according to a 2008 Brooklyn College study.

Perhaps league and level of play should be determined by the athlete.  If a woman can hold her own with the men, who cares?  In May 2010, Eri Yoshida debuted with the  Chico Outlaws, of the independent Golden League of baseball.  It’s not Major League Baseball, but it’s still considered professional.  It’s actually often the last stop for players before they retire for good.  She throws a 70 mph fastball and retired 7 of the first 10 batters she faced.

A woman hadn’t played professional baseball since 2000.  But with Yoshida’s arrival, ticket sales jumped more than 50% from the day before!  Her goal–to reach the majors.

No news is good news

It’s truly up for debate whether women in sports doing things “first” or even “second” is good in the news.  If it’s in the news, then public consciousness raises.  But if it’s not news, if it’s “ho-hum,” then it’s mainstream, hardly worthy of a blink.  Maybe that’s not so bad.

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