Shame on the NBA and WNBA: Coaching crisis in women’s basketball
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In the game of basketball four out of 12, or 33%, is a low shooting percentage. But in this case, it is EXTREMELY low.
What I am referring to is the amount of female head coaches in the WNBA during the 2020 season!
Four out of 12!
In an article published December 11, 2020 in the The Atlantic by Hannah Withiam entitled “Women’s basketball has a coaching ‘crisis.’ What steps are needed for change?” Withiam states:
Of the 12 head coaches in the WNBA in 2020, eight were men; of the four women, only one (Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello) was a former WNBA player. Vickie Johnson, another former player who was named Dallas Wings head coach Wednesday after Brian Agler’s departure, becomes the only Black female coach in a league made up of about 80 percent Black players.
These numbers are: 1. Staggering, 2. Upsetting, and 3. Completely unacceptable.
SHAME on the NBA, who founded the WNBA in 1996, the WNBA and the 12 WNBA team owners for the unacceptable current state of female head coaches in the WNBA.
The WNBA is not a new league that needs male coaches to help if get off the ground and running. The league is 24 years old, giving it more than enough time to prospect, prepare and produce qualified female coaches.
24 years later I would expect that ALL WNBA head coaches would be qualified women with at least half of them being former WNBA players and at least half of them black.
Obviously, the NBA, WNBA and the owners are not doing enough to champion female coaches and filling their coaching vacancies with qualified female candidates instead of retired NBA players with zero coaching experience, as has happened in the past.
Here are what the hiring qualifications should be for WNBA head AND assistant coach positions (legality notwithstanding):
- Previous playing and/or coaching experience at the university or professional levels.
- Former WNBA player.
- African American.
- Coaching internships with NBA teams during the regular season and summer league for interested current and former WNBA players.
- Coach training program for interested current WNBA players during offseason.
24 years later…
Below is the complete article written by Withiam. It is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED reading!
Women’s basketball has a coaching ‘crisis.’ What steps are needed for change?
By Hannah Withiam Dec 11, 2020 11
Muffet McGraw remembers playing for three head coaches on the Saint Joseph’s women’s basketball team in the mid-1970s. All of them were women.
She remembers arriving at Lehigh in 1982 for her first collegiate head-coaching job and sharing an office with the tennis and field hockey/lacrosse coaches, both women. All of their assistant coaches were women, too.
“Like, there wasn’t a single guy there,” McGraw said. “I never thought it was unusual at the time.”
It wasn’t until she was well into her legendary coaching career at Notre Dame that McGraw noticed a seismic shift in who occupied leadership positions in women’s sports. Sitting in a room with other coaches and decision-makers at a spring meeting for the Big East Conference around 2010, McGraw made an observation that would come to shape her career.
“Something came up … a male/female point-of-view thing, and I was struck suddenly like, we have a lot of men in here,” she said. “And then the commissioner came in, who was a man, and then we met with the ADs, who were all men. It was sort of a moment of awareness of, wow, there are a lot of men in leadership positions. And how are we going to change that?”
Title IX opened doors for women across the country to compete in sports when it was enacted in 1972. Over time, though, as opportunities grew and programs expanded, the number of women coaching women’s collegiate teams declined.
In 1972, when Title IX passed, 90 percent of head coaches were women. Last season, women made up 42 percent of the head-coaching roles in Division I women’s athletics, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.
“And we’re hanging stagnant at that percentage,” said Megan Kahn, CEO of WeCOACH, a nonprofit membership organization that supports women coaches at all levels and co-sponsors the BreakThrough Summit for women in sports, which will be held Monday and Tuesday.
The numbers are less discouraging in Division I women’s basketball, where women filled 63 percent of the head coaching jobs in 2019-20. However, only 17 percent of women’s basketball head coaches are Black women.
Professionally, the picture is similarly bleak. Of the 12 head coaches in the WNBA in 2020, eight were men; of the four women, only one (Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello) was a former WNBA player. Vickie Johnson, another former player who was named Dallas Wings head coach Wednesday after Brian Agler’s departure, becomes the only Black female coach in a league made up of about 80 percent Black players.
“The interesting stat is 8 percent of coaches in Division I (athletics) are women, so that includes men’s and women’s basketball,” McGraw said. “When you look at it that way, it’s like, that’s gotta be a misprint.”
It’s not. And that’s why people across the country are working to change the narrative.
The gender shift in collegiate sports was gradual but dramatic. After Title IX went into effect and more money was being invested in the women’s game, the coaching jobs became more lucrative and more attractive. To some, starting in women’s sports also was seen as a pathway to a job on the men’s side.
And with men holding the large majority of decision-making positions (86 percent of Division I ADs currently are men), the hiring was in the hands of like-minded people.
“I really believe that people hire people who look like them,” McGraw said.
Teresa Gould has worked for three Division I universities and three Division I conferences in her 31 years in college athletics. She has seen from the inside how homogeneous hiring practices can take hold and become cyclical.
“I think this industry for a very long time has been a very incestuous industry, where people hire who they know, people hire folks that are within their circle or network,” said Gould, now senior associate commissioner of the Pac-12. “And I think that has been really limiting because historically, people’s networks and people’s social circles and contacts tend to be people like them.”
As Gould sees it, decision-makers have to not only value differences, but also hold themselves accountable to those values.
“The young women that we serve and lead,” Gould said, “they deserve to have coaches that look like them, that have been on a similar journey as them and can relate to them.”
Cheryl Reeve found herself up against those institutional barriers when she entered the WNBA in 2001 after coaching 12 seasons in the NCAA. It was during her early years in the pros when she first noticed teams trending toward hiring men, even if they had little coaching experience.
While Reeve went to seven postseasons and four WNBA Finals as an assistant with three teams in nine years, she watched former NBA players like Nolan Richardson, Tree Rollins and Michael Adams take over programs and then be out of the league in two or three years.
Reeve was named head coach of the Lynx in 2009 and has won four WNBA championships and three Coach of the Year awards in Minnesota.
“In the early years in the WNBA, maybe those women didn’t have the success,” Reeve said. “And when that happens, you’re held to a different standard. And then you’re not given repeat opportunities the way that men are. We saw that in the WNBA.
“It’s like everything with women — there wasn’t an investment mindset.”
Women first have to get the job before they can be fairly evaluated. And the retention and promotion of female coaches can be just as difficult a task.
It’s why WeCOACH’s Kahn tries to focus as much of her energy on getting women into those roles as on giving them the tools to prove themselves once they’re there. One sign of that progress, she said, is four Division I and two Division II conferences now pay for WeCOACH memberships for all of their female coaches.
“Too often women, if they don’t succeed, they’re out of the profession and they don’t get recycled in like the men do on the men’s side,” Kahn said.
These problems aren’t limited to women’s basketball.
Sports leagues and conferences over the years have implemented policies similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which was first established in 2003 and now requires teams to interview at least two external minority candidates for head-coaching jobs and one for coordinator positions.
In September, more than 60 Division I athletic directors signed the Collegiate Coaching Diversity Pledge, committing themselves to include at least one candidate “from a traditionally underrepresented background” in their final pool for job openings in football and men’s and women’s basketball. Reeve said conversations about the possibility of imposing a similar policy in the WNBA have taken place.
To leaders in women’s sports, though, interview quotas are just a stopgap. They can often be performative when there isn’t proper buy-in from administrators. Progress toward real change in the makeup of coaches, they say, starts with a mindset shift among people at the top.
“I think it’s going to take organizations — the leadership in every franchise and not just in the WNBA — to really examine their unarticulated beliefs about who’s qualified to be a coach and what it means, for example, to take a risk on a white guy who has as little experience as a woman,” said Seattle Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder. “Start articulating a little more consciously what you think the risks are. Because once you start doing that, bringing into your own awareness what your thoughts are, then you can see, frankly, where the bullshit lies.”
Said Reeve: “We have to avoid saying, ‘We’re going to hire the best person for the job.’ Because that’s code. It’s long been code. Even understanding those words, what it means to women or any marginalized group, that there’s an assumption that long has meant that that’s typically reserved for white men.”
Lindsey Harding was interviewing to be the player development coach of the Sacramento Kings at the same time the New York Liberty were conducting their head-coaching search late last year.
When Harding, a nine-year alum of the WNBA, was asked during her interview with the Kings why she wouldn’t consider coaching in that league, she was blunt in her reasoning.
“Because they’re not even considering us. I never got a phone call. Neither did anyone else that I know that coaches in the NBA,” Harding said. “I know that (Teresa) Weatherspoon did get a call for the Liberty, but I don’t know how serious it really was.”
Harding said she would be open to coaching in women’s basketball if it were the right fit, but she doesn’t want to limit herself to one level or one gender.
“You can make it very clear and go out and say, ‘I want to coach in the WNBA. I want to do this, I want to do that,’” she said. “But I want to have the option to do anything. You hope it’s enough to say, ‘Hey, she can coach (women’s) college. Hey, she can coach WNBA. Hey, she can coach NBA. Or even men’s college.’”
To remove the gray area in the coaching search, Reeve tries to identify potential candidates as early as possible, from the “dream list” to the realistic. She has created a database of diverse options that she’s constantly updating so she can reference it when a spot on her staff opens up.
Reeve encourages others to do the same because the WNBA, to her, is facing a coaching “crisis.”
Many people in and around the league were skeptical of the Liberty’s recent hiring process, which resulted in Walt Hopkins being named head coach in January after Katie Smith’s contract wasn’t renewed. Hopkins, who had not previously interviewed for a head-coaching job, was an assistant to Reeve with the Lynx for three years prior to his appointment at age 34. Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb said at the time they had interviewed 20 people for the job and it was close to a “50-50” split between men and women.
The WNBA has in recent years taken steps toward improving the pipeline for former players to coaching positions.
Beginning last season, the league allowed teams to have three assistant coaches on their coaching staffs provided one of them had played in the WNBA. Reeve hired Smith and Rebekkah Brunson to join Plenette Pierson, all of whom are former WNBA players, and for the first time during her Lynx tenure, Reeve had an all-woman staff. She called it “an incredible experience.”
“For any staff in this league not to have a former player on it, I think is a disgrace,” Reeve said. “The pool is deep, as we know. There are a lot of players that have gone into college coaching that would love the opportunity to come coach in the WNBA.”
McGraw had all women on her coaching staff in the final eight years of her tenure at Notre Dame before retiring in April. It didn’t mean she wouldn’t have hired a man again, she said, but she felt it was important to give women opportunities to move upward. Plus, that span was the most successful in program history, with one NCAA title in three championship game appearances.
“You have to start in things you can control, and I could control who I hired,” McGraw said.
“The thing I like about Geno (Auriemma, UConn’s head women’s basketball coach) is that he always has an all-female staff. Men are terrific coaches. Just hire women, and then we’re mentoring women and we’re able to get them to move up.”
Auriemma isn’t the only male coach trending in that direction, though a discrepancy remains. Of the women’s basketball teams in the Power 5 conferences, the staffs of male head coaches are 62 percent women, while those of female head coaches are 69 percent women.
Hiring practices in college and the pros are the most visible, but the work starts at the grassroots level. In a speech that resonated during a news conference at the 2019 Final Four, McGraw urged decision-makers to consider that women and girls — in sports and in life — need role models who look like them.
WeCOACH has made that part of its mission, encouraging women to get involved in coaching at the youth and high school levels and offering them the resources to succeed. Too often still, girls and boys are coached by dads while in their formative years of playing sports.
Gilder, who rowed at Yale in the 1970s and won a silver medal with Team USA at the 1984 Olympics, sees more participation from moms as a key component of building the pipeline.
“At that level, when you start with young girls, they right away are like, ‘Oh, this is a viable something that I could do,’” Gilder said. “And it’s conscious. I think that’s one of the things that has to change.”
Gilder became co-owner of the Storm in 2007 and now makes up one of two all-women ownership groups in the WNBA. She’s confident that, just as the WNBA has been at the forefront of social and racial justice movements, it will also be a leader in cultivating diversity among its coaching and leadership ranks. If teams don’t commit themselves to it, she said, it may even come at a cost to future roster-building.
“As an owner, I would never say that should be done at the league-wide level. I think that’s an organizational decision,” Gilder said of interviewing and hiring practices.
“But I think organizations are going to start to pay, in terms of their credibility and their rep, if they just automatically go to whatever looks like the obvious choice. I think that’s one of the things that’s changing.”
The more women, and women of color, who are hired, the greater collegiate women’s sports and the WNBA improve on the 42 percent figure at the head-coaching level. McGraw pointed to the recent hires of Lindsay Whalen at Minnesota, Kara Lawson at Duke and Niele Ivey to succeed her at Notre Dame as examples of that progress in college.
It’s important to celebrate those successes to maintain momentum. To the women who have been in the sport a long time, it’s just as important to use their platforms to expose the negligence that’s holding it back.
“We need to call it out anytime it happens,” Reeve said. “There’s gotta be a brighter light shown on this, so much so I think that we have some movement with folks in our league. We want to go pretty far with this.
“It’s conversation right now, but we want to see real steps that come from it.”
Hannah Withiam is a Staff Editor for The Athletic New York and oversees WNBA coverage. She previously served as sports reporter/producer for the New York Post, where she covered everything from sports media to the Olympics to women's soccer.
Author Alan Walls is an American international basketball coach and administrator with over 25 years of experience on the youth, high school, NCAA, professional and national team levels in 16 countries and on five continents. Walls has worked with the national federations of Turkey, Romania, Palestine, Mongolia, Kenya and El Salvador as well as coached or conducted camps and clinics throughout the United States – including his native Hawai’i – Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, China, Hong Kong and Israel. Walls is the founder and Secretary-General of the United Nations of Basketball (2020 launch).