How The Ray Rice Debacle Opened Minds To Women Working In Men's Pro Sports

The question I needed Daryl Morey to answer: Why wasn't there a female coach in the NBA?

This was in 2012, for a profile of Natalie Nakase, a former UCLA point guard who had been hired as a video intern with the Los Angeles Clippers and whose stated goal was to be a head coach in the NBA. (Nakase still works with the Clippers.) Morey, the Houston Rockets general manager, didn't hesitate before answering: There are no female coaches in the NBA because there has never been a female coach in the NBA.

Or, at that time, in any of the four major men's professional leagues in this country.

Morey expounded: As soon as a franchise hires a female assistant and the whole world doesn't explode into chaos, other teams will also hire women.

That simple.

This logic completely dovetails with everything we know about sports and human nature. Sports is a risk-averse business (as are all big businesses), and most people prefer chartered territory. And while hiring a female assistant no longer seems like the equivalent of snowshoeing across the arctic, almost all professional sports franchises prefer having successful examples -- that's examples, plural -- before straying, even just a touch, from standard operating procedure.

But then Morey had to answer the million-dollar question: What might spark a franchise to be the first? The equivalent of a long shrug came through the line. Translation: No one knows, really.

Fast forward three years, and it seems we're in the opening days of a mini-revolution within men's professional sports. A year ago, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich hired Becky Hammon as an assistant, the first full-time female assistant in league history. In July, Hammon coached the Spurs to the Las Vegas Summer League title. Also in July, the Arizona Cardinals made Jen Welter the first female coach in NFL history, hiring her as a preseason intern to work with inside linebackers. A week after that, the Sacramento Kings brought in women's basketball legend Nancy Lieberman to be the second female assistant in NBA history. And just this week, the Charlotte Hornets hired Stephanie Ready as their game analyst -- the first woman to hold that position full-time.

So how did we get here? And, perhaps more importantly, where are we going?

When it comes to hiring decisions, little matters more than personal relationships. After Hammon tore her ACL while playing for the San Antonio Stars in 2013, the star guard asked if she could observe the Spurs' practices. In the process, she built connections with the San Antonio coaching staff and players. But other female athletes have volunteered and observed and interacted and coached with men's professional teams over the years. Lieberman even served as head coach of the Texas Legends, a team in the NBA Developmental League, from 2009 to 2011. And yet none of them were hired as NBA assistant coaches -- or NFL, MLB or NHL assistant coaches.

Certainly, the right head coach, Popovich, was introduced to the right female athlete. Both possessed impeccable credentials, so the hiring decision rose above any potential blowback. But, not only was there no blowback -- praise for the move was swift and widespread. What made this the right time for such a groundbreaking hire to be so widely accepted? What changed in the culture, the energy around sports that helped make it possible for this moment to be so thoroughly embraced by players, fans, teams and pundits?

Well, here's one reason for that collective mind shift: the Ray Rice video.

Yes, that could be a cynical view, believing it took a moment of horrific domestic violence to get people within sports to take a closer look at exactly who they were and weren't involving in their business. Or it could be an optimistic view, that something positive could grow from something so bad, that people within sports are genuinely willing to respond when shown a glaring flaw in their process.

"If you look at society writ large, it often takes bad events to spark change," says Liz Boardman, a senior partner at Korn Ferry, an executive search firm recently retained by the MLB to identify female and minority candidates. "Otherwise we get complacent. And when things don't go well in sports, it shines a light on our society -- shows the inequities."

Boardman said the Ray Rice situation illuminated the need for more progress: "Even though it may seem forced, it's necessary. What happens is that women who are in the right positions and have been working hard along the way capitalize on it."

Whether you're a cynic or an optimist, you'll be hard-pressed to deny the changes in professional men's sports, as well as the media that covers them, in the last year. "I think we'd be fools not to think the Ray Rice issue has had an impact on these hirings," said Wade Davis, a former NFL player who consults with teams about inclusion and also serves as the executive director of the You Can Play Project. "Leagues worry about losing female fans, and this is certainly a way to be more inclusive. Also, there were very few women at the table. Most men within sports engage with women in their daily lives but less often in their professional lives. Why is that? I'm sure that's a question they have been asking themselves, too."

One key takeaway from the NFL debacle: Women need a voice. Not just in the stands, but actually at the table, on the court, even in the huddle.
Kate Fagan

Of course, the NFL's domestic violence crisis did not just affect professional football; it touched every sport. Think about how most people react when passing a crash on the highway: They check their own speed, they ensure everyone is wearing their seatbelts, they make a mental note to stay just a little more vigilant for the rest of the drive. And in essence, this is what every other league was doing last fall after the NFL crashed and burned.

One key takeaway from the NFL debacle: Women need a voice. Not just in the stands, but actually at the table, on the court and even in the huddle. "Women have always been a part of the male sports family, yet not always given the opportunity to prove they are capable coaches and therefore teachers," Davis said. "As pro sports team's start to look at their inclusion policies ... if they want to create an environment that's respectful and embracing of women, women must be and deserve to be placed in positions of leadership to change the narrative and culture of sports."

So, what's next?

If Morey is right -- and the Kings' hiring of Lieberman certainly suggests he's onto something -- we'll likely see a steady increase in female assistant coaches in the NBA. Ten years ago, the idea of employing a basketball analytics staff was laughable; today, most teams have at least one person on the payroll for advanced metrics. That's just what professional sports teams do; they copy the latest thing. So it's not ridiculous to think that in a decade, the majority of franchises will have a woman on the coaching staff.

This change will likely happen more quickly in basketball. The NBA has been progressive in terms of gender for years: The league consistently receives high marks for its gender and racial hiring practices.

And the existence of the WNBA also means a built-in pool of qualified coaching candidates -- hundreds of women who have proved themselves at the highest level of the game. Many will want to enter the coaching profession. Many already have. And now, when these women consider what sidelines they might be able to stand on, an NBA one won't seem like such a fantasy.

Most leagues, including the MLB, have had women on the executive side of the game for years. Former big leaguer Billy Bean, who now serves as the MLB's ambassador for inclusion, said major inroads have been made in baseball -- in the board room, at least. "I don't even blink twice when I see half the room filled with women," Bean said. "Twenty years ago, that wouldn't have happened. Baseball and all the owners, they know they want the best candidates."

But when will that inclusion trickle down to the field?

"It's absolutely a possibility," Bean said. "Let's push the envelope. I think it's around the corner, but it's not going to be easy. The methodical nature of baseball is different: hanging out, chewing sunflower seeds, hurry up and wait. You see these men get jobs and bring their little fraternity of comfort -- guys they've played with and coached with. Those are the challenges in baseball."

All sports have their cultural issues, hurdles that insiders believe might block women from sitting on the bench or in the dugout.

Considering the number of years women have been directly connected to the NBA, it's not surprising that female basketball coaches first shattered the "glass wall" in pro sports. And women actually getting these jobs will only lead to more women applying for them.

The progress in the NBA should also serve as a challenge to other leagues, including the NHL and MLB. A large number of women play both those sports, and at a very high level, so there's no shortage of viable candidates.

Which makes the next question needing an answer: Why isn't there a female coach in MLB or the NHL?

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