Women who will change way sports are played

Angela Ruggiero retired from professional hockey this past December. Guido Vitti for ESPN The Magazine

Forty years after Title IX was passed, there are still ceilings to be broken, boundaries to be pushed and paths to be paved. espnW and ESPN The Magazine selected these game changers, women who will change the way sports are played:

The Activist: Angela Ruggiero

President-elect, Women's Sports Foundation
In the dizzying days after she won gold at the 1998 Olympics, Angela Ruggiero plunked down $5 at a rink in St. Clair Shores, Mich., to play a little pickup hockey and was turned away -- MEN ONLY. Ruggiero returned with an undercover news crew and wound up with a great story. Under the crush of bad publicity, the rink's rules were changed to allow women.

"When something like that happens, you can't sit by and say, 'Well, that's how it is,'" Ruggiero says. "If you have the power to get out and do something, why wouldn't you?"

In her 32 years, Ruggiero has done plenty -- cum laude degree from Harvard, four Olympic medals with the U.S. women's ice hockey team, a book, a master's degree and an eight-year term as an athlete representative to the International Olympic Committee. Next year, she will add president of the Women's Sports Foundation to her list of accomplishments. Founded in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King, the organization's mission is to help women and girls through sports.

For Ruggiero, it's the logical next job for an idealist who says she's "never followed the money," because the position doesn't pay. "That's OK," says Ruggiero, who supports herself by doing summer hockey schools and camps and consulting for NBC Sports, "because having opportunities changed my life."

Ruggiero grew up in Southern California, just about the last place you'd find a girl playing hockey in the 1980s but maybe the only place where her story could have happened. She was 7 years old. Her little brother's hockey team was woefully shorthanded and begging for warm bodies to play, male or female. She accepted and would spend the next 24 years lugging a hockey bag around. She retired last December after surgery on her shoulder. She knew she could make a much bigger impact at the foundation, creating opportunities for girls and women in sports.

Thing is, she's already been doing this for years. Around the same time she was exposing the wrongs of her local hockey rink, Ruggiero spoke to a group of elementary school children in Connecticut. When a 12-year-old superfan named Caitlin Cahow mustered the courage to say hi, Ruggiero told her to keep working and one day, maybe, they'd end up in the same jerseys. Eight years later, they were teammates in the 2006 Olympics.

"I have no idea what she can eventually be," Cahow says. "I just know she's going to help people. "The world hasn't seen anything like Angela."

The Badass: Lindsey Vonn

U.S. skier
It's not just about the four overall World Cup victories in five years, the 53 career World Cup race wins and the 2010 Olympic medals. What makes Vonn, 27, the likely showcase star of the 2014 Sochi Games is her much-discussed It factor -- the look, attitude and daring athleticism.

"Lindsey Vonn has transcended our sport," says Ted Ligety, three-time World Cup champion in the giant slalom. NBC is still bragging that the night of Vonn's gold medal run in Vancouver was the first time in six years anyone bested American Idol's ratings. Her feats will continue to pay off long after she retires, as the next generation of American skiers she inspires takes her place in the starting gates.

"I wanted to follow her path," says Sarah Hendrickson, the first female World Cup ski-jumping champion.

The Peacemaker: Awista Ayub

Director of South Asia Programs, Seeds of Peace
In 2003, when Ayub founded the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, the then-23-year-old was still living with her parents in Connecticut, but she was determined to provide the athletic outlet denied to women in her war-torn homeland.

She started with eight girls, bringing them to the U.S. to play soccer and return as ambassadors of the sport. Two years later, when Ayub traveled to her homeland, post-Taliban, more than 250 girls flocked to her clinic. Today, thanks in large part to Ayub's efforts, there are 15 girls soccer teams administered by the Afghanistan Football Federation, and the Afghanistan Olympic Committee has formed a national women's team.

Now, in her role with Seeds of Peace, Ayub, 32, uses basketball, soccer and tennis to introduce conflict resolution to children in many regions around the world, including India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. "Having a sports element reinforces the idea of working together as one, to be able to look across the borders and see a friend instead of an enemy," Ayub says.

The Skywalker: Brittney Griner

Baylor center
Griner's stats are perfectly impressive. Her 23.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.2 blocks per game as a junior propelled Baylor to an unprecedented 40--0 title run in 2012. But it's how she compiles those stats that makes the 21-year-old a once-in-a-generation talent -- her power dunks, nimble hooks and come-from-behind blocks, which had Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw saying Griner brought elements of the men's game to the earthbound women's game.

No wonder U.S. women's basketball team coach Geno Auriemma was bummed when the center withdrew from consideration for the Olympic team this summer for undisclosed reasons. "She brings an element to any team that is impossible to find," he says. "I don't think anybody else in the world has anybody like Brittney Griner."

The Blur: Lauren Rain Williams

Track aficionados know her as the world's fastest 11-year-old. But the fact that Williams, now 12, is known at all is what really matters to track. In 2008, at the age of 8, she won the title of Fastest Kid in LA, 8- and 9-year-old division. In 2011,
she ran the fastest 100 meters ever by a preteen, clocking 11.94 seconds. (The women's world record is 10.49 seconds.) If she continues to pick up speed at this pace, she's
a surefire Olympic star and possibly a world-record holder. With her colorful knee-high socks, long braids and breathtaking performances, she's already winning over an audience. "Kids like Lauren have the ability to draw new people," says Lauryn Williams, the 2005 world champion in the 100 meters. "Fans who connect with her now will grow as true fans of track."

The Muscle: Ronda Rousey

Strikeforce women's bantamweight champion
What do you call a judo Olympic medalist with girl-next-door looks and a wit sharper than a flying knee? How about the most likely candidate to take women's MMA mainstream. Still a stranger to the second round, Rousey, 25, has needed just five pro fights to climb to the top of the MMA ranks, and her fame skyrocketed after she dislocated the elbow of her most recent opponent, Miesha Tate, with an armbar. (Her gift for trash-talking hasn't hurt, either.) It's not yet official, but Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker expects Rousey's next fight against former champ Sarah Kaufman to be a Showtime headline event.

"She has the potential to be one of the biggest stars in this sport. Her style and skill inside the cage matched with her honesty and charisma outside of the cage is a rare combination," says Stephen Espinoza, a Showtime Sports exec. "Male or female, it's a mix that doesn't come along very often."

The Healer: Sue Falsone

Head athletic trainer, Los Angeles Dodgers
More than half of the 30,000-plus members of the National Athletic Trainers' Association are female. However, it was only last year that Falsone became the first to be tapped as a head athletic trainer in any of the four major sports. But the Dodgers didn't hire Falsone to break the glass ceiling. They hired her to stem the tide of players breaking like glass. She's been put to the test early and often this season -- half of the Dodgers' starting lineup, including star centerfielder Matt Kemp, is battling serious injuries -- and she quickly won over the team with her confidence and assured touch.

"Players care only about getting better," says her boss, Stan Conte, senior director of medical services for the Dodgers, "and they respected her right from the beginning because they knew she was the person who would get them back on the field."

The Icon: Homare Sawa

Captain of the Japanese women's national soccer team
In Japan, they call it ganbaro, the much-admired quality of hanging tough in the face of adversity. In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the nation last year, Sawa came to symbolize that ideal. Her goal in the 117th minute of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup final tied the match against the heavily favored U.S. national team, and Japan won its first world title after a shootout.

Sawa, 33, was named 2011 FIFA Women's World Player of the Year, the highlight of the versatile playmaker's storied career, one defined by her remarkable vision and ability to create space where nobody else anticipates it. An article in the Daily Yomiuri, the nation's largest English-language paper, noted her image was recently added to high school textbooks.

"We were just in Japan, and everyone knows her name," says U.S. national team captain Christie Rampone. "Losing to her was tough, but seeing all the buzz about women's soccer was exciting."

The Reality Check: Shaunie O'Neal

Executive producer, VH1's "Basketball Wives L.A.", "Basketball
Wives Miami" and "Football Wives"

The wives and girlfriends of athletes, once sequestered on the sideline, are finally getting their 15 minutes, dishing the off-court dirt to captivated audiences. Driving this reality TV craze is O'Neal, the undisputed queen of WAGs and the brains behind VH1's Basketball Wives franchise, which has catapulted VH1 to the top non-sports cable network among women ages 18 to 49, but only when one of her programs is airing. The three shows (or train wrecks as some call them) have already led Gilbert Arenas and Dwight Howard, among others, to threaten legal action to prevent their exes from appearing on the show. But a few lawyers won't slow O'Neal's roll: She has a movie deal and plans for a stage play based on fictionalized characters in love with ballplayers.

The Second Coming: Tornado Ali Black

Tennis player
In the post-Williams-sisters world coming soon, who will captivate American tennis fans? It may take her a few years, but Black has all the makings of "the one." The 14-year-old Boca Raton, Fla., native has collected dozens of wins on the international junior circuit, including a title at the prestigious Eddie Herr tournament in December. There, she dropped just one set and became the first American to win the event's Rising Star Award. (Maria Sharapova won the same honor when she was 13.) Black signed a contract with Octagon to go pro this year and plans to make her grand slam debut at the junior Wimbledon this month.

The Dominator: Yani Tseng

Professional golfer
We already know Tseng can win. A lot. Just 23, she has won 15 events in her five years on the LPGA tour, including five majors (four since 2010) -- the youngest golfer, male or female, to reach that milestone. She was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time Magazine, in which none other than golfing legend Annika Sorenstam wrote that Tseng's "potential both as a player and as an ambassador for the game is limitless."

But Tseng is no longer content to just let her game do the talking. She's looking to expand her brand and become a bigger ambassador for the sport. That's why the Taiwan native has committed herself to the daunting task of mastering English. "I want to be able to laugh with the gallery and make jokes," says Tseng. "The more I win, the bigger my crowds get, and that's a good thing."

The Lightning Rod: Serena Williams

Professional tennis player
Love her or hate her, odds are you've talked about her. Why? Because despite the drama that perpetually surrounds Serena Williams, she flat-out dominates on the tennis court. "Serena's athleticism and her inner strength to deal with significant adversity and come back time and time again to be the best in the world are second to none," says WTA president Stacey Allaster. We watch because we know Serena's matches promise something amazing. Her 13 Grand Slam titles are sixth on the all-time list -- and she isn't finished.

The Dividing Line: Danica Patrick

Racecar driver
People have been debating the value of Danica Patrick for years, maybe even as long as she has been racing, which was seven years on the IndyCar circuit and three at NASCAR, including this, her first full season racing stock cars. At 30, she is the most famous female race car driver in the world and among the most famous female athletes overall, with a long list of superlatives that includes: the first woman to win an IndyCar race; the highest finish of any woman competing in the Indianapolis 500 (third in 2009); the highest finish of any woman in NASCAR (fourth in the Las Vegas Nationwide race last year); and the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing. Within NASCAR, she was the eighth-highest earner in 2011, having made $12 million without racing full time. This year, with a full Nationwide schedule and 10 Sprint Cup races and the addition of Coke Zero to her portfolio of sponsors, she'll undoubtedly make even more.

The Agent: Kelli Masters

NFL agent, KMM Sports
As an attorney, a former Miss Oklahoma and a five-time world champion baton twirler, Kelli Masters had the perfect background for her pioneering role as a female agent inside the old boys' network of the NFL -- she's tough, competitive and accustomed to spin. "We have a female Secretary of State, and still, a player's father asked me if a woman could handle the NFL," says Masters, whose clients include Bucs DT Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 pick overall in 2010 draft. "Football is so male-dominated that it is kind of the final frontier for women."

The Decider: Katie Blackburn

Executive vice president, Cincinnati Bengals
The daughter of Bengals owner Mike Brown, Katie Blackburn is the likely heir and future boss of the franchise -- a move that would make her the only female with a direct effect on an NFL roster. That is, until her teenage daughters, Elizabeth and Caroline, follow in her footsteps. "In time, you will see women on the football side of things," says Blackburn, who played ice hockey at Dartmouth. "I don't doubt it; I expect it. There's no reason women can't fulfill these roles as well as men can."

The Whistleblower: Sylvia Mackey

Instigator of the 88 Plan in the NFL
When Hall of Fame Colts tight end John Mackey died in July 2011 after a 10-yearbattle with dementia, his wife, Sylvia Mackey, continued her landmark work as an advocate for former NFL players and a safer game. "Serious head injuries aren't going to go away, but we want to reduce the hard head hits that do the long-term harm," Mackey says. "Society is becoming more aware of the danger, the ways to stop the injuries and the damage that might come 10 or 20 years down the road." Thanks to her labors, the Mackeys' 88 Plan now provides $88,000 per year to retired players suffering from dementia.

The Attacker: Jen Adams

Women's lacrosse coach, Loyola University Maryland
Former University of Maryland lacrosse star Jen Adams first earned a reputation as an attacker while leading the Terrapins to four consecutive national championships. The three-time All-American still holds the NCAA women's lacrosse scoring record and was the only woman ever drafted by the National Lacrosse League. Now, as a coach, Adams fights for gender equality in one of the fastest growing sports in America. "I've been fortunate that the administration is willing to work with me," she says, noting progress such as the opening of a new stadium last year. "But you still see a disparity between men and women when it comes to the marketing and media. A lot of effort goes into making sure there are fans in the stands for men's games, while for women it's mostly parents and friends. I'm constantly fighting to keep things equal."

The Lawyer: Nancy Hogshead-Makar

Senior director of advocacy, Women's Sports Foundation
Since her days as a student-athlete at Duke University, gold medalist swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar has worked for gender equality and Title IX. "There are 1.3 million more high school boys playing sports than girls, so we need to close the dial," the former WSF intern says. She graduated from Georgetown Law School and has worked on issues nationwide, including a 2009 settlement that restored competitive seasons to Florida high schools after FHSAA cuts discriminated against women. "We need to let the courts know why sports are more than just going up and down a swimming pool," she says. "Why denying girls sports is like denying them math class."

The Money: Sarah Robb O'Hagan

Gatorade North America president; Global Sports Nutrition Group of PepsiCo president
O'Hagan grew up in New Zealand, where Title IX wasn't necessary because, she says, girls and boys were equally encouraged in athletics and in the classroom. O'Hagan excelled in both arenas and worked for various corporations before joining PepsiCo (led by female chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi) in 2008 as chief marketing officer for Gatorade. In 2011, she took over the presidency and led the sports drink's transformation into a performance innovator supported by both male and female athletes. In May of this year, she assumed her additional role with PepsiCo's Global Sports Nutrition. One of the newest Gatorade commercials features Cam Newton, Maria Sharapova and Hope Solo, a gender equality that O'Hagan sees as instrumental to Gatorade's success.

The Glass Cutter: Sarah Thomas

College football official
Five years ago, Thomas was hired by Conference USA and became the first woman to officiate a major college football game. The mother of two and former college basketball player started officiating high school games in 1999. In 2011, she became the first female to officiate inside a Big Ten stadium. Now, entering her sixth collegiate officiating season, rumors have started that she may assume a role that no woman ever has -- as an NFL official.

"I had no idea that women didn't officiate football when I joined," Thomas says. "I think we'll see more females get involved in officiating in the next few years but I always say that you have to do it for the right reasons. You can't do it to make a statement or get involved for reasons other than it's a passion that drives you. As long as you can do the job and call the game, the players they don't care."

The Expansionist: Jean Afterman

Senior vice president/assistant GM, New York Yankees
Only the third female assistant general manager in baseball history, Jean Afterman was breaking down barriers long before her Yankees tenure. In 1995, she helped find a loophole to open up the borders to the inflow of Japanese players like Hideo Nomo. Now in her 11th season with the Yankees, the senior VP of the most storied franchise in baseball continues to blaze her own trail. "I got to see her in action during the Hideki Irabu and Alfonso Soriano negotiations for instance," says Brian Cashman, Yankees general manager. "She wasn't intimidated by George Steinbrenner in any matter whatsoever -- actually willing to lock horns with him."

The Phenom: Missy Franklin

American swimmer
After the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the conversation around swimming changed as a lanky, once-awkward kid named Michael Phelps became a mainstream superstar. And now USA Swimming has that potential in Missy Franklin. The 17-year-old is 6-foot-1, size 13 feet and a 76-inch wingspan. She also owns a short-course world record in the 200-meter backstroke and says while she often felt insecure about her size on land, she feels like a dolphin in the water. "Athletes like Missy make us look forward to the unexpected," says two-time Olympic gold medalist Summer Sanders. "They show us there aren't limitations. Young women need to see that. She's inspiring the next girl by showing her anything is possible."

The Future: Heidi Ueberroth

President, NBA International
Hers is a deceptively simple dictate from commish David Stern: Make hoops accessible for everyone to play and watch. Overseeing 15 offices worldwide (adding one in India in 2011 year with Brazil set to open later this year), Heidi Ueberroth's created the infrastructure and global partnerships to expand the game globally, with a priority on engaging fans on their own terms. "As we literally go around the world we're seeing different opportunities based on the specific dynamics of each place," Ueberroth says. The league netted more than 46 million followers combined on Sina Weibo (China's version of Twitter) and Tencent QQ (an IM program out of China) and more than 100,000 Turkish fans as soon as their Facebook page was translated in May.

The Healer, Part II: Dr. Jill Brooks

Clinical neuropsychologist, Head to Head Consultants
Concussions don't just affect football players. That's why Brooks has focused her research and practice on changing dated methods of preventing, diagnosing and treating concussions in high school students, especially teen girls. "Most physicians just recommend rest," says Brooks, who has worked as a neuropsychologist for the Rutgers football team. "That's not enough. Athletes use sport as their primary method of handling stress and anxiety. Psychotherapy and peer counseling are essential for a patient with head trauma to find an off-field release for those burdens."

The Brain: Dr. Colleen Hacker

Mental skill coach and performance enhancement specialist
Since 1995, Dr. Colleen Hacker has worked with the U.S. women's soccer team and was named assistant coach in 2000. The United States Olympic Committee took notice and asked her to consult with more of its athletes. "My job is to create performance on demand," says Hacker. "Our athletes need to be aware of their tendencies under pressure, and prepare for them. The difference between No. 1 and No. 2 is sweating the small stuff. I make sure they sweat it all."

The Game Changer: Cindy Davis

President, Nike Golf, Inc.
Since she took the reins in 2008, Cindy Davis, the former Furman University All-American golfer, has dedicated significant resources to equipment and apparel in a bleak economic climate. Incorporating Nike's signature performance technology to golf's more traditional roots has helped solidify Davis' claim that Nike is golf's "brand of the future."

The Conscience: Judy Sweet

Co-director, Alliance of Women Coaches; gender equity and Title IX consultant
In 1975, UC-San Diego hired Sweet as one of the country's first female athletic director of both men's and women's athletic programs, and she served as the first female secretary-treasurer of the NCAA from 1989 to 1991 before becoming the first female president of the NCAA from 1991 to 1993. "I know what life was like before Title IX and I'm committed to making sure that women don't have the lack of opportunities that I had," she says. About a year ago, Sweet helped launch the Alliance of Women Coaches -- an outgrowth of the NCAA Women Coaches Academy ¬which to date includes more than 600 members in support of female coaches at every level of sports. But her most important cause today is traveling around the country to speak about the importance of gender equality.

The Fixer: Dr. Leigh Ann Curl

Chief orthopedic surgeon, Baltimore Ravens
Her self-described "tomboy" roots have served Dr. Leigh Ann Curl well professionally. In 1998, she became the first woman to be a team orthopedic surgeon in the NFL (she's now one of two). The former Johns Hopkins assistant professor has served as the Ravens' team orthopedic surgeon for 14 years while maintaining her own medical practice and research. The former UConn basketball four-year starter graduated summa cum laude before moving on to medical school, where she was the only woman in a class of 120 students going into orthopedics. She worked team doctor positions with the New York Mets, St. John's University, the University of Maryland sports teams and USA Women's Basketball and Rugby before joining Baltimore.

The Guru: Kathy Carter

President, Soccer United Marketing
Since taking over at Soccer United Marketing, which markets soccer leagues to U.S. markets, Kathy Carter has worked to elbow the sport into the same visibility as the Big Four pro leagues. "We have to have the patience for the time that it will take us to get there and the impatience to never be satisfied that it will take that long," she says. Thanks to Carter, and the population of 12- to 24-year-olds for whom pro soccer ranks as the second-most popular sport (behind only the NFL), change is afoot. MLS teams occupy 14 soccer-specific stadiums, have expanded to three Canadian cities and created development academies for teams like the Chicago Fire, which counts 10,000 kids as part of its club system.

The Actress: Geena Davis

Founder, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media
Geena Davis starred in "A League of Their Own" in 1992 and its box office success had industry-watchers predicting an avalanche of female-driven sports movies. The same thing happened 10 years later when "Bend It Like Beckham" thrived. "And of course nothing changed," Davis says. "The percentage of women in films, 20 percent of characters, has been the same since 1946. We've all been trained not to notice when there's too few women [on-screen]." Davis commissioned the largest research project on gender representation and now takes her stats to studio and network honchos directly. "I really believe in data as a tool to change minds," she says. And maybe numbers, too.

The Sherriff: Julie Roe Lach

Vice President, Enforcement for the NCAA
The NCAA has long been criticized for its lengthy investigations and inconsistent penalties. But in her two years on the job, Julie Roe Lach has been lauded for her attempts at making the enforcement process efficient, predictive and transparent. After surveying coaches, athletic directors and athletes, she focused on agent issues in football and men's and women's basketball, and created five desktop investigator positions to handle social media and telecom evidence. Her group is also assisting the NCAA's attempt to diversify the infractions committee and widen the penalty structure -- plans that could be adopted in the summer of 2013. "That lends itself to increased credibility and greater faith on their part that the entire process is fair," Roe Lach says.

The Boss: Lesa France Kennedy

CEO, International Speedway Corporation
Her shrewd management of motorsports marquis racetracks (Daytona and Talladega are only two of their 13 tracks.) and construction of new tracks (Kansas and Chicagoland Speedways in 2001) literally changed the landscape of American motorsports and over half of the Sprint Cup Series is run on International Speedways tracks. Rather than focus on her own success, Kennedy quickly deflects the conversation to her family. Not her grandfather, NASCAR founder Bill France, or his successors, her father Bill Jr. and brother Brian. Kennedy glows when discussing grandmother, recent NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Annie B. France, mother Betty Jane, and the days when they ran the sport out of a cash box.

"When I was a little girl I worked in the racetrack ticket office with my mother and grandmother," says Kennedy. "I heard it all at that sales window, complaints and praise. I have worked very hard to never forget that. No matter how much NASCAR, or any sport, grows we can't lose touch with the fan experience. That has to be the priority."

Reporting by Elizabeth Merrill, Elena Bergeron,
David Fleming, Lindsay Berra, Alyssa Roenigk, Sarah Turcotte, Morty Ain, Ryan McGee and Anna Katherine Clemmons.