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Lawsuits show MLB's gender problem

Mark Matcho for ESPN

THE METS REALLY ought to send a fruit basket to Roger Goodell. When the NFL's bungled attempt to extinguish the Ray Rice fiasco backfired, the acrid smoke wafting from the commissioner's office in Manhattan masked a scandal across the river at Citi Field. The NFL is the target of the country's scorn right now, but it isn't the only league with a gender problem.

On Sept. 10, a woman named Leigh Castergine, previously the Mets' senior vice president of ticket sales and service, sued the team and its part-owner and COO, Jeffrey Wilpon, for discrimination. Castergine had been a rising star in the organization. After implementing new computer systems and ticketing strategies, she says, she was rewarded with a promotion, hefty bonuses, and accolades -- until she got pregnant. Then, the suit alleges, Wilpon "began to humiliate Castergine and disparage her in front of her colleagues," publicly stating that he objected to her having a baby out of wedlock. Castergine says Wilpon told a coworker that people would respect her more if she were married; at one meeting, she adds, he checked her finger for a ring. After complaining about this treatment, she was fired, allegedly receiving an offer for a severance package contingent upon her silence. Instead of accepting, she sued.

The case has not gone to trial, and the Mets have denied the charges. When asked about the suit by a reporter, Commissioner Bud Selig would only say, "We're just going to have to see how it plays out." While many of the details of the case are still inconclusive, one fact is both irrefutable and telling: Castergine had been the only female senior vice president in the Mets' 52-year history. Now that she's gone, there are zero women in that position. Thirty of the 31 executives listed in the Mets' front office directory are men.

The NFL has been castigated, rightfully, for its lack of women in executive positions. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), which grades sports associations on race and gender diversity, recently gave the NFL a C- for its gender hiring practices. The authors also pointed out, though, that the tally of women in the league's front office had improved, even before its recent spate of female hires. MLB, meanwhile, is headed in the opposite direction. According to TIDES, the percentage of women in the league's central office declined last year, to 30 percent. (In 1994, more than half of front office employees were women.) The percentage of female senior executives, directors, and managers in MLB? All down.

Castergine's complaint isn't an aberration. In 2011, another woman, also in ticket sales, sued the Chicago White Sox for discrimination. Despite consistently receiving excellent reviews over her eight years with the team, Debra Theobald alleged, she was repeatedly turned down for promotions and forced to report to less qualified men. In 2010, after the White Sox promoted a male ticketing agent with significantly less experience above her, "some women assigned to the sales department wept and expressed shock and dismay," Theobald said in the report, adding that she received smaller raises than her male counterparts. After Illinois' Department of Human Rights investigated her case and gave her the green light to file suit, the team agreed to a confidential settlement.

At the time, ESPN's Lester Munson wrote that it would be "a big surprise if the franchise doesn't hire a few women for top jobs in the near future." Three years later, the White Sox have zero female vice presidents. So do the Royals and Athletics. Overall, according to TIDES, just 17.5 percent of MLB team VPs are women.

Several women have scaled baseball's corporate ladder, but their ranks are still deplorably thin; one would be hard-pressed to field a starting lineup of female leaders. Pam Gardner, the Astros' president of business operations and the longest-tenured female chief executive in baseball, stepped down in 2012. The league's first female head trainer, Sue Falsone, left the Dodgers in October 2013 after two years.

Then there's Kim Ng. "Talk about somebody who should've been a GM by now," says Donna Lopiano, a sports management consultant who headed women's athletics at the University of Texas. Ng, MLB's senior VP of baseball operations, previously worked as assistant GM for the Dodgers and the Yankees. She has reportedly interviewed for GM jobs with at least four teams, including, mostly recently, the Padres. Newsweek once said she was "in line to become the sport's first female GM."

That was in 2006.

Matt Bourne, an MLB spokesman, points out that there are several high-ranking women in the commissioner's office, including the chief marketing officer and senior VP of diversity and strategic alliances. "However we recognize that we can always do better and are committed to recruiting, hiring and developing female employees at all levels," he wrote in an e-mail.

But even for a sport that's known for its plodding pace of change, baseball's crawl toward gender parity has been glacial. Some blame the absence of female students in sports management programs; others argue that it's hard for women to reach the C-Suite without playing experience. (Although in today's analytics-driven world, many male executives aren't exactly stud athletes.) It's also plausible that female candidates are turned off by the landscape, says Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University. "The level of violence and hostility directed towards women explains to some level the lack of women," she explains.

Baseball's leadership would be wise to induct new members into its club. Given that women comprise nearly half of MLB's fans, according to the league, they're probably well suited to sell the sport to themselves; several studies have shown that companies with diverse boards achieve greater returns and boast superior reputations. "Men in the business don't respect the abilities of women," says Lopiano. "They're flying in the face of research."

Castergine pursued a career in sports at a young age. After studying economics at Penn, she sold tickets for the 76ers, then worked for the Flyers, Magic, and Bruins before joining MLB. Last September, SEAT Magazine wrote that "other high-ranking executives" said Castergine would be "the next female president in the sports industry." In an interview, the trade publication asked Castergine if she still witnessed gender inequities in her field.

"There are more and more females getting into the industry and performing well, so hopefully the numbers in senior level positions will continue to climb," she replied.

It's a shame that didn't happen in New York.