The 2018 Women's National Basketball Association season marked the league's 22nd year as a professional sport. Not only has the success of the league on the court been outstanding, but what the WNBA has been able to achieve off the court also deserves great recognition.
Our team at The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), at the University of Central Florida, is reporting that the league received a combined grade of an A+ for race and gender in this year's WNBA Racial and Gender Report Card. With a combined score of a 97.6 for racial and gender hiring practices, it was the highest grade ever recorded in the 30 years we have been publishing report cards.
Since we started issuing WNBA report cards, the WNBA has received at least A's for its overall race, gender and combined grades. In the 2018 report, the WNBA earned an A+ for race with a score of 95.1 and an A+ for gender with an unprecedented score of 99.9. This record of diversity and inclusion is a true reflection of the league's commitment to the power of an inclusive workforce.
2018 has been an incredible year for athlete activism. Most notably, one can look at the Nike ads debuted in early September celebrating the 30th anniversary of the company's iconic mantra, "Just Do It." With Colin Kaepernick as the face of the campaign, it is clear that brands are realizing the value of providing a platform for athletes to speak on important social issues. If TIDES gave a grade for athlete activism, the WNBA would certainly receive an A+. From a professional league standpoint, the WNBA excels at accomplishing this as well. Although Lisa Borders recently stepped down as the league's president to become the first-ever president and CEO of Time's Up, her leadership encouraged and emphasized the importance of athletes remaining educated and outspoken on societal issues.
As a product, the WNBA had a successful 2018 with its ratings coming in as its most-watched season in four years. Through this, the activism continued as the league introduced the "Take a Seat, Take a Stand" program that donates a portion of WNBA ticket proceeds to designated nonprofit organizations committed to women and girl empowerment, including sexual assault prevention programs. This all part of the league's continued efforts to use their platform to shine a light on social issues.
In 2016, WNBA players and teams created one of the most significant protests in recent sports history as entire teams and, in some cases, their owners came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protest started when the Minnesota Lynx took the court in shirts printed with "Black Lives Matter" and other phrases, including the name of Philando Castile, who was shot by police in Minnesota. Players on the New York Liberty, the Indiana Fever and the Phoenix Mercury followed suit. That was before Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police brutality, and before NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade eloquently spoke at the 2016 ESPYS against racism and gun violence.
Delise S. OMeally, the executive director of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, commented: "It's not by happenstance that the WNBA is the most socially conscious league, and that WNBA players continue to advocate for the key social issues of our time. Strong leadership, and a commitment to diversity and inclusion create an environment where people feel valued, respected and supported. This in turn empowers, and builds courage and the fortitude to speak out on these important topics. Throughout history, female athletes have been at the forefront of social issues. This trend continues with today's generation of athlete activists, young women who are willing to use the power of their platform to elevate others, to denounce injustice and to sound a clarion call for positive change."
That vision for being engaged in change comes from within sport's most diverse and inclusive league as well as its supportive partnership with the NBA's league office.
When looking at the individual categories of the report, the WNBA's increases for women and/or people of color in key leadership positions continues to be strong. I am confident that this trend will continue into the future as the league realizes the benefits of having a diverse set of individuals in decision-making roles. Below are some examples of these results:
• There were six women and three African-American general managers, the same as in 2017.
• 48.6% of team vice presidents and above positions were women.
• There were six women who were CEO/presidents, an increase of one from 2017. This tied the highest number, which was achieved in 2010. There were four people of color who held these positions in 2018, which was an increase from three in 2017. This also tied the all-time high achieved in 2015.
• Fourteen women and 11 people of color held ownership positions on WNBA franchises in 2018. This represented an increase of three people in the number of women and an increase of two persons of color from 2017. Most owners were limited partners.
• The WNBA league office employs a workforce that is 50 percent women, and 55 percent are people of color. My greatest concern with the report is in the head coach position. For the 2018 season, there were three African-American head coaches (25.0 percent), a two person decrease from the 2017 season. Having only three head coaches of color tied the lowest number since 2006. There were six women as head coaches in the 2018 season, which remained the same as the 2017 season. Seven was the highest number of women as head coaches. The last time the WNBA had seven women as head coaches was 2010.
Not only does the WNBA do an excellent job of providing opportunities for its business staff, it has a proven track record of providing past players the chance to transition off the court as league professionals. Former WNBA players Rushia Brown (Charlotte Sting) and Asjha Jones (Connecticut Sun) acquired a front office position at the Las Vegas Aces as the player programs and franchise development manager and Washington Mystics as the player development assistant, respectively, in 2018.
Christine Brennan, a national columnist for USA Today and commentator for CNN and ABC News, noted that "It's clear that the WNBA doesn't just create great players, it also creates great leaders. Girls and young women around the nation can be inspired not only by the women they see on the court, but also the women they see in the front office. Men's professional leagues should take note. This can be done."
The WNBA serves as a model for all other professional sport leagues when it comes to hiring a diverse and inclusive workforce. When looking at sport fan bases that continue to grow in the female demographic, it is necessary to have women in key leadership positions. Otherwise, we are missing half of the conversation, which may lead to a substantial opportunity cost for leagues that choose to not make it a priority to increase women representation.
As the country's most diverse and inclusive league, we all have a lot to learn from the WNBA. I hope the league continues to emphasize the powerful effects of athlete activism and remains committed to providing a platform for its athletes to speak on topics important to our country. We should all be appreciative of the WNBA's commitment to building a league in which individuals of all backgrounds are heard and comfortable bringing their full selves to work every day. It has been an amazing journey to watch.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition and longtime civil rights leader, said, "Our Rainbow PUSH Sports platform has been proudly engaged with the WNBA for several years. We have been consistently impressed with how they have set a standard for diversity, inclusion, fairness and opportunities that far exceeds many of the men's professional leagues in this country. Their players are truly dedicated to giving back to their communities, making appearances and showing their support to various worthy causes, as well as setting up their own non-profit foundations to promote the greater good through sports.
"Rainbow PUSH Sports had the privilege of honoring several players during their 20th year anniversary at our annual convention in 2016. We also had players and executives from the New York Liberty participate in our Wall Street event in 2017, and had several members of the Chicago Sky volunteer in our Summer Sports STEM youth program and other events this year. Our organization is committed to continuing these meaningful collaborations, which allow all of us to benefit from the power of sports. This year's report card from Dr. Richard Lapchick and his team confirms what we've seen for years ... the WNBA knows how to win on and off the court!"
Brett Estrella contributed to this column.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.