WNBA earns highest marks for racial and gender hiring practices

Noelle Quinn was named head coach of the Seattle Storm in May 2021 after Dan Hughes retired. Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

The WNBA is widely recognized for being one of the most progressive organizations in professional sport. Today's news reinforces that. The 2021 Women's National Basketball Association Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC), released Wednesday by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, confirms sports' best record for racial and gender hiring practices. The WNBA received an A+ for race and an A+ for gender, and an overall grade of A+. The WNBA has held the top position in the racial and gender report cards since the WNBA's inaugural report in 2004. The WNBA sets the standard for powerful and inclusive representation across the organization in terms of the league office, players, coaches, staff and administration.

The WNBA continues to set an example for inclusive racial and gender hiring practices across all professional leagues. The WNBA had many all-time highs reported in this report card. They included the number of women in ownership positions, percentage of women in team president positions, and people of color in assistant coaching positions, which led to the overall grade of A+.

This was the 17th consecutive year that the WNBA has received at least an A for its overall race, gender and combined grades. The WNBA scored 98.3 points for racial hiring practices and 96.8 points for gender hiring practices in 2021 and continued to set an example for inclusive racial and gender hiring practices across all professional leagues.

The only men's leagues close in comparison to the WNBA were the NBA and MLS, both earning A's this year for racial hiring practices.

"This has been an amazing year for the WNBA!" said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and head of the organizations that merged to form Rainbow/PUSH, after reviewing the report card. "Not only did they celebrate their 25th year anniversary on the court, but Dr. Lapchick reports so many wonderful steps of progress that have been made off the court in their business and hiring practices! Our National Sports Director, Dr. Joseph Bryant, also has led numerous efforts this year to highlight the WNBA, recognizing many of their players, executives, and the enormous impact the league has had to promote education, diversity, inclusion and justice. Every men's league can take a huge cue from the WNBA for their amazing contributions, consistently using their voice and their platform for social change, community service, intentional inclusion, and carrying the mantle of 'winning' in life beyond the playing field!"

Athletes are and have always been instrumental in changing societal views from social justice to mental health to LGBTQ+ rights. WNBA players are no exception and are often the leaders of those movements. The WNBA has continued its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives where it left off after the 2020 season. The league has several initiatives focused on civic engagement, LGBTQ+ advocacy and COVID-19 vaccine accessibility.

In April 2021, a public service announcement featuring Layshia Clarendon, Nneka Ogwumike, Elizabeth Williams and A'ja Wilson debuted during the 2021 WNBA draft. The PSA highlighted the significant impacts and disparities that communities of color have experienced during the pandemic. The PSA encouraged fans and the public to educate themselves about the COVID-19 vaccine. The WNBA also hosted vaccine clinics across the country to emphasize the importance of vaccination.

The WNBA has a social justice council that focuses on social justice programming and initiatives that include anti-racism training, voter registration and campaigning.

Clarendon, drafted 9th in the first round of the 2013 draft, serves on the WNBA's social justice council and became the first openly non-binary and transgender player in the WNBA. Clarendon, who uses pronouns interchangeably, has been an inspiration and role model for many in the LGBTQ+ community. Their impact on transgender awareness has been felt by queer journalists and athletes who hope to see Clarendon continue to change the landscape of the WNBA. The league's commitment to fostering inclusive environments can be seen in making journalists and announcers aware of Clarendon's pronouns and that they are respected.

The WNBA has found a new way to include internal changes that champion diversity and inclusion in the workforce. Recognizing that family planning and personal health has been a challenge for many of its players, the WNBA has announced an increase in the benefits related to healthcare and family planning. The agreement between the league and players' association includes reimbursing veteran players on family expenses such as surrogacy, adoption and egg freezing. The agreement also expanded paid maternity leave, child-care and breastfeeding accommodations. The most revolutionary change the agreement came to was access to free fertility services, which has been often seen as a luxury and not a necessity.

The recent push for new health and family care support can be attributed to many players' candidness about their journeys to building their families. Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm became a mother earlier this year after leading Team USA to a women's basketball gold medal. She and her wife, Russian Premier League teammate Marta Xargay Casademont, welcomed daughter, Ruby, via surrogate on Aug. 9. Stewart was unable to reap the benefits of free fertility treatment, having frozen her eggs earlier in 2019.

Still, Stewart's story, as well Naomi Osaka's and Simone Biles' outspokenness this summer about their mental health and well-being, has shed new light on women's health and the overall health and well-being of athletes. Los Angeles Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike, who is also president of the WNBA Players Association, has been outspoken about the need for a new outlook on women's health. "I think women really flipped this on its head," Ogwumike said, according to Bloomberg, "especially as it comes to stigmas and societal norms with expectations thrust around working women having to make this decision between family and career."

Following the completion of the 2021 WNBA Finals, the WNBA announced a new playoff format, ending the use of single-elimination games. Starting next year, the league will use best-of-three series to determine semifinalists, and a best-of-five for the semifinals and finals. In a statement, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the new format would let fans follow the league's stars and best teams from the start of the postseason. The new format gives the WNBA more opportunity to generate revenue and showcase players' talent on TV. This change highlights the WNBA's dedication to innovation and growing the game of basketball.

Other opportunities for the WNBA to expand may come in the form of a new franchise in Oakland, California. Alana Beard, a retired WNBA champion, two-time defensive player of the year and four time All-Star, has been pushing for an expansion team in Oakland. "I've always envisioned being an owner of a WNBA team," Beard said in October when it was announced she would partner with the African American Sports and Entertainment Group. "It just made sense to come together to partner on this to bring something special to the community."

While Engelbert has stated the new franchise is still far away and "on the horizon," Beard's commitment to moving the proposal forward is yet another example of how former WNBA players are committed to the league and the game after retirement. Oakland becoming a home for a new WNBA team would open the door for new opportunities in ownership, president and C-suite positions, and vice president positions -- all key-decision makers in the league. It would also expand the number of players in the league, providing more opportunities for women to compete at the highest level.

While growing diversity through a new franchise is still far into the foreseeable future, the WNBA has improved in many categories as seen in the 2021 report card. Women again held the majority of CEO/president positions, with 66.7%. As it does every year, the WNBA continues to lead the professional sports leagues -- Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League -- in overall grades and scores.

There were many highlights in this report card. They include:

• The percentage of women in team president positions and people of color in assistant coaching positions were all new highs for the WNBA.

• The percentage of majority owners and owners with voting power who are women was 33.3 percent in 2021.

• The percentage of women holding positions in the WNBA league office increased 4.5 percentage points, from 60.9 in 2020 to 65.4 percent in 2021.

• The number of Black head coaches increased from three in 2020 to five in 2021. The two new head coaches in 2021 were: Noelle Quinn of the Seattle Storm and Darius Taylor of the Atlanta Dream.

• For the first time, a person identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native has held a manager to senior director position. (This category is comprised of basketball and business operations jobs spanning from manager to executive director and senior director level, and includes player development, strength and conditioning, and general business operations.)

• There were eight women in CEO/president positions in 2021. This is the second time in the history of the WNBA report card that a majority of CEO/presidents are women.

• The percentage of people of color who held assistant coaching positions increased for the second consecutive season, from 54.2 percent in 2020 to 58.0 percent in 2021.

I call on and encourage the men's professional leagues to follow the WNBA's lead, and to support the league's efforts on and off the court. We cannot continue to expect the most underrepresented and underserved in sports to carry most of the load in diversity and equity in sports.

Noor Ahmed made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick directs the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. He 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.