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First Female Head Coach: How the NBA has begun to set the foundation

The NBA and Lean In launched their public awareness campaign, #LeanInTogether for the third consecutive year last Tuesday. The campaign supports gender equality, “where women and men get the opportunities to do what they are great at, whether it is at home or at work, and not to be held to narrow gender stereotypes”, as Sheryl Sandberg explained during a Q&A with ESPN, Adam Silver (NBA Commissioner), and Kathleen Behrens (NBA President of Social Responsibility and Player Programs).

Sandberg, who also serves as Facebook’s COO, is the founder of Lean In, a non-profit organization that seeks to empower women to achieve their ambitions, and offers support through their online community and small peer groups (Lean In Circles). Follow this link for more information.

The NBA’s role in this campaign is to use their worldwide platform to encourage and spread the message of gender equality. Kyle Lowry, Devin Booker, and Jrue Holiday are the most recent players featured in this campaign, among the rest of their fellow co-workers who have taken to social media in support. As Silver notes, “[players are] demonstrating to the public that these same core values of equality, inclusion, diversity and respect are just as important in their homes”.


Devin Booker (right) and his sister –

With the league’s continued involvement in workplace equality for women, questions have been brought up as to when the league will have it’s first female head coach. In another interview with ESPN, Silver was asked to respond to WFAN radio host Mike Francesa, who had recently said that women wouldn’t be able to head coach a professional men’s team. Silver stated that “there definitely will [be a woman becoming an NBA head coach], and I think it is on me to sort of ensure that it happens sooner rather than later”.

I will state right now that I don’t agree with Francesa’s comments. I one hundred per-cent support the notion of a female NBA head coach, because I believe that being a basketball intellectual is independent of gender. The argument of women being unable to lead a group of men is also unfounded, because ultimately leadership comes down to respect.

However, I don’t think the NBA is as close to having a female head coach as Silver makes it seem. The reality of the issue is that most head coaches in the NBA have had long tenures as assistants, among other various roles underneath the head coach. Any prospective head coach, male or female, must put in the hours and earn the respect amongst their players and peers to be given the chance to lead them.

Currently, there are only three women holding positions among NBA coaching staffs: Spurs Assistant Coach Becky Hammon, Kings Assistant Coach Nancy Lieberman, and Clippers Assistant Video Coordinator Natalie Nakase. Teams looking to hire prospective head coaches will have a slew of checkmarks, unique to their own rosters and visions of where they want their teams to be lead. Being that there are only three women in such positions to be promoted, it is a struggle for women to compete against men for the limited positions of an NBA head coach.


Becky Hammon (left) coaching from the bench – DAVID WALLACE/AZCENTRALSPORTS

The more women that are employed in the NBA coaching pipeline (as assistants, video coordinators, etc…), the more legitimacy will be given to opportunities for women to be hired as NBA head coaches. I say that because strength is always in numbers. However, the issue isn’t as simple as that. There is no doubt that the disparity of women is most likely due to the lack of opportunities given, but also for the fact that there is a certain fear of sexism and intimidation women will face when trying to break barriers, especially one on such a global platform.

How can the NBA not only provide more opportunities for women to come up in the NBA coaching pipeline, but also encourage women to do so?

It must start from the roots, and with respect to Silver and the NBA, they are beginning to lay down that foundation through the implementation of training programs to bring women, former players and/or basketball minds alike, into a network of team personnel. As Silver suggests, the hope is that “when assistant coaching jobs become available, [these women] are in the pipeline and in position to potentially get those jobs”.

It’s not a whole lot, but it is something to start with and the right direction that the league needs to take to be more inclusive.

Outside of the NBA, the next step would be to see more females be given opportunities within the collegiate ranks. As with any job, only those who are qualified can be held in the discussion for hiring. There needs to be a body of work for prospective employers to review, before they can consider hiring candidates.

The NCAA provides women with another pipeline to gain invaluable coaching experience while trying to get noticed for the illusive assistant coaching positions. The NCAA provides more coaching opportunities, given their three divisions and the vast multitude of collegiate programs, compared to the thirty NBA teams.

In fact, perhaps the most qualified female candidate for a NBA head coaching position made her name during her extensive and illustrious career coaching D1 basketball at the University of Tennessee. The late, Pat Summitt, arguably the greatest NCAA head coach in history (men’s and women’s), led the Lady Vols program from 1974, ending in 2012 after she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Knoxville, TN - 2006.01.19 Lady Volunteers vs. Vanderbilt Commodores

Pat Summitt (left) coaching her Tennessee Lady Vols – UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE ATHLETICS

Over the course of thirty-eight years, she amassed 1,098 career wins, which is the most in NCAA basketball history. Her eight NCAA championships was a NCAA women’s record when she retired, only recently surpassed by University of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. Her toughness was revered by her peers, as Brian Williams recounts during his time as a player with the men’s program at Tennessee.

As the story goes, the men’s team were fooling around during a practice with Summitt in attendance. Fed up with the effort she was seeing, she threw the ball, getting the attention of the team, and ordered them to “run sprints, and run them fast”. The team looked at then-head coach Bruce Pearl, to which he responded by walking away and sitting down, conceding the rest of the practice to Summitt. Williams threw up twice that day.

She was twice offered the head coaching position with the men’s program at Tennessee, first in 1994, and again in 2001. Both times she turned down the offer, citing her reasons later in 2011 that she “wanted to keep doing the right things for women all the time”. Though not in line with her motivations, I have no doubt that had she chosen to pursue a career in the pros, she would have broken that barrier sooner than later.

However, that’s not to say that she wouldn’t have dealt with a host of obstacles either. Breaking the barrier is the first step towards creating change, but to see tangible effects of change, it needs to be sustained. Should we see the day where a woman leads an NBA team, the next obstacle they’ll face is compensation, for example. It is no secret that women in the workforce earn less than their fellow male colleagues; about 80 cents for every dollar earned by men per the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

It is up to the league to provide the right culture and environment to foster change, because as with any change, it takes time. As much as Silver wants to see a female head coach sooner than later, she needs to be put in a position to succeed, to validate the aspirations of other females to follow suit and take that next step.

I applaud the NBA for taking a stance on this situation, and hopefully I am wrong; that sooner than later we will see the first female head coach in NBA history. However, standing in the path of progress will always be characters like Mike Francesa, who would rather argue that women aren’t capable of handling the rigours and responsibilities of head coaching, than give women a chance to prove him otherwise.

He reflects how our current society view women in the workforce, a reality that many women face on a day-to-day basis. Like the NBA, all we can do is continue to create equal opportunities for women, through campaigns like #LeanInTogether so that someday, we won’t have to regard something such as a female NBA head coach as a breaking of barriers. It should just be considered the norm.


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