I had no sooner pushed the button on yesterday’s post on the issue of gender and coaching women’s basketball than ESPN The Magazine, as part of the Worldwide Leader’s flood the zone Title IX coverage, published “The Glass Wall” on the same topic, but that reached an entirely different conclusion.
Written by Luke Cyphers and Kate Fagan, a former basketball player at Colorado, this very long piece examines the dearth of women in the college coaching ranks, why so many more men are itching to coach women’s teams and what happens to women coaches who fight for gender equity.
As I Tweeted upon first reading this, I thought this was a crock, and at so many levels. After several more closer readings, it is sadly nothing more than the dogma of recycled, decades-old cultural grievances from a handful of women’s advocates. Cyphers and Fagan have provided an updated shine, designed to give the impression that the professional prospects for women coaches are grimmer now than ever.
This claptrap has been peddled by women’s advocates since the demise of the AIAW in the early 1980s. It is less about the development of women’s sports than the careerism of adult women, whose interests and desire for power have always been more paramount than the athletes under their charge.
There is quote after mournful quote of women coaches, administrators, academics and even NCAA officials about how it’s unthinkable that women will ever have a chance to coach men as they watch men easily cross the line in the opposite direction.
Cyphers and Fagan “report” these disparities with skimpy “research” conducted by advocates who have an axe to grind. It is astonishing in its willingness to swallow whole a fallacious ideology, and even more astonishing for the serious journalistic questions it does not pose.
It wasn’t until the 43rd paragraph — the 43rd! — that I finally came across the lead, as we say in the journalism business. Here it is in full:
“Athletic directors who spoke with espnW for this story say they consistently receive significantly more applications from men for all coaching vacancies. ‘There isn’t a job that’s not dominated by male applicants,” says [former Notre Dame and Northwestern women's basketball coach Mary] DiStanislao.’ “
The writers try to explain this away, blaming long-standing sexism and homophobia in an intolerant male sports culture as the real culprit for the lower-than-desired numbers. To prove their point, they simply quote the aggrieved, with no other point of view evident or even possible. Here’s Helen Carroll of the National Center for Lesbian Rights:
“When you look at the decline in the percentage of women coaches, sexual orientation has a lot to do with it.”
What else is she going to say?
The poster child of the persecuted woman coach in “The Glass Wall” is former Oregon women’s basketball coach Jody Runge. The story severely downplays the fact that Runge was a polarizing figure within the Oregon athletic program, and within her own team, for many more reasons than pushing for better support for women’s sports. There’s an excellent book on the subject that illustrates the complexities of her time there. To hoist her as a victim of a female-unfriendly environment is misleading, at the very least.
This story’s treatment of gender equity issues at Fresno State also does not tell the full story, some of which I wrote about last summer. While there certainly was a high degree of gender-based hostility within that athletic department, this is not a one-way street. There was too much mistrust and animosity going back and forth to blame one side as the source of the problem.
Curiously, none of the women coaches quoted by Cyphers and Fagan talk about whether they’ve expressed an interest in coaching a men’s team, or even applied. Surely the writers should have known that Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer’s name was bandied about in the early 1990s for men’s openings. Did they bother to ask her about it?
Here’s another glaring omission from this story: In women’s basketball, men are quite often more willing to take a job at a mid-major or small-conference program and work their way up. While an increasing number of women are doing the same thing, those women touted as the “hot young coaches” are primarily top assistants at BCS-level programs, usually in charge of recruiting and waiting for their first head coaching job, ideally at another major school.
Cyphers and Fagan can’t be bothered to question this further, nor to mention that the percentage of male coaches abounds most notably at the lower college, high school and AAU levels. Are more women not willing, or just not interested, in starting out at the very bottom? Have they been encouraged by women’s sports leaders to aim higher before they may be ready? Are they being properly prepared for the rigors of contemporary coaching by their mostly female mentors? These questions also do not seem to have been asked.
During the 1990s there was a concerted effort to hire women as much as possible. Starting in the last decade, athletics directors have been hiring coaches, regardless of gender, who they believe will win. It’s a cold bottom line, but it’s a trend that figures to escalate.
To continue to blame the same old bogeymen for the changing nature and demands of the coaching profession is to continue to fight the past. “The Glass Wall” perpetuates a narrative of unwarranted victimology that ESPN, with its earnest diligence to chronicle “The Power of IX,” has gotten badly wrong.