The surprising odyssey of putting women in charge

The future of Julie Hermann as the Rutgers athletic director — specifically, if she is to have a future at the New Jersey school — may be determined soon, with reports that she’ll be on campus this week ahead of her official June 17 start date.

One of the most most important components of this saga is hiding in plain sight, to a certain degree, but it’s not a new twist for those familiar with the history of women and leadership in intercollegiate athletics.

Not long after The Newark Star-Ledger reported that Hermann was the subject of complaints of verbal abuse by her players as Tennessee’s volleyball coach, the head of the professional organization devoted to advancing the careers of women athletic administrators issued a statement of full support for Hermann.

In a decade and a half as a high-ranking administrator in the Louisville athletic department, Hermann had been regarded as a rising star in her profession, and not just because of her gender.

So the news that the entire Tennessee team had issued a letter of protest about Hermann’s treatment — resulting in her removal as coach — must have come as a shock to the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators.

Yet what was missing from its statement was any acknowledgement of concern about the players’ complaints from the mid-1990s.

“These allegations are unfathomable,” Angela Bassett, who served with Hermann on the NACWAA executive committee, said in the statement. In a bizarre statement, a high-ranking Rutgers official is essentially blaming Hermann’s accusers.

But multiple members of Hermann’s last Tennessee team have stood by their claims.

This is where the delicate subject of women as athletic directors clashes with the even touchier subject of how female athletes are regarded by female authority figures, and there’s an intriguing dynamic here that doesn’t get much media attention at all.

From the very beginnings of organized women’s collegiate athletics, this dynamic has been present in spite of common assertions by women’s sports advocates that young females need strong female role models to lead and inspire them.

playing nice and losingOne of the few books to treat this subject with any critical scrutiny is “Playing Nice and Losing,” adapted from a doctoral dissertation by Ying Wushanley and published in 2004. I came across it serendipitously while researching my e-book from last summer, “Beyond Title IX.” His history of the governance of women’s college athletics focuses on the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which existed from 1971-1982 and was operated by women administrators who came largely from the physical education profession.

In probing through the AIAW papers and speaking with former leaders, Wushanley discovered plenty of internal conflict to conclude that the AIAW “became more a political agency for the women leaders than a national organization devoted to the advancement of women’s athletics.”

Wushanley, who now teaches at Millersville University, points out that it was the AIAW hierarchy, steadfastly opposed to the “male” commercial model of athletics of the NCAA, that prompted the first sports-related Title IX lawsuit. It was filed by female college tennis players and their coaches in 1973, a year after the law’s passage, and against the AIAW, which denied athletic scholarships for women.

An out-of-court settlement resulted in the AIAW allowing for some scholarship aid, but Wushanley notes that the organization spent much more money for the rest of its history on legal expenses than sponsoring sports for women. Indeed, the AIAW burned through a hefty chunk of that money in its final three years trying to stave off advances from the NCAA.

By then, claims by some AIAW leaders that women athletes are best served by women coaches and administrators were being disputed by other women leaders who believed the NCAA could better accommodate the growth of women’s sports brought about by Title IX. (One of those dissenters, former AIAW president and now-retired UCLA administrator Judith Holland, was called a “co-conspirator” for testifying on behalf of the NCAA in the AIAW’s failed antitrust suit.)

The reason you don’t hear much about these conflicts now isn’t just because they — along with Hermann’s coaching tenure at Tennessee — may be viewed as ancient history in our media culture. Wushanley’s findings reveal battles that women’s sports advocates have conveniently tried to airbrush in their more contemporary drive for greater female inclusion in athletics, and especially in the administrative ranks.

That’s why the NACWAA’s statement about Hermann, while disappointing, wasn’t surprising. It’s understandable there would be a swift response, given that there are only two other female athletic directors at BCS schools — Sandy Barbour at Cal-Berkeley and Debbie Yow at N.C. State.

Yet the NACWAA hasn’t come back with any clarification in light of the responses by Hermann’s former Tennessee players. Like the Title IX suit against the AIAW 40 years ago, the agenda of women careerists and the interests of female athletes are seemingly at odds.

What’s also emerging is another storyline that doesn’t help the cause of female athletic administrators: Kate Sweeney, the co-chairwoman of the Rutgers search committee and a former Scarlet Knights basketball player during the AIAW era, was especially eager to see a woman get the job.

Interestingly, several leading female sportswriters have teed off rather harshly on the whole Rutgers mess (including an alumna), femaleness be damned. Colunnist Tara Sullivan of The Record wrote that Sweeney’s advocacy prevented the school from identifying the best possible candidate. Instead, it hired someone with an alleged history of abusive behavior to oversee a department roiled by the abusive tenure of former men’s basketball coach Mike Rice. Concluded Sullivan:

Hiring a woman wasn’t the problem. Hiring the wrong woman is.

Regardless of Hermann’s ultimate fate – and her selected memory of her Tennessee tenure isn’t helping her case at all –  it’s a point that her biggest supporters remain oblivious to understanding. They ought to read — and fully absorb — this response published Sunday from former Tennessee volleyball player Jodee Scott:

Coaches are neither good or bad. It’s not that simple when human beings are involved; there are usually shades of grey. Coaches should be allowed to admit mistakes, say they’ve learned from them and move on without being ridiculed. Maybe then there would be fewer cover-up scandals in athletics. Maybe not.

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