The NCAA women’s basketball championship game, held Sunday night in Tampa, Fla., is arguably the biggest collegiate women’s sporting event in this country.
Outside of possibly women’s soccer — during World Cup or Olympic seasons — it’s the showcase for some of the best women’s athletes in this country.
Many, however, would take offense to that sentence. And they should.
Why does it have to be “best women’s athletes in this country” and not just “best athletes in this country?”
As a more-than-middle-aged white male, I’m not the best authority on this subject. I know that. But I also know something is wrong in our sports world when it comes to equality between women’s and men’s sports.
You can argue men’s sports are more popular than the women’s games. Attendance and TV ratings would win you that argument. The Iowa men, for instance, averaged nearly 13,000 fans this past season, the Elite Eight women under 7,000. Last year’s men’s national championship earned a 9.2 TV rating, the women’s game 2.0.
I’ve used this argument myself when talking with readers about why a men’s game gets bigger play than a women’s event in the sports section.
But there’s more to inequality than just numbers.
Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffett McGraw raised concerns recently about the lack of women coaching women and, with her Fighting Irish at center stage this weekend, her message has drawn national attention.
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When asked if she would ever hire a man as an assistant coach, she said “no” in an article at thinkprogress.org.
“People are hiring too many men,” she said in the article. “Women need the opportunity. They deserve the opportunity.”
It’s hard to argue with that reasoning. Men coach men, for the most part, so why shouldn’t women coach women?
Iowa always has been a leader in women’s athletics, from high school to college. So how do our state institutions stack up in this regard?
Iowa offers 12 women’s sports and has six women’s head coaches — Lisa Bluder in basketball, Sasha Schmid in tennis, Lisa Cellucci in field hockey, Megan Menzel in golf, Renee Gillispie in softball and Larissa Libby in gymnastics. At Iowa State, there are only two women’s coaches among its 10 sports — Sara Butler in golf and Christy Johnson-Lynch in volleyball. UNI also has two women coaching its nine programs — Tanya Warren in basketball and Bobbi Petersen in volleyball.
All three universities have one track coach who oversees all programs, including cross country, and all three are men. All, however, have women assistants.
Of the four Division I women’s basketball programs in Iowa, three have women head coaches — Bluder, Warren and Jennie Baranczyk at Drake. Bluder and Baranczyk have all-female staffs while Warren has two male assistants.
"I’m very intentional about that, and I’m very proud of the fact that we have an all-female staff,” Bluder said.
Nationally, 59.3 percent of the women’s basketball programs are coached by women.
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“When you look at men’s basketball and 99 percent of the jobs go to men, why shouldn’t 100 or 99 percent of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women?” McGraw asked during a Final Four news conference. “Maybe it’s because we only have 10 percent women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them. And that’s the problem.”
In Iowa, there are men doing outstanding jobs with their women’s programs — Bill Fennelly with Iowa State basketball, for instance.
But is McGraw right? Are there enough opportunities for women coaches? If young girls and women don’t see someone who looks like them in coaching positions, where do they get inspiration to become coaches?
“I think that young women need to have female role models to look up to and to see leaders in action that are women,” Bluder said when asked about the subject recently. “I’m not saying that men can’t be role models, but we all know that when you have somebody that looks like you, it’s a little bit easier.”
I don’t have the answers, but I will say women’s athletics needs more role models like Bluder, like Petersen and like Johnson-Lynch.
And like McGraw.
“I’m getting tired of the novelty of ... the first female governor of this state. The first female African-American mayor of this city,” McGraw said at a recent news conference when asked about being voice for women. “When is it going to become the norm instead of the exception? ...”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told Reuters this weekend there is an “awakening” coming in women’s athletics.
“I support women athletes who are saying enough is enough,” he said. “That for too long the federations have not done right by them to protect them and empower them.
“It’s an exciting moment to see that happening.”
That, too, is hard to argue with.
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