Hurdles for Women Athletes: Racism and Sexism

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Richard E. Lapchick

Serena and Venus Williams give women of color more hope than anyone in recent memory as they are positioned to be serious players in tennis for years to come.

Their two-title smash at Wimbledon with Venus in singles and then, with her sister Serena, in doubles, ensures them a remarkable and profitable career playing tennis.

However, like other women of color, they will face the double barrier racism and sexism, when they change their goals from winning more tournaments to winning power in the corporate sports world.

They will confront a commercial enterprise that is predominately people of color on the playing field and dominated by people who look like me in the management suites and coaching offices.

African-American women are bursting onto the scene in pro and college sport, especially the Women’s National Basketball Association in which last year 64 percent of the WNBA players were African-American.

However, chances for success on the business side of sports are still poor.

Each year I author Northeastern University’s Racial and Gender Report Card, along with my colleague, Kevin Matthews, for Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

The most recent data indicates that among the 312 National College Athletic Association Division I schools (the universities with larger sports programs) African-American women represented 13.9 percent of all female student-athletes and were heavily concentrated in basketball (35 percent) and track and field (28.6 percent).

African-American women, like other women of color, were almost off the radar screen (5.3 percent) in all other sports combined while Latinas made up 2.9 percent, Asians 2.3 percent and Native Americans 0.5 percent of the total of women student-athletes. While those percentages have all been growing, it is by fractions of a percent each year.

That is bad enough. However, it is good in comparison to who controls the departments. While women as a whole have made some gains, women of color have been excluded from this elite level.

Incredibly, out of the 1,000 National College Athletic Association schools, only four have women of color as athletics directors.

In fact, there is not a single African-American, Latina, Asian-American or Native American woman athletic directors in Division I and only slightly more than 8 percent were white women–not including the historically Black colleges and universities.

In Division II, there are two African-American women and one Asian American woman athletic directors. White women were nearly 16 percent. There is one African-American woman who is an athletic director at Division III. Almost 25 percent of Division III athletic directors are white women.

The next obvious question is if the current programs have women of color in the pipeline, so to speak, being prepared to take over athletic director posts.

The answer is a flat out no.

In Division I, only 1.5 percent of all the senior athletics administrators holding the titles of associate and assistant were women of color; 26.2 percent were white women. In Divisions II and III, 2.8 percent and 1.8 percent were women of color. A full 34.4 percent and 44.1 percent were white women.

Moreover, men hold the majority of head coaching jobs of women’s teams in Division I. African American women make up only 2 percent of all coaches of women’s teams; all women of color comprise only 2.7 percent. Women only hold 43.6 percent of the women’s jobs.

The barriers go all the way to the top. At the NCAA headquarters in 1999, Danita Edwards, vice president for public affairs, was the only African American woman vice president. On all pro sports teams in the National Basketball Association, the National Football Association and Major League Baseball, there were 401 positions of vice-president. African-American women hold three. There were a total of four women of color as vice presidents in all of the league offices combined.

No African-American women held such positions in the National Football League, the National Hockey league or Major League Soccer offices. Soccer’s sole Latina with authority is Leilani Serrechia, a senior vice president for San Jose.

In the National Basketball Association, which consistently gets the highest grades for both women and people of color in our study, Judy Holland, vice president of community relations with the Washington Wizards, was the sole African-American woman among the 159 team vice presidents.

With a total of two, the NBA League Office had half of all women of color in any men’s league in this post: Marcia Sells was vice president for Player Continuing Education and Leah Wilcox, was vice president/Player and Talent Relations.

On National Football League teams, Adrian Barr, vice president for finance, with the St. Louis Rams, was the only African-American woman among the 109 vice presidents. There were no women of color as vice presidents in the league office.

Among Major League Baseball teams, Elaine Weddington Steward, vice president, assistant general manager and general counsel of the Red Sox, was the sole women of color among 134 team vice presidents. In the league office, there were two African-American women as vice presidents or at that level: Kathy Francis, vice president/ marketing and Wendy Lewis, executive director human resources/office administration.

The Women’s National Basketball Association operates differently from the other leagues because it shares staff with the NBA. However, among the staff assigned to the WNBA, women, including women of color, were relatively well represented.

Renee Brown, an African-American, was vice president, player personnel in the central office. WNBA President, Val Ackerman, has taken a very strong leadership role in creating opportunities for women of color in the WNBA.

What does the future hold? Certainly a look at the past would not give us much optimism. Political pressure really seems like a key element here. White males control most of the operations on all levels of sport. The successes of Serena and Venus Williams, while so important, is but a faint knock on the door. It is not even clear yet if their success will encourage more girls of color to play sports previously played mostly by whites.

Hopes were high when Althea Gibson won at Wimbledon. It took 42 years for a repeat by an African-American woman. Other women of color to win the coveted crown were Australian Yvonne Goolagong Cawley (1971 and 1980), Maria Bueno (1959, 1960 and 1964) and Conchita Martinez (1994).

Unless more women of color compete in sport as children, it is unlikely that they will be part of the sports world as adults. Today those chances are severely limited by scarcity of programs for girls in urban areas. From there the hill grows into what must seems like a mountain.

The pioneers paved the road. Veteran modern day women athletes built the bridges. Now this generation of all girls, especially those of color, need to fight what hopefully will be those final battles so sport can truly become America’s first arena where the principle of equal opportunity for all becomes reality.

Richard Lapchick is a civil rights activist who is the founder and Director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society and is the author of nine books, five of which are about race and gender in sport.


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