The WNBA Racial and Gender Report Card

In the 1970s, opportunities for women athletes ranged from nonexistent to bleak. It was difficult to identify with women athletes as role models, since so few prominent women athletes existed, much less appeared in national media at that time. In fact, women were not allowed to run the Boston Marathon until 1972 and the women’s marathon was not part of the Olympics until 1984.

After the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (highlighted in the movie “A League of Their Own”) ceased operations in 1954, women in the United States did not have a professional sports team until 1978, when the Women’s Professional Basketball League was founded.

If it was this difficult for women to have the same opportunities as men in sports, it was exponentially more difficult for women of color, for members of the LGBTQ community, or for disabled persons.

That is why it is important to note a recent headline from a Howard Megdal piece in The New York Times: “In the W.N.B.A. Finals, a Battle of True Believers. The Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun share a goal — a championship — and a power source to get there: unabashed confidence.” The power and truth of these words show how far professional women’s sports have come over the last several decades.

Women athletes today stand on the broad shoulders of athletes like Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph and Martina Navratilova, who all dedicated their careers to advocating for more inclusiveness in the sports industry and throughout the country. Their efforts have allowed for today’s athletes to have a larger podium to unite and collaborate. Today, Megan Rapinoe, Serena Williams, Becky Hammon, Sarah Attar, Shalane Flanagan, and Brittney Griner are household names. They are role models for a new generation of young women who can have confidence they will have opportunities to succeed. Nonetheless, there is still a massive equality gap between men and women and a lack of opportunity for people of color and disabled persons.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its annual WNBA Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC). Despite some decreases when compared to the 2018 report card, the WNBA continues to be the leader in racial and gender hiring practices in professional sports. The WNBA again earned an A+ on the issue of racial hiring, an A for gender hiring practices and an overall grade of an A+ in the 2019 RGRC.

A few of the decreases that concern me include the percentage of women holding professional-level staff positions in the WNBA league office. This position experienced a decrease for the fourth consecutive year, from 50 percent in 2018 to 48.9 percent in 2019, and the percentage of people of color decreased significantly from 55 percent in 2018 to 46.6 percent. However, it should be noted that both numbers are higher than any men’s professional sports league.

Additionally, there were five women and three African American general managers at the team level. This ties as one of the lowest percentages of African Americans in this role since 2004 in the WNBA. The record high for women as GMs was 10 in 2004.

Just as we see across the other professional sports leagues and the NCAA, the league offices lead the way with racial and gender hiring practices. I am confident in the WNBA’s leadership and their industry-leading diversity and inclusion initiatives to improve upon the weaker areas in the report.

The WNBA was founded in 1996 and it has been able to influence a generation of young adults in a short period of time. Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Rebecca Lobo perhaps were role models for Elena Delle Donne, Griner and Diamond DeShields. More importantly, they surely served as role models for women in all parts of our society. We are finding more — but far from equal representation — women in senior management roles throughout the business world. We are finding more women as doctors, professors, astronauts, head coaches and other professions that were once dominated by white males.

A great example of this positive trend is Cathy Engelbert, who was appointed as the first commissioner of the WNBA in May 2019 after serving as the CEO for Deloitte since 2015. The WNBA, despite a recent decline in key areas, still stands as a great example of how to effectively build a pipeline of diversity. As an example, the assistant coaching position is an important steppingstone to future head-coaching positions. The number of women in an assistant coaching position in 2019 increased from 59.4 percent in 2018 to 61.5 percent in 2019, which is the second-highest percentage of women-occupied roles in the WNBA this year.

The leadership of the WNBA values diversity and inclusion does not hesitate to break down barriers for women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ community and other underrepresented groups. The WNBA invests a considerable amount of resources into educating youth through programs such as the Jr. NBA’s Her Time To Play program and the WNBA Cares program. They also partner with several other community partners to deliver WNBA Pride and Take a Seat, Take a Stand initiatives.

The WNBA has also empowered its athletes to do what is right for the league and for society. During a recent Athletes+Activism event, Natasha Cloud, a Mystics player, was quoted as saying, “Our organization believes in giving us a voice and platform about hard discussions. To not have that fear with your organization and company is a big thing.”

We can also look to Breanna Stewart and her sexual assault story, Me Too, in The Players’ Tribune, or the tweet by Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, addressing gender equity by the media, or Maya Moore’s sabbatical in pursuit of social justice as highlighted in the New York Times.

The WNBA has also made room for males who share their vision. Bill Laimbeer, a four-time NBA All-Star, was known as one of the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” when they won NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. Since then, he has been honored as a two-time WNBA Coach of the Year while guiding the Detroit Shock (now Dallas Wings) to three championships. Now he is the president of basketball operations and head coach of the Las Vegas Aces, and he does not hesitate to be vocal about the level of support the women should receive.

Leading up to the 2019 WNBA All-Star Game, Laimbeer spoke out about the league’s decision to not allow the All-Star players to travel first class or stay in suites. He knows from experience how All-Stars in the NBA are treated and felt the women were not being shown the same respect for their hard work and athleticism. It’s these types of people, programs and initiatives that bring our communities together to interact, learn, understand and provide support where it is deserved. The WNBA has truly harnessed the power of sport by embracing diverse experiences, education, thought and backgrounds of its staff and players to build a successful model for inclusivity.

The vast number of women athletes today can be directly traced back to the monumental Title IX legislation passed in 1972. It, of course, dramatically increased opportunities for women in education, and most notably in athletics. Forty-seven years after the passage of Title IX, the WNBA and a host of other professional sports leagues have provided women more opportunities on the field, on the court and in the front office.

Now I challenge the media to overturn generations of gender stereotypes and give women the opportunity to market their talents so they can earn as much as their male counterparts. The American sports media benefited from the demand for women’s sports during the Olympics and the Women’s World Cup. It’s time to feature the WNBA and other women’s professional sports in prime time more often.

Today is part of a huge week for women in sport. The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by Billie Jean King in 1974 to create leaders by providing girls access to sports, celebrates the accomplishments of women and girls in sport with its annual gala in New York. I have called it “my favorite sports event of the year” since I started attending in the 1980s. WSF programs have enabled thousands of girls to achieve their dream through sports. Women Leaders in College Sport, the largest membership group working to open more opportunities for women in positions of influence, especially in college sports, has been holding its annual conference in Phoenix all week. The espnW Summit will take place next week in California. It is always an amazing three days, bringing together advocates and industry influencers who together can create change and opportunity for women and girls in sports

I am also proud to share that the Institute for Sport and Social Justice (ISSJ) will be inducting Kathy Behrens into the ISSJ Hall of Fame during the annual Giant Steps and Hall of Fame Gala on Oct. 30 in Orlando, Florida. Behrens joined the NBA in 2000 and currently serves as the president of social responsibility and player programs. In this role, she provides leadership for all NBA programs that coordinate league and player social responsibility efforts, promote youth basketball development, support player growth and education, and enhance the marketing opportunities for current and former players.

Behrens’ role extends to the other NBA entities, to include the WNBA. Her leadership is a cornerstone to the NBA and WNBA’s leadership in diversity and inclusion across the sports industry that has enabled a generation of people of color, women, the LGBTQ community and many other underrepresented people to believe in themselves and have the confidence they can achieve their dreams. Kathy was the first woman to be a president in a major men’s professional sports league.

I want to congratulate the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun on a tremendous year. The women on these two teams were outstanding representatives of the talented basketball players across the entire WNBA. They have enhanced the confidence of women and girls, helping them to believe in themselves. They do that on the court while the WNBA itself has proven again that it is the leader in opportunity for women and people of color off the court.

David Zimmerman made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.

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