The US Women’s National team started off what may go down as the greatest sports month ever for women in history. First taking the Women’s World Cup of Football/Soccer, then the tip-off of the 18th season of the Women’s NBA, a landmark moment when Becky Harmon not only became the first women to ever coach an NBA game but she also won the NBA pre-season tournament. Lastly, the NFL wasn’t outdone by hiring it’s first female position coach, ever, when Jen Walter was hired as an assistant coaching intern for training camp. Quite an eventful month in regards to milestones and ceilings being broken, but are the aberrations or a sign of things to come?
The USWNT probably couldn’t have scripted the outcome of the Women’s World Cup any better had it come from Hollywood instead of Canada. They exhibited the dominance of a sport the US had displayed since the men’s “Dream Team” of the 92’ Olympics, going undefeated throughout the tournament and then getting revenge on the side that scored two goals in the final 8 minutes of the previous World Cup to beat the US on PKs and the trophy, by beating Japan this time around in the Finals. However in the midst of the victory parade in NYC the story broke that the USWNT was paid 40 times less than the men’s. In a striking revelation it became apparent that the 2014 Men’s World Cup winners received 575 million in prize money, while the women will only receive 15 despite the fact that the finals were watched by 25.4 million viewers making it the most watched soccer match in US History. Advertisers, Fox Sports, ESPN, everyone got paid except the athletes competing.
The Women’s NBA kicked off it’s 18th season in July, a real achievement for a league that wasn’t supposed to last 3 years. They now have achieved a level of status and that keeps their games on nationally and in a recent poll is liked by more people than NASCAR. Viewership is up 86% on NBA TV and 41% on ESPN2 and more importantly gate receipts are up 18% and merchandise sales up 36%. Additionally, they continue to land national brands as key sponsors such as State Farm, Jamba Juice, Boost Mobile, and Procter & Gamble. But not all is sunny in Philadelphia as the WNBA which for the first time since early in it’s inception is flush with top talent that draws an audience such as Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins, and Elena Delle Donne have first time fans at an all-time high. Unfortunately now the international game has come calling and because the salaries of the women are not in the same universe as the top male players of the NBA the European leagues have begun poaching the top talent but what makes it even worse is that due to the cost of insuring the player they are not allowed to continue to play the WNBA according to the terms of their agreement. Once again the disparity in gender pay and addressing it may be an issue tantamount to the continued success of the league.
Becky Hammond shattered a glass celing in July by becoming the first woman NBA coach to not only coach, not only win a game, but a tournament as well as the Spurs won the pre-season NBA tournament in Las Vegas. She burst on to the scene first as a player in the WNBA as one of the best point guards in the league with an unprecedented basketball IQ. She also gained international recognition, and controversy, as the starting point guard for the Russian National team in the last Olympic games. She had already broken glass by becoming an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, the NBAs most consistently winning franchise over the last decade. This has been largely due to the best coaching staffs in the league. Headed by Greg Popovich the staff is so good that Spurs’ assistant coaches are usually in line to take over any head coaching vacancies from other NBA clubs mad available by typical end-of-year firings.
Once again, there are a few clouds in what would normally be a perfect blue Texas sky, largely due to the fact that Summer League winners and losers aren’t regarded with nearly the same importance as their regular season counterparts — the story here is that a female coach won a championship in her first opportunity. For her part, she had no idea what kind of deal this would be and tried to downplay the gender-based importance of her accomplishment.”I honestly didn’t know this would be a big deal until my phone started blowing up,” Hammon said. “I’m just thankful for my opportunities and I’ll just keep doing my best and that’s all I have control over.” Now can she follow in the long line of Spurs’ coaches that immediately move on to head coaching positions? That will really be the test to see how far we’ve come.
Just a couple of decades ago the acronym for the NFL could have also been “not for all” as there were no minority coaches despite the fact that the league was comprised of 80% African-Americans, no openly gay men, and absolutely no women in coaching or the front office. Granted there are still only 5 African-American coaches now but obviously that’s up 500% from 1990. Last year Michael Sam was the first openly gay player on a roster (Cowboys), and this week the Cardinals hired Jen Welter as an assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason to work with inside linebackers. She is believed to be the first female coach of any kind in the NFL.
Actually the move didn’t surprise many in NFL circles as coach Bruce Arians has final say on his staff and no doubt has a history of pushing the envelope in order to achieve performance on the field. ust look at his coaching staff. For the last two years, it was a mix of young and old, black and white, experienced and inexperienced. The Cardinals have three assistants who are 70 or older. One pass rush specialist, Tom Pratt, turned 80 this summer.
While most head coaches are looking for the next young gun to hire, Arians went looking for coaches who could teach, regardless of their age or gender. He valued their brains over their birth certificates. That’s why it’s not surprising he brought in Welter. “Welter fits right in. She’s experienced, having played professional football in a women’s league for 14 years before playing a season in a men’s league. She also coached men for a season before being hired by the Cardinals. She has been described to me as a football junkie who loves to study and knows the game inside and out.” Arians told the media at the opening of training camp.
Now despite this may be the smallest achievement of those we described it may grow to be the biggest as the NFL is clearly the most powerful and most watched of all the major US sports but yet behind the times in many ways. With the Jan Welter hire go down as the tip of the iceberg or and experiment that failed, delaying the process of reaching even a palatable diversity level? That much like next year’s Super Bowl winner is anyone’s guess.