Muffet McGraw’s cry for equality resonates

Fennelly: The Notre Dame coach channels her passion and platform into an unforgettable Final Four moment.
Notre Dame's women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw talks to her players in practice before the start of the 2019 NCAA Women's Final Four at the Amalie Arena on Thursday, April 4, 2019. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
Notre Dame's women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw talks to her players in practice before the start of the 2019 NCAA Women's Final Four at the Amalie Arena on Thursday, April 4, 2019. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published April 4
Updated April 5

TAMPA — The Women’s Final Four is here and we already have one shining moment.

It belongs to Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, and it was beyond inspiring. I went to a basketball tournament and the Declaration of Independence broke out.

Thursday was the greatest sports news conference ever. McGraw’s words, a cry for equality, should have been written on parchment. They should be handed to everyone entering Amalie Arena for Friday’s national semifinals, including the one pitting McGraw and Notre Dame against her arch­rival, Geno Auriemma, and mighty UConn.

McGraw, always wound tightly, bounced a leg nervously under an interview table. Her voice quivered with emotion. But she said what she needed to say. She was ready before she even took the podium. She has probably been ready her whole life.

McGraw is 63 and has won more than 800 games and two national championships. But Thursday was her moment. What she said will be chiseled on a wall if they ever build a women’s rights memorial. McGraw would settle for women’s rights.

“Enough,” she said. “I think women across the country in the last few years have just said, ‘Enough. Time’s up. Time’s up. It’s our turn.’ If it’s going to happen, we have to do something about it. You see women marching in record numbers across the country. Women are coming out and being more active politically.”

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It began harmlessly enough, with McGraw being asked about prevalent hiring practices. She was recently quoted as saying she would never hire another male assistant. On Thursday she was asked if her voice mattered. She took a deep breath, then became a hero to some, a crackpot radical feminist to others. She doesn’t care either way.

When Title IX was passed in 1972, 90 percent of the coaches in women’s college sports were women. Today, it’s about 41.5 percent. Last year, 59.3 percent of women’s college basketball teams were coached by women, down from 74.9 percent in 1977.

“Did you know that the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in 1967 and it still hasn’t passed?” McGraw said. “We need 38 states to agree that discrimination on the basis of sex is unconstitutional. We’ve had a record number of women running for office and winning, and still we have 23 percent of the House and 25 percent of the Senate.

“I’m getting tired of the novelty of the first female governor of this state, the first female African-American mayor of this city. When is it going to be the norm instead of the exception? How are these young women going to look up and see someone who looks like them, preparing them for the future? We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power.

“Girls are socialized to know that when they come out, gender rules are already set. Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It’s always the man who is the stronger one.

“When these girls are coming out, who are they looking up to, to tell them that’s not that way it has to be? Where better to do that than in sports? All these millions of girls who play sports across the country, we’re teaching them great things about life skills, but wouldn’t it be great to teach them to watch how women lead?

“When you look at men’s basketball, 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? Maybe it’s because we only have 10 percent women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them. That’s the problem.”

McGraw always has been passionate. She does not back down. She hates losing. At anything.

Maybe it’s that the women’s game lost a spirit and a voice with the passing of Tennessee legend Pat Summitt in 2016. Well, McGraw, who is married and a parent, stepped into the breach Thursday.

“I’d like to see more women supporting women,” she said. “I think we don’t do a good job of helping each other. I think when people get to a certain position, they need to be able to reach down and pull somebody up, they need to be better mentors. I think we can do a lot more on networking. Guy have that down. They help each other. They know how the system works. We don’t.

“I think we need more men that are in positions of power to hire women. … I think women need to have more confidence and apply for jobs. I think we wait to be asked. It goes back to high school when you’re waiting to be asked to the prom.”

Maybe not hiring men anymore isn’t the way to go. Sort of drowns out McGraw’s message, makes it seem militant. And maybe the biggest dance in women’s sports isn’t the place to bring all this up.

Only: Where else?

When else?

Muffet McGraw spoke honestly and emotionally. It had nothing to do with basketball. It had everything to do with basketball and living in a country that’s great because we are forever reaching, striving to be better.

Muffet McGraw reached down.

And it was uplifting.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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