TAMPA — She was wrong. Of course, she was wrong.
When Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw recently suggested she would no longer consider hiring men as assistants, she was inviting criticism, indignation and maybe even litigation.
Denying someone an opportunity for a job based simply on their gender is both discriminatory and outrageous. It feels like someone telling a cautionary tale from some misbegotten era. Except it is kind of the norm in men’s college sports.
Of more than 350 Division I men’s basketball programs, there has only been one female assistant coach in the past 15 years. Men’s programs aren’t talking about sexism, they’re just practicing it.
“It’s crazy to me that Muffet is getting criticized for saying out loud what is happening every single day on the men’s side,’’ said Becky Carlson, the three-time national champion rugby coach at Quinnipiac University, who closely monitors women’s coaching jobs. “So it’s okay to be silent about not hiring an entire gender of coaches, but don’t dare talk about it? It’s nuts.’’
So maybe McGraw wasn’t so wrong, after all.
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There are two ways of looking at the amount of women coaches in college athletics. If you’re the optimistic sort, the percentages are sad. If you’re a realist, they’re obscene.
It’s one or the other.
The numbers are changing all of the time, but most studies peg the number of female coaches in women sports at around 41 percent. The number of male coaches in male sports is in the high 90s.
If you’re a woman hoping to coach a men’s team, you’ve got virtually no chance. And if you’re hoping to coach a women’s team, your odds are still less than 50-50 compared to a man. That means, nearly a half-century after Title IX, roughly 75 percent of the coaching jobs in NCAA sports belong to men.
That’s what McGraw was talking about when she said it was her intention to reserve any openings on her staff to a deserving female candidate.
“I just wish men would open the door a little wider to give women more opportunities on their side of the street,’’ said Nell Fortner, who led the USA to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics before returning to college coaching at Auburn. “There’s no reason why we’re not given those opportunities. We have the experience, we have the work ethic, the communication skills.
“I don’t get why that isn’t happening. Coaching basketball is coaching basketball. If the only reason is because women haven’t played the men’s game, well that doesn’t make much sense because men haven’t played the women’s game and they’re allowed to coach women.
“So what’s the difference?"
Not surprisingly, there was immediate pushback from McGraw’s comments which were originally featured in a ThinkProgress.org story. UConn coach Geno Auriemma suggested McGraw should be sure to thank her previous male assistants who helped her win national championships at Notre Dame.
Auriemma’s response, however, missed the point. McGraw was not denigrating male coaches, she was advocating for women who — the data shows — do not have equal opportunities to coach.
There certainly doesn’t seem to be much difference in the ability of men or women when it comes to coaching women’s basketball. This weekend’s Final Four included two male coaches and two females — which is similar to the average for the past decade.
Of the last 40 coaches to reach the Final Four, 21 were women. Considering Auriemma alone accounts for 10 of the 19 male coaches in the Final Four, you could make the argument that women, as a gender, have been more successful.
Does that mean women coaches are better than men?
Absolutely not. But it should prove that women are just as capable as men.
“In the big picture what needs to be addressed is the organizational climate of athletic departments that seem to favor hiring male coaches,’’ said Nicole LaVoi, a kinesiology professor at the University of Minnesota and the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “We need to get to a point where a majority of women feel they have a legitimate opportunity to be hired, and once they get the job they know they will get the same type of support needed to succeed.’’
Women are actually hired to be head coaches at a greater percentage in basketball than any other women’s sport and, to some degree, male coaches such as Auriemma deserve a bit of credit.
Auriemma said Thursday in Tampa that he’s never had a male coach on his staff which, ironically, is exactly what McGraw was advocating. That more females working as assistant coaches at major programs means more potential candidates for head coaching jobs down the line.
“My philosophy has always been to hire the best candidate, regardless of whether they are a man or a woman,’’ said USF women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez, who has two women on his staff. “I do like the idea of having a good balance on a staff. Look, I’ve got five daughters at home. I understand there are times when a woman might be more comfortable talking to another woman. I think that’s all Geno was trying to say. It’s all about striking the right balance.’’
The problem is that balance does not exist on the men’s side of sports. And that means women are at a statistical disadvantage before they ever draw up a play or track down a recruit.
The number of female coaches in NCAA sports has declined as women sports have grown in stature and profitability. Now that it’s a lucrative business, more male coaches have naturally gotten involved.
What needs to change is perceptions, and that’s why McGraw’s willingness to use her platform to speak out is so important. Society may be moving in this direction, but the pace is maddeningly slow.
“I think (Stanford coach) Tara VanDerveer has talked about it in a really enlightening way,’’ said Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo, who won a national title playing for Auriemma at UConn. “Ideally women have a staff that is half male, half female. But then so should men’s programs. But because the men aren’t living up to that standard, the women have to make up for the percentages by having more women on their staffs. Articulating it that way is a good way to look at it.’’
Lobo, who coaches her 10-year-old son’s travel team with two men and one woman, said she sees hope at that level because the children don’t give a second thought to gender.
“It’s just part of the world they live in, which is a good thing,’’ Lobo said. “We just have to be careful that we’re never in a position where it sounds like we’re bashing men or hating men.’’
Lobo pauses a beat before breaking into a grin.
“Men are mostly good, and somewhat productive members of our society.’’
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.