University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summit, the winningest college basketball coach in history
Whichever team wins tonight's NCAA women's national championship basketball game between Notre Dame and Baylor, a female head coach will cut down the net. That's hardly unprecedented—Hall of Famer Sonja Hogg coached Louisiana Tech to the first-ever women's championship in 1982—but 30 years later it's an occurrence that's rarer than ever, and getting rarer.
In 1977, women occupied 79.4 percent of head coaching jobs in women's basketball. That number has dropped to 59.5 percent, according to the latest survey. And beyond the basketball court, just 42.9 percent of all women's college athletic teams are coached by women, down from 90 percent in 1972, the year Title IX guaranteed female student-athletes equal treatment [PDF]. Amazingly, the downward trend for female coaches has accelerated in recent years: Men have been hired for 68.5 percent of jobs coaching women's teams since 2000, according to ESPN.
For women athletes, Title IX has been an unqualified success, creating opportunities to play sports where none existed before. The number of women competing in NCAA athletics has increased from 16,000 in 1970 to 200,000 this year. Universities now treat women's sports as serious pursuits worthy of scholarship money, promotion, and respect because they're legally required to do so.
Yet for women coaches, Title IX has been an unmitigated disaster. Once universities were required to treat women's sports as serious pursuits and fund them accordingly, men started wanting jobs coaching women. And once men started wanting jobs coaching women, men started getting a disproportionate number of those jobs. It's one of the most obvious, yet least talked-about, forms of institutional sexism out there: Coaching jobs are only for women when men don't want them.
That's not to say men shouldn't coach women. In 25 years at the University of Connecticut, Geno Auriemma has built the women's basketball team into the best dynasty in either the men's or women's game, which means none of his players ever complained about his gender. (He's also, admirably, turned down offers to coach men's teams because he's committed to women's basketball). In my own athletic career, which included nine years of playing soccer followed by fencing on the national level in high school and college, I never had a female coach, which mattered very little at the time. One of those coaches remains my most important mentor outside my professional field.
Still, I know I would have benefited from having a female coach, and I know other female athletes would say the same. The fact that we didn't sends the absurd message that men are better at teaching the fundamentals of sports. Men are generally bigger, faster, and stronger than women by virtue of biology, which explains the need to segregate teams by gender. But coaching has nothing to do with size, speed, or strength. Inventing plays, creating lineups, and motivating athletes requires intelligence and communication and leadership skills. Anybody arguing that men inherently make better coaches would have to make the same point about CEOs and film directors and scientists and politicians—in other words, that men are fundamentally superior to women at everything except ironing.
For serious athletes, coaching offers a path to a prestigious, well-paid job doing something they're passionate about. Especially for women, those jobs are in short supply even for the best of the best because women's pro leagues constantly teeter on the brink of failure. Shutting women out of coaching too eliminates any chance for most of them to make sports a career. Tennessee coach Pat Summit, Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, and others have shown that women can excel at coaching and earn fame, wealth, and glory, but the sports world is pushing away thousands of young women who might follow in their footsteps.
The fact that more men apply for coaching jobs is no excuse—changing a viciously sexist culture requires action. Coaches have a responsibility to encourage women athletes to think seriously about becoming coaches once their careers are over. Athletic directors must reach outside their usual networks when they're looking to hire coaches. People in positions of influence should promote women.
We've got a lot of work to do. If we can all agree that women are equally qualified to coach sports, that means half of all coaches should be women, no matter the gender of the players. Yet today, not a single woman coaches a Div. I men's team. Including lower divisions bumps that number up to five-100ths of 1 percent. Brilliant female coaches—including Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw (age 56) to Baylor's Kim Mulkey (50)—shouldn't only be coaching women. And the pipeline shouldn't stop with them, either.