November 24, 2014 Articles

NBA Leads in Gender Equity

By Joseph M. Hanna

On the National Basketball Association's (NBA's) opening night this past Tuesday, the defending champions, the San Antonio Spurs, made a historical win with the help of their new assistant coach, Becky Hammon. When Hammon was hired to the Spurs in early August, she became the first paid female assistant coach in the NBA, or any major American professional sport.

Just weeks prior to Hammon's hiring, Michele Roberts became the first woman elected as the executive director of the NBA Players Union. This occasion also marked the first time a woman has ever been chosen to head any men's professional sports union. These milestones for women and gender equality in the workplace are paving the way for women seeking management positions in professional sports and have reaffirmed the NBA's position as the most progressive major American professional sport regarding gender equality.

Assistant Coach Rebecca "Becky" Hammon grew up in South Dakota and played basketball at Colorado State University (CSU). As a CSU Ram, Hammon played with intensity and tenacity, leaving as the all-time leading scorer, male or female, in the Western Athletic Conference and setting career program records in most offensive categories. Throughout her career in the Women's National Basketball Association, Hammon played in six All-Star games. Nevertheless, Hammon's impressive performance on the court was but one of her many assets that factored into the hiring decision. When questioned on the matter, the highly touted and championship-winning Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich, stated: "Having observed [Hammon] working with our team this past season, I'm confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs."

Executive Director Michele Roberts, while relatively new to the sporting world, is an accomplished lawyer. Roberts, who developed an early love for basketball while growing up in the Bronx and watching the Knicks with her brothers, would often go to court to see trials with her mother. In an interview, Roberts recalled that she would see her brothers' friends stuck in jail cells, unable to "catch a break." Regan Morris, "The Life and Legal Career of Michele A. Roberts, Trial Lawyer," LawCrossing (undated).  Determining from an early age to represent disadvantaged individuals, Roberts realized her goal when she became a public defender in Washington D.C., after graduating with a law degree from the University of California. Roberts later moved into private practice, excelling in civil and white-collar criminal litigation, and became interested in leading the NBA Players Union after seeing an interview with a player who intimated that their union was ailing and it was time to bring it back to health. Roberts—a known tenacious fighter—wanted to be a part of that restoration.

The difficult path taken by these two remarkable women, breaking gender barriers that are over a century old, speaks to the NBA's progress as one of the few leagues to take noticeable strides toward gender equality. However, while these are steps in the right direction, greater gender equality is needed across the board. Each year, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport releases a Racial and Gender Report Card for several of the major American sports leagues, which compiles hiring data across each league and its franchises, including front offices, management, and administration. The institute then matches the data with federal affirmative action policies and grades the leagues based on race and gender, both overall and in particular departments. The report on the NBA states: "While [the NBA does] well overall for gender, especially in the League Office, women are still not well represented at the senior team levels. Nonetheless, no other men's league reaches the same points for race, gender or the combined score." The NBA's gender hiring practices in 2014 garnered a "B+" grade, whereas Major League Baseball scored a "C+" and the National Football League a "C−".

The recent hires of Hammon and Roberts in the NBA have highlighted a starting point for other American professional sports leagues to begin diminishing stereotypes and empowering gender equity. Particularly with respect to coaching staffs, where communication skills and knowledge of the game are more crucial to a coach than playing experience, a wider net may be cast for hiring women. The NBA is at the forefront of this change in being the first professional sports league to have a woman on the coaching staff or a woman leading the players' union.

While Hammon and Roberts each represents a remarkable feat for women in sports, they appear less concerned with the trails they are blazing than with excelling at the job they were hired to do. American sports leagues would benefit from more of these highly qualified women and their intense work ethic and passion for their field.

Keywords: litigation, minority trial lawyer, NBA, gender equity, Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, Becky Hammon, Michele Roberts

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