Where are the Women Leaders in Sports?

By Brendan Kennedy

January 20, 2021

Where are the Women Leaders in Sports?


By Brendan Kennedy

Historically, the two professions most dominated by males are sports and the law.

Valerie Ackerman, the commissioner of the Big East Conference and founding president of the Women’s National Basketball Association, has worked her entire career in both.

She spoke Tuesday to members of the New York State Bar Association’s Women in Law Section at the association’s Annual Meeting. She detailed the successes and failures of top collegiate conferences and international athletic associations in getting more women in leadership roles.

Ackerman, who was a scholarship athlete at the University of Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s, has seen first-hand some of the vast improvements the National Collegiate Athletic Association has made over the past 40 years. During her first year on campus, she and a teammate split the scholarship but by the time she graduated in 1981, most of her teammates had full scholarships, with improvements in other areas including pre-game meals and upgraded transportation.

But for an organization where over 250,000 female athletes participate on NCAA teams at the Divisions I, II, III levels, Ackerman noted that the number of women in leadership roles pales in comparison.

“Of the 32 Division I commissioners, nine are women,” Ackerman said. “Of 350 athletic directors on the D-I level, less than 10% are women, so there is work to be done to align the number of women who are playing college sports with the number who are making decisions and actually leading.”

The gender imbalance strikes even closer for Ackerman daily. In her own conference, all 11 member schools have male athletic directors, while 10 have male presidents and eight have male coaches of  the women’s basketball teams.

“The gender imbalance in leadership, in sports, particularly the scarcity of women of color in top college sports jobs is a failing,” Ackerman said. “Hopefully, it’s an area that sees improvement in the years ahead.”

If you believe that the gender imbalance is any different on the international level and Olympic levels, Ackerman, who spent eight years as an ambassador to the International Basketball Federation, knows that they, too, are lagging, which is why she is on a crusade to call them out.

“The number of women on the International Olympic Committee and on the Board of Directors of some International Sports Federations remains frustratingly low, “she said. “During my eight years at FIBA, I had an awakening that women have a limited presence and are largely invisible in the global management structure. So, I’ve been on a crusade to call them out and apply pressure to help move things along.”

Much like the NCAA, the IOC is seeing record numbers of women participating. Ackerman noted that at the 2016 Summer Olympics, 46% of the participants were women and over half of Team USA’s athletes were women.

Ackerman noted that the current sports landscape is now more welcoming for women. She said that well-run sports media entities are noticing the growing number of women fans who are buying tickets and merchandise and watching sports on TV.

“The female demographic is growing in sports,” Ackerman said.  “Which is all the more reason for women to be worked into the halls of power and plugged into key decision-making processes.”



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