By: Terrence A. Merkerson
Sports are one of the few things that unite people across race, class, gender, nationality, and religion. As inclusive as sports culture presents itself to be, it is actually one of the most segregated spaces in society. Men’s and women’s sports are not created equal and this is not just an American issue, it is a global issue. There is flagrant sexism present in the revenue shares, salary, support and sponsorship of women’s sports in contrast to that of their male counterparts. There is also the perception that women do not have the same skill and talent as the men. There is little coincidence that the women who are most highly marketed in their sports, also happen to be physically attractive. A man’s value to his sport is most dependent on his performance on the court or field. That performance determines his marketability and popularity. A woman’s value to her sport is more often most dependent on her appearance and her performance comes secondary. A woman’s appearance is the primary determining factor in her marketability and popularity. Obviously there is a problem in the way in which we view women’s sports and women athletes, but as long as they do not intersect with men’s sports, these problems mostly go unmentioned and unnoticed. Fortunately, there have been more and more intersections between the two recently and they have forced us to take a more critical look at the sexism that exists within our beloved sports.
On April 2nd, 2015, Sarah Thomas was hired by the National Football League (NFL), becoming the first woman to be a full-time official in professional American football. Thomas joined the ranks of Dee Kanter, Violet Palmer, Lauren Holtkamp (all in the NBA) as the ONLY women in the history of American professional sports to officiate men’s games. While the Kanter, Palmer and Holtkamp have faced numerous incidents where their acumen and presence in the men’s was unfairly questioned, Thomas faces a significantly different challenge that her predecessors. Unlike basketball, there is no infrastructure in place for women’s amateur or professional American football. American Football is easily the most segregated sport in the world, virtually exclusive to men in all forms, from ownership to player. To have a woman to enter into this space in a position of authority on the field will give us an introspective look into where we stand as a “post-sexist” society (yea, right -___-). As significant as Sarah Thomas’ hire to the NFL is, there is another woman challenging perceptions and sports culture in a way like no other woman has before her. Enter, Becky Hammon.
Last August, Rebecca Lynn “Becky” Hammon was hired by the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant coach, making her the first woman hired as a full-time assistant coach in any of the four major professional sports in North America. Hammon’s basketball background is immaculate. She was awarded South Dakota’s Miss Basketball as a high school senior. In college, she was an NCAA Division One All-American and is the Western Athletic Conference’s (WAC) all-time leading scorer for both men’s and women’s basketball. As a professional, Hammon was six-time WNBA All-Star and four-time All WNBA selection. Her ability to have exceptional performances in the most critical situations earned her the nickname “Big Shot Becky”. She is practically a lock to be inducted in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. All that is stated to say, Becky Hammon knows basketball so her hiring SHOULD NOT come as much of a surprise, but of course it was. Thoughts arose questioning how NBA players would respond to a woman as a coach. Would they respect her? Would they listen to her? What about her presence in an all-male locker room? Wouldn’t that have a negative effect on team chemistry? Hammon answered those questions as she was named the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs Summer League Team (also a first) and led the team to win the NBA Summer League title on July 20th, 2015.
After that winning the Summer League, Hammon’s name has been mentioned as a potential NBA head coach candidate. This has caused many to belittle her accomplishments and say that she is not ready to be a head coach in the NBA. Two of the primary arguments against her are that she has very little coaching experience and that there are other men with more experience who are far more deserving of a head coaching job. All of those who are publicly support these opinion say that her being a woman has nothing to do with it. Let us go ahead and dispel those notions. This past June, the NBA Finals was a match-up between Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Golden State was led by Head Coach Steve Kerr and Cleveland was led by Head Coach, David Blatt. The 2014-2015 season was the first season for both as either head or assistant coach in the NBA. Although Blatt had previous experience as a head coach for numerous international teams, he never played or coached on any level in the NBA before Cleveland. Kerr was a serviceable player and great shooter during his NBA career as a player, winning titles with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. After his retirement as a player, he went on to be a broadcast analyst for TNT and served a brief period as the President & General Manager of the Phoenix Suns before returning back to broadcasting in 2010. His next job was head coach of the Golden State Warriors in 2014. I lean more on Kerr’s example to illustrate his similarity to Becky Hammon. Both former professional players, although Hammon was a star player in her league and Kerr was not. Both have dedicated their lives to basketball and before last season, neither has any coaching experience on any level. Kerr got his job with little to no question, concern or controversy. It is obvious that sex is the defining, divisive factor and that is the problem.
Women’s involvement in men’s sports has become a big deal when it really should not be an issue at all, but because it is, it is our responsibility to examine why and change it. Is the idea of a women being the leaders of men really that threatening and terrifying? Since it is, let us not make arbitrary excuses to disqualify women and their role in sports in attempts to disguise sexism. Let’s call a spade a spade, or in this case, a Spur, a Spur. Go Becky.
Terrence Merkerson is the Founder & Creator of Avenue Fifteen. Terrence earned Bachelor’s Degrees in both Political Science and Gender/Race Studies from the University of Alabama. Terrence also completed Graduate School at the University of Alabama earning a Master’s Degree in Communication Studies.
He currently resides in Baton Rouge, LA.