If Rice were a man, would she already have a leadership spot in college football?

October 10, 2013

This baffles me: Why wasn’t former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice swooped up for a leadership post in football sooner?

It’s been widely reported for ages that she would jump at the chance to serve as commissioner of the National Football League. She’s a former student athlete. She’s a former Stanford University provost who’s had longstanding ties with the university’s athletics program. Surely a woman who loves sports and has years of foreign policy experience has enough street cred to be valuable to football? Or, would the story be different if Rice were a man?

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reacts as she arrives to address delegates during the third session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida on Aug. 29, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR - REUTERS).
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reacts as she arrives to address delegates during the third session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida on Aug. 29, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR – REUTERS).

Rice was named recently to the College Football Playoff selection committee. And as Soraya Nadia McDonald’s well-written post explained, the “giant boys’ club” can’t stop fuming about it.

Sexist views like those emerging over Rice aren’t just silly; they manifest rotten, dead-end thinking. Football combines physicality and strategy. But those who choose to bury themselves in cheese nachos and super-sized beer cups can’t see the value of Rice’s expertise on the committee.

Rice’s resumé blows up the idea that only men can hold leadership roles in the football-warrior games. Her perspective offers a win-win moment for football. She’s a thinking woman for a thinking man’s game. By branding Rice as a member of the committee, girls and young women who observe her public steps may be encouraged to add another career possibility to their dream board. They also may be inspired by her ability to discuss football effortlessly and toss any inhibitions that say football is a game for men only.

I know Rice reminds me why I took the time to learn the game from my sports-coach husband of six years. My reasons stretched beyond keeping love and peace in our house on Sunday afternoons. Football games once were a visual puzzle of flags, sacks, tackles and penalties to me. With a bit of coaching, I now view them as free strategy lessons to apply in business and life.

According to one article at least, Rice has leveraged her football knowledge. Author David Samuels in 2007 wrote in The Atlantic that “Rice’s obsession with sports makes it easier for her to function in a world of men who may not be immediately comfortable taking direction from a younger black woman, but who will respect anyone who can name the winning quarterback for every Super Bowl off the top of her head.”

Shouldn’t this mean Rice doesn’t need to have played the game or run an athletic department to command a committee seat or make a meaningful contribution? College football needs her administrative skills and political competencies – not her ability to tackle or punt.

“It’s not just about the games,” Stephen A. Smith said on ESPN’s “First Take” about Rice’s committee membership. “It’s not just about football. … It’s also about politics because you’re talking about an 18-member selection committee, you understand. You’re talking about taking things into consideration whether it be sponsorships, monies accorded to schools, whatever the case may be. In this day and age, we know that politics play an incredible role.”

And Rice, Smith added, “is one of the ultimate politicians.”

Smith’s words won’t comfort hard-core male fans who think gridiron experience is a prerequisite for committee membership. The explicit chauvinism may irk many women, but I bet it doesn’t faze Rice. She’s been underestimated before.

In a video posted on YouTube, she was interviewed about her longtime connection to Stanford’s athletics program. Rice was also asked whether she’d been misjudged because of preconceived opinions. When she answered, Rice pulled a page from her personal career history:

“It’s easy to be underestimated when you look a little different than people expect you to look,” Rice said. “I understand that as a black woman who ended up as a specialist on the Soviet military. It wasn’t expected.”

If you consider the protests over her committee membership, critics may be underestimating Rice yet again.

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