DALLAS — Women in college athletics are pretty tired of living in Guyville 1976. Seriously. But the question is what anyone is supposed to do about that when the leading voice in women’s basketball, Geno Auriemma, makes his own daughter bang her head against a desk in frustration. Asked at the Final Four why the number of female coaches is dropping precipitously, Auriemma pronounced: “It’s quite simple. Not as many women want to coach.” He sees no sexism or roadblocks for women in the NCAA, it’s just that most women probably prefer “a normal life,” he continued.
There are so many riling things in that statement that it’s hard to know which one you want to swing your purse at first. Let’s begin with the fact that Auriemma is no deeply ingrained sexist — he’s done more to create strong young women than any man you can name. But that’s part of what’s so exasperating: Auriemma is so landlocked in his own secure and winning world that this issue seems “quite simple” and easily answered to him.
Which makes him no different, really, from the other eighty gazillion nice, wonderful and utterly blind men who deny the employment numbers — and the accompanying female stresses, insecurities and resentments — staring them in the face.
If you want simple, here it is: 88 percent of NCAA Division I athletic directors, the people doing the hiring, are white men. As an institution, the NCAA trails every pro sports league in hiring diversity. When it comes to giving jobs to women, even the NFL is better. That simple enough for you?
In fact, there is no one simple reason that the number of female coaches in the NCAA is dropping; rather, there are several. Forty-five years ago, when Title IX was passed, more than 90 percent of women’s teams were coached by female head coaches; that number now hovers around 40 percent. Various analyses of the drop cite everything from gender bias, to rising salaries that made men covet jobs they once considered embarrassingly beneath them, to the work-life balance and the stresses the coaching profession puts on mothers, to a lack of coaching trees for women.
Auriemma is probably right about one thing. “It’s not like people are consciously depriving women of opportunities,” he said, adding that he personally has made a point of hiring all-female assistants. But it’s not the conscious that women are worried about — it’s the unconscious that is so frustrating, the well-meaning blindered belief that if women aren’t farther ahead on the career or pay track, they must not want it.
“There’s just too many other choices, that, quite frankly, are better choices for a lot of women,” Auriemma said.
A couple of hours after those comments hit the media, Auriemma’s daughter Ally, an adjunct professor at U-Conn. with an interest in gender studies, took to Twitter. “DAD. WALK IT BACK,” she tweeted. His comments, she wrote, had her “head-desking hard.” She added, “I’m pretty sure what dad was trying to say, in a limited, male perspective, is that a lot of avenues are open to women now that weren’t.” Then came this:
“God, I’m clarifying my dad’s statements. I’m like Ivanka.”
All of which was proof enough that Geno Auriemma did a pretty good job of female empowerment at home. You can assume there will be some lively discussion at the next family dinner.
Auriemma’s also likely to hear from colleagues, a couple of whom engaged in some diplomatic reproof at their Final Four news conferences, at the instigation of New York Times reporter Jere Longman, whose excellent piece on the plunging numbers began the discussion in the first place. Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer pointed out that one unsimple reason for the decline is that female coaches don’t get rehired after an initial career setback, while guys do.
“Women aren’t recycled in the way that men are,” she said. She cited the example of her male colleague Johnny Dawkins, fired by Stanford on March 14 after a 15-15 season. VanDerveer wept when she got news, until another friend said, “Don’t worry. He’ll get a job in a week.” He did: Dawkins was hired at Central Florida on March 22.
“That does not happen with women coaches,” VanDerveer said. “ … If athletic directors want more women in women’s basketball, maybe they have to look in the mirror and say, ‘All right, how can we make this happen?’ ”
For another example of non-simple complications, Auriemma had to look no further than South Carolina’s bench, on which sits Melanie Balcomb. She was fired by Vanderbilt in 2016 despite the fact that she was the best coach in the history of the program: she won 20 or more games in 11 of 14 seasons, made 12 NCAA tournament appearances and is universally regarded as a superb strategist. Balcomb also has two children under the age of 6, which made her hesitate to apply for another head coaching job because of the moving and travel demands. She was unemployed for three months, until Dawn Staley at South Carolina rescued her by creating a job for her as an “analytics consultant.”
“We wanted to keep a great basketball mind in our game,” Staley said. “The guys do it all the time. There’s not a great coach on the men’s side that is jobless.”
All of which reminds me that once a few years back, Auriemma complained that it was tough being a man in the women’s game. Told of the remark, the late Pat Summitt just laughed and shot back: “Tell him to try being a woman in a man’s world.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.