As the only woman coaching youth basketball, here's why Title IX still has more to give the next generation
The noise of bouncing basketballs grew louder.
It was the brief respite between youth basketball programs, and the preteens were streaming into the gym past parents of younger ones collecting piles of winter gear en route to the upstate New York cold. Fellow coaches came in clutching coffees, ditching them to shoot hoops with their own children and friends.
I kept shooting away at my basket in the back corner when a girl joined me. Then another girl. And another. They focused on form instead of chucking up shot attempts the way the boys did. As I rebounded and gave eagerly accepted notes, I surveyed the bustling gym.
Every single girl in our program was at the basket of the only female coach there. Me.
I’ve thought often of the power of that moment in the months since, especially this week when Title IX turns 50 years old. In the catalog of my mind, it comes with a Candace Parker voiceover.
“We are all sitting here as a result, and a lot of you all are sitting there as a result, of Title IX,” the two-time WNBA champion told a small group of reporters, the majority of whom were women, at an Adidas roundtable during the Final Four in Minneapolis.
Title IX allowed me the opportunity to be there in Minneapolis as well as coach youth basketball, but it didn’t require me to be there. There’s a difference between the language of a law and the meaning of it, and it takes people in charge to want to live up to that understanding. In the case of coaching, a leadership position that is still rarely held by women, it took a leader (who happened to be my husband) to emphasize that. Because he very easily didn’t have to do it. And that’s part of the legacy Title IX holds and will continue to hold as society upholds its premise and closes its loopholes over the next 50 years.
It was the first time my husband, a town parks and recreation supervisor, was running the structure and curriculum of the youth basketball program after a longtime employee retired. He wanted to transition it from paid high school positions to volunteer parents, an increasingly tricky ask.
Because even though parents sit in the gym with their kids for an hour every Saturday, it can be tough to draw them onto the court. There’s often a lot of “no thanks,” even if youth coaching doesn’t require the pro-basketball mind of Cheryl Reeve or Steve Kerr. These aren’t savvy dribbling vets in the motion zone offense.
Early on, I huddled with my team of 5-to-8-year-olds to explain we’re always driving to the basket, not playing keep-away, when one boy very loudly and assuredly interrupted. “No,” he said in defiance to what I thought was a simple directive, “because you drive in a car and you can’t fit a car into the gym door.” It drew big laughs from the parents because that’s exactly how these kids’ minds work at that age. It doesn’t take immense talent to coach that.
Enough parents showed up to the preseason coaches meeting that I wasn’t technically “needed.” He could get by with the volunteers he had, and I had spent weeks leading up to it on the fence. But before we had even discussed it, we each realized I was needed in another way. All of the parents who volunteered were men.
Varied perspectives are critical, but certainly hold extra value in the building blocks of our society and our future leaders. That’s what we’ve assigned sports as, whether we’ve clearly stated it or not. How many times have you heard that 90% of female CEOs played sports? I’d bet more than the number of years Title IX has been in existence.
Children are incredibly impressionable, especially at the younger ages, and there needed to be a female voice involved. It’s 2022. Why is this so difficult? We know that to see it is to be it. We know the value extends to both boys and girls — something my husband often reminded me when I glared at him on days none of my randomly assigned players were girls.
And to be blunt, we know the issues in sports coaching that have bubbled into scandals and reckonings the past handful of years are largely promulgated by men. And I’m not even talking the big-time scandals, I’m talking things like verbal abuse, sexist and racist language, gendered actions, skipping water breaks, midday outdoor training sessions no matter the mercury in the bulb. These detrimentally impact both girls and boys through life, and even down through their children’s lives.
The value of having a woman involved in the program was seen in countless ways, from the pre-practice shootarounds to catching slights men who have never experienced it don’t notice. A high-school-aged referee harped one day on how a certain girl did a really bad job of getting open, hence why she never got the ball. I keyed in on her and realized it wasn’t so much that she did a terrible job, it was that she had tried so many times and been ignored even while open that she gave up. Most women know that experience well. When I saw it on my team, I could at least talk to the instigator or manipulate the sub lists so the girls were with boys who didn’t do that.
Our “Start Smart” program for children under 5 to work one-on-one with a parent was particularly eye-opening. One father had a daughter and son there, but often when I looked over, he was working with his son. Another appeared to largely ignore his daughter altogether to chat with his friend and friend’s son.
I noticed not only because of my history, but because I was experiencing slights myself in real time. One coach didn’t really give me or my assistant, a female high school player who was great with teaching the kids after doing it herself so recently, the time of day when he would show up whereas he said hi to the men. In games, he would coach over me and address my players as if I didn’t have knowledge and insight of my own.
When my husband was out of town, he gave me the reins largely because I was there with him every week setting up, breaking down and watching him talk with the referees and coaches to solve problems as they crept up. He knew I would keep the status quo and run it as he asked, not how I thought it should go. (Shout-out to that trust because we both know I had 5 million ideas to share on the drive home every week.)
The very next week this coach was all about the hello and get-to-know-you conversation, a clear sign to everyone the man who wanted power was sliding up to a woman he hadn’t realized held it. It’s all about power, which is what Title IX gifted to women in ways far beyond athletics 50 years ago. We see women now who utilized the power of equal opportunity in high school and college to become CEOs, doctors, Supreme Court justices and a vice president. The WNBA turned 25. The NWSL is growing. There are more women than men on Team USA and more Olympic medals won by them this last go-around, too.
The thing is, I had the power to choose to play sports, go to college, earn a degree and coach. But in celebrating Title IX, we also need to acknowledge what it doesn’t cover and how the meaning behind it — equal opportunity regardless of sex — should be a continued ideal beyond legal requirements and federal monies. It doesn’t actually apply to coaching — that’s why women were pushed out in the years after Title IX — just as it doesn’t apply to leadership or, as an editor once told me, newspaper media coverage. It takes a want by those in charge to do it.
Because shouldn’t leaders strive for it anyway? Shouldn’t we want the values experienced when we have diverse thought and voices in the room? Don’t the parents of female athletes buy newspapers, too? When we talk to young basketball players, what’s the harm in mentioning the passing skills of Courtney Vandersloot instead of an NBA star? Of wearing WNBA gear to practices? All I see is upside, especially since Breanna Stewart is the biggest basketball player to come out of Syracuse. Every program in central New York should talk about her foremost.
Hours after Parker’s voiceover moment made its permanent home in my head back in April, I watched courtside as Destanni Henderson, now of the Indiana Fever, drove to the basket — without a car, though one could fit into Minneapolis’ Target Center — and led South Carolina to a national title. Every woman in media row benefited from Title IX. Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley, born two years before its passing, couldn’t have been there without it. And none of our professional accolades could have come without someone in power seeing the value of a female voice in the room instead of only men.
In the next 50 years, may we have more of both. Title IX is more than the 37 words on the page. It’s also the context between them.