Becky Hammon's historic moment shows it's past time for men's pro sports to embrace female coaches

Dan Wetzel
·6 min read

Becky Hammon became the first woman to coach a major American professional men’s team on Wednesday. She led the San Antonio Spurs after head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected during a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

It was understandably a historic moment for women in sports.

It should really be viewed, however, as a historic moment for exploiting a stubborn market inefficiency in sports.

Celebrating a measure of equality and acknowledging Hammon’s individual talent and work ethic is great. What will truly change things, though, is the understanding that an entire industry is foolishly allowing past decisions to cloud future ones.

When having women involved in helping teams win is seen as a strength, not an obligation or a social experiment, then the floodgates will open.

“I try not to look at the huge picture of it,” said Hammon, a 43-year-old who has been a Spurs assistant since 2014. “... It’s my job to go in there and be focused for those guys and make sure I’m doing the thing that will help us win.”

Becky Hammon, wearing a mask, talks to Patty Mills during a break in play.
As acting San Antonio Spurs head coach, Becky Hammon gives instructions to Patty Mills during their game against the Los Angeles Lakers at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, on Dec. 30, 2020. (Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

Analytics-based coaching should expand talent pool

One reason Hammon, or any woman, can potentially do “the thing that will help us win” as well as any man is because that “thing” is no longer defined the same way it once was.

The days of sports being just about strength (if they ever existed) are over. It’s about smarts now; iPads over pad level. Maybe in the old Vince Lombardi/Bob Knight days, it was a man’s world. That world is long, long gone though.

Every sport is now heavily influenced by math and science — analytics, advanced data, computer generated play design, probabilities … even nutrition, sleep cycles, workload, tech skills and so on.

No one runs their teams the way they did in the 1960s or 1980s anymore. To do so would be ridiculous. So why limit yourself to the same employees as the 1960s or 1980s?

Even the NFL is less about brute strength now (although there is still plenty of it). It’s more about positioning players on the field to gain advantageous matchups, often via split-second, pre-snap decisions. Bill Belichick is known for his mid-week planning and in-game adjustments, not his halftime speeches. Baseball, meanwhile, is managed via algorithm, not some gut instinct from a grizzled old-timer about when to pinch hit.

If professional sports organizations are increasingly valuing new skills — the analysis and swift application of data — then it is patently absurd that they would almost universally rule out half the population from the job just because of an old way of doing things from a bygone era.

Teams spend endless resources looking for the slightest competitive edge — yet they continue to ignore a massive pool of potential talent that could provide it.

This isn’t just about if a woman can be a head coach — although eventually it becomes that. It’s also about assistant coaching, scouting, analysts and so on. Women have begun breaking through in some sports (even football), but the numbers are moronically low.

In what other industry would this occur? Not because it might be illegal, but because it would be illogical.

If every automobile manufacturer, or law firm, or engineering department, or whatever, all fought over the most qualified male candidates — and only male candidates — wouldn’t at least one company seize the obvious advantage of considering the female pool as well?

Yet, here we are.

This isn’t about social justice or progressivism or anything political or societal. It’s about winning.

Becky Hammon didn’t play in the NBA? Neither did Gregg Popovich

Consider that for generations, teams, especially in the NBA, were, more often than not, coached by former players. The ability to supposedly “relate” to the current guys was a prerequisite.

(That same thinking has carried over to whether women can coach men — the theory is that players wouldn’t respect them or listen to them even though the gender gap hasn’t stopped men from coaching female athletes or women bosses successfully leading in every other industry.)

It is true, of course, that Hammon didn’t play in the NBA (she did play 16 seasons in the WNBA). Neither did Popovich, though. Or Lakers coach Frank Vogel, who was on the other end of the court Wednesday.

Vogel played some Division III ball before becoming the student manager at the University of Kentucky. Last year, he led the Lakers to the NBA title. Popovich, meanwhile, has won five of them.

Gregg Popovich talks to Becky Hammon during a 2019 game.
Neither San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, left, nor assistant coach Becky Hammon, shown during a 2019 game, played in the NBA. Yet, both have successful basketball careers. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Just nine of the NBA’s 30 current coaches played in the league. For every Steve Nash (two-time MVP who coaches the Brooklyn Nets), there are a bunch who built careers via the video department, advance scouting or individual workout sessions.

They can no more physically demonstrate to LeBron James how to dunk a basketball than Becky Hammon. That isn’t the job anymore, though. If it ever was.

As for the players, ask nearly any employee in any field what they want from their boss and almost all of them will say someone who puts them individually, and the company collectively, in a position to succeed. Whether they are the same race or gender or share the same hobbies or anything else isn’t very important.

It’s why nearly every industry has women in positions of authority. That includes the other businesses of all of these billionaire team owners.

Theoretically, a woman wouldn’t coach, teach or analyze data the same way as a man. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Not all men do the job the same way. Maybe a different way is a better way. Great organizations generally seek a diversity of opinions and procedures.

The franchises that realize and exploit this new reality by bolstering the number of women in their organizations are going to have a considerable advantage over those that remain tethered to the past. There are brilliant women who aren’t being hired and can help a team win — from potential head coaches all the way down.

That’s just common sense.

And when common sense becomes more common in pro sports, Becky Hammon pacing an NBA sideline isn’t going to be news anymore.

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