Growing number of Black women in basketball leadership roles provides renewed optimism
This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
During Black History Month, the Toronto Raptors organization hosted an event called "Soul 2 Sole."
It was a fireside chat featuring some high ranking and influential Black women in basketball. Among the panellists were WNBA player Natalie Achonwa, Phoenix Mercury assistant GM Monica Wright Rogers, and Jhanelle Peters, a mental health clinician with the Raptors Organization. Dr. Laceé Carmon-Johnson, manager of Basketball Advancement (also with the Raptors) moderated the session.
We are certainly not a country where women are in short supply in basketball communities — see the commissioners and founders of Maritime Women's Basketball League, Hoop Queens, Girls Addicted to Basketball and Muslim Women's Summer Basketball League — as well as prominent women in broadcasting, like Kayla Grey, Kate Beirness, Meghan McPeak, Amy Audibert and Savanna Hamilton.
Then there are people like Kia Nurse who work in broadcasting, play professionally and have a development academy for girls.
All the above-mentioned women not only have carved out spaces for themselves in a tough industry, but they are elite. I have reported on basketball culture for women and girls in Toronto and what stood out for me is the women who have worked so hard to create space but continue to need support in their work.
Although only 26 per cent of university and college coaches in Canada are women, there is a space where women are thriving; and it's in women's basketball.
My friend, Christa Eniojukan, is head coach of women's basketball at York University. During a conversation we had over the phone, she counted at least 26 universities across Canada that have women head coaches. She told me about a coaching grant from Canadian Women & Sport that empowered women to get training and emboldened them to apply for head coaching positions for which they were very much qualified.
"Last year there were four coaching opportunities and all four were filled by women," Eniojukan told me.
As a coach since 2005, Eniojukan has seen growth in women's basketball in Canada. If at least 26 of the women's basketball programs in Canadian universities are led by women, that's a hopeful statistic. And it expands to basketball in a wider context.
Front office roles and senior leadership positions with the Raptors organization are staffed by talented and driven Black women. This matters not only because the league is over 70 per cent Black players, but because their presence and profile matter to other racialized women.
Tammy Sutton-Brown is an Olympian, a former WNBA All-Star, and now serves under the title of Associate Basketball & Franchise Operations and Director of Player Development for the Raptors 905 — Toronto's G-League affiliate.
Sutton-Brown told me that she feels Toronto, in particular, has the leadership and the interest in promoting women.
I wondered why that is. Why is Toronto a place that fosters Black women in leadership, offering opportunities for women to shine?
"Male allies might be the reason," she said.
'We have a long way to go'
She pointed out that Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, hired Becky Hammon as an assistant coach. Hammon was the first woman to serve as head coach of an NBA team after Popovich was thrown out of a game. Hammon had to take over for the remainder of the contest.
In 2013, Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who served as VP at the time, hired Teresa Resch. In a few years, Resch became the vice-president for Basketball Operations and Player Development.
"We have a long way to go, we shouldn't be celebrating that 11 people out of 70 or so are women in an organization. It has changed a lot since I started, not only with the Raptors but with the whole NBA," Resch said in an interview with her alma mater in 2019.
I must admit, having Ujiri with this type of progressive and relevant thinking is only a positive. Likewise, his colleague John Wiggins, VP of Organizational Culture and Inclusion, supported the first all-women's broadcast team in the NBA. Supporting women is a choice and that's what we continue to need in sports spaces.
WATCH | Raps introduce NBA's 1st all-women broadcast team in game vs. Nuggets:
Sutton-Brown knows how to lead by example — and part of that example is not only amplifying and celebrating women during Women's History Month, but all year round.
"Men get celebrated more than women, so we really wanted to give women their flowers," she explained.
Sutton-Brown organized the second annual International Women's Day game complete with specially designed jerseys by a local woman artist, but also an all-female broadcast team and all-female referees.
Having women with lived experience leading the way and offering ideas for growth is an exceptional way. People like Sutton-Brown, in that position, are necessary for other woman and girls to see.
Another friend of mine, Melissa Doldron, is a dedicated registered massage therapist who works with the Toronto Blue Jays. One of Doldron's goals is to work with a national or Olympic team. Hearing and seeing other Black women in senior positions is important. She attended the Soul 2 Sole panel and said that hearing a panel of women share how they got there, what they still have to learn and offering their advice and motivation was impactful.
"It helps us in the audience to keep striving to take up space in these structures that aren't often set up for us to thrive in," Doldron told me.
As a sports journalist who often surveys sports spaces, it is refreshing to see this type of growth and flourishing. The one thing that all the women I have listened to have said in common is that they appreciate mentorship and coaching, and hope it helps the next generation.
During my conversation with Sutton-Brown, I told her that I noticed women often talk about the next generation and how we are still ensuring that the foundation is properly laid so they can not only survive but thrive.
She agreed and said that she often mentors and would like to see more young women shadow her in her front office role. There are so many opportunities for women in basketball and I hope that continues to happen. I hope many young girls see themselves and are inspired.
In the meantime, I will take a moment to celebrate how far we have come.