by Maggie Mertens, contributing columnist
When Noelle Quinn was suddenly named the head coach of the Seattle Storm earlier this month after Dan Hughes’ retirement, it was historic. In a league where the vast majority of the players are Black women, Quinn is the first Black head coach for the Storm and brings the total number of Black women current head coaches in the WNBA up to two. Women coaches, and especially Black women coaches, are vastly underrepresented in professional sports.
Since the WNBA began in 1997, there have been 86 head coaches. Forty-four have been women. When the league debuted with eight teams, six head coaches were women. In the years since, that percentage has gone down. At the beginning of the 2021 season, there were just four women head coaches in the WNBA out of 12 teams. Quinn’s appointment brings that tally up to five. Last year there were zero Black women head coaches in the WNBA. Quinn became just the 19th Black woman head coach in the league’s history.
Quinn noted in her first press conference after the announcement of her promotion that she felt the significance of that history. She listed off all of those 18 Black women head coaches who came before her: “You talk about Pokey Chatman, Teresa Edwards, Jennifer Gillom, Carolyn Jenkins, Vickie Johnson, Trudi Lacey, Cynthia Cooper, Cheryl Miller, Carolyn Peck, Julie Rousseau, Amber Stocks, Karleen Thompson, Shell Dailey, Jessie Kenlaw, Cathy Parson, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Denise Taylor, and Penny Toler,” Quinn said. “They crawled, so I can walk. I sit on those shoulders … For me, it’s important that I’m not just a woman — I’m a Black woman.”
And for those thinking that “a pipeline” problem is to blame for the coaching diversity issue due to the shorter lifespan of women’s professional sports in this country — well, the WNBA has been around for 25 years at this point, and Title IX has provided women’s basketball players in college significant playing opportunities for nearly 50.
Quinn represents the potential strength of that pipeline, too, as a former WNBA player with a 12-year career. At 36, she’s young for the head coaching jobs by some counts. She only retired from playing after helping the Storm win their 2018 title and was then hired as an assistant coach. But her supporters have cited her playing experience as relevant to being able to handle the top job, though many former players have had to put in years of coaching experience before being given a similar shot. She’s now the third former WNBA player currently head-coaching in the league. But some players think that could change soon and provide more opportunities for the majority Black players in the league to fill more coaching positions.
Seattle veteran guard Sue Bird, for instance, predicts Quinn will be part of an incoming wave. “It’s a step that’s been needed and a step that will probably open more doors for more women, for more former players, and for People of Color,” Bird said. “Noey embodies all of that. What she also embodies is a player who had a long, successful career who by nature of experience just has a ton of knowledge under her belt. … The things that Noey has and a lot of former players have, you just can’t teach.”
And it’s about time we see this leadership shift — or to be more accurate — shift back. Like I mentioned, when the WNBA started, the majority of coaching jobs were held by women. But as the league went on and grew, those coaching jobs went more and more to men. This isn’t a surprising shift — it’s happened since the beginning of women’s sports. When women were first playing organized sports at the college level and in physical education classes around the turn of the 20th century, the vast majority of coaches and physical education teachers were women.
Before Title IX granted at least the promise of equity, legitimacy, and budgets to women’s college sports teams, 90% of them were coached by women. The decline in women coaches was swift, however, once athletic departments were forced to merge and women’s teams began to gain any ounce of prestige — and paychecks. By 1981 women’s college teams were coached by just 55% women. By 2016 it was down to 40%.
Meanwhile, of course, men have retained nearly all of the top coaching jobs in men’s sports, too. Righting this wrong, especially at the professional level, isn’t just a nice diversity marker — it’s necessary for the future success of women’s sports.
Coaching provides a viable future career path for women athletes, many of whom need to keep working to make a living once they retire thanks to salaries that are much lower than those of their male counterparts. Furthermore, women coaches, and specifically former WNBA players, bring not just that wealth of knowledge about the game to the table, like Sue Bird mentioned, but they also bring a wealth of knowledge about what it actually means to be a woman athlete. WNBA careers are different from NBA ones — many women play in the off-season to supplement their income, so they don’t get as much rest and are more prone to injury. Players may need time off if they become pregnant, and they need specialized training and nutrition coaching that’s based on the most recent science about how women athletes perform best (sex-specific research that’s so new most coaches don’t even know about it, especially if they don’t have any personal interest or experience in such things).
A recent study showed that elite athletes want a coach relationship that supports them as people and that gender affects this relationship. It’s not that men coaches can’t have good relationships with their female players or be supportive of their women athletes but that when the hierarchy of sport still puts men at the top across the board even in professional women’s environments, they still often uphold tired stereotypes and gender biases about women athletes, even if they don’t mean to.
It’s time to invest in more women — especially Black women and former players like Noelle Quinn — to fill head coach roles more consistently in the WNBA so the power dynamic can shift to look more like the league itself. And hey, if head coaches in the WNBA are filled by half men, then why not hire women for half the head coaching jobs in the NBA? I hear there are a few openings, and I know a league with a roster of talent — and 25 years of playing experience.
Maggie Mertens is a Seattle-based writer who covers the intersection of gender, sport, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, espnW, Glamour, VICE, and other publications.
📸 Featured image courtesy of The Seattle Storm.
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