In 1996, actress Rhea Perlman starred as Phyllis Saroka in Sunset Park, a film about a woman who coached a boy’s high school basketball team from a decrepit area in Brooklyn and led them to a city championship. Twenty years later, it is still unusual for a woman to guide a men’s team. Although women have made great strides in the realm of professional sports, the playing field remains far from even on the court and field as well as in leadership. When it comes to men’s sports, it’s become the norm to have an all-male coaching staff—but a handful of real-life Phyllis Sarokas have begun to emerge. After breaking barriers for women through their athleticism, a group of former female athletes have taken it upon themselves to change the face of coaching in men’s sports as well.
In the past two years, the NFL and the NBA have taken major steps toward gender equality by instituting anti-domestic violence training programs and appointing notable women to lead major teams. Moves like these are an example of how organizations can help make change by leading with intention and insisting on accountability.
Meet some of the women who are changing the game:
Becky Hammon is recognized as a WNBA pioneer. Throughout her professional career she’s played a major role in the success of the New York Liberty and San Antonio Silver Stars. Hammon, who hails from South Dakota, reportedly always dreamt of playing in the NBA, and now her dream of being involved in the league has finally come to fruition in a different fashion. In 2014, Hammon was hired as the first full-time assistant coach of the San Antonio Spurs. Her appointment to this position made her the first woman to be a full-time assistant coach in major US sports. In 2015, she also was named head coach of the team’s summer league, becoming the first woman coach to lead a NBA team. “If you have a daughter, or even a woman in your life, it is worth supporting because of the bigger picture, because of the opportunities it will lead to down the road for little girls,” Hammon said in an interview. “We’re not asking the male to get up and leave his seat. We’re just saying scoot over a little bit. Make a little room at the table for the ladies.”
Hammon’s appointment paved the way for other women to take on coaching roles in the NBA. Almost a year after she got the position, Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman became the assistant coach of the Sacramento Kings. Prior to taking on the coaching role, Lieberman served as the head coach of the Texas Legends in the NBA Development League, but signing on to coach the Kings gave her a larger platform to show her leadership skills. “Becky opened up a lot of doors even for myself, with what the Spurs did and then with her success at the summer league. It has an effect on a lot of people’s thinking and the acceptance. I believe a lot of people saw that and went: ‘Why can’t we do that? That’s something that’s really important, and there’s other people open-minded, why can’t it be us?” she said in an interview. “I’ve been around the game for 40 years. I’m qualified.”
The NBA isn’t the only prominent professional men’s league that is putting women in positions of leadership. Thirty-seven-year-old Jen Welter, the woman who became the first female to play a non-kicking position in a professional men’s football league, hit another milestone in her career by becoming the first female coach in men’s professional football after being hired by the Texas Revolution of the Champions Indoor Football league. Welter was then hired by the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals as an assistant coaching intern, and although her internship has since concluded, she worked with linebackers during the training season. “I’ve thought of all the reasons why I might be the wrong person to do this. ‘You’re too small, you’re too this, you’re too that.’ The truth is if I can change the game, literally, for any of those girls, it’s worth it. Because it’s really not about me. It’s about them and the future of the sport,” she said.
Hammon, Lieberman, and Welter—and the major organizations that gave them a chance to shine—have blazed a new path for women in sports. They are living proof that when it comes to leading sports teams, gender shouldn’t be a factor. Skills, knowledge, and a passion for the game are all it takes to guide a team to the top.