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Gary Washburn

While Title IX should be celebrated, it’s time for pro sports leagues to play catch-up ball

South Carolina women's basketball head coach Dawn Staley, who has coached NCAA and Olympic champions, could break a huge barrier if the Charlotte Hornets had the foresight to make her their next head coach.Eric Gay/Associated Press

While the 50th anniversary of Title IX should be celebrated because of not only advancements in women’s athletics but also education and corporate positions, our society is still far from total equality in these categories.

We collectively have just come to appreciate the brilliance of elite female athletes such as Serena Williams in the past decade. The WNBA has finally drawn the respect and allure of sports fans as it reached its 25th anniversary.

Team USA women’s soccer players won a hard-fought battle for equal salaries to their male counterparts, settling a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation for $24 million despite the women’s soccer program being exponentially better for decades.


Yet, there’s something missing. There has still never been a female head coach of a men’s major professional sport, and these sports are running out of excuses as to why they are passing up on qualified women candidates.

The notion that male professional athletes, born in the increasingly progressive 1990s and 2000s wouldn’t listen or respect a female head coach is a fallacy. It’s the final excuse given by teams as to why they won’t take a chance on a female coach.

Let’s look at the situation in Charlotte. The NBA’s Hornets, led by one Michael Jordan, are seeking a head coach. The Hornets don’t pay particularly well and it’s considered a second- or third-tier NBA job, so they decided on ex-Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, now a Warriors assistant, to lead the franchise.

Atkinson, considered a solid but not spectacular candidate, accepted the job and then turned down the position because he wanted to remain an assistant coach in Golden State. It’s rare but not unprecedented for NBA coaches to reject jobs after accepting them. Fifteen years ago, University of Florida coach Billy Donovan accepted the Orlando Magic job, held a press conference and then went back to Florida three days later.


The Hornets now have decided to re-interviewMike D’Antoni, a 71-year-old retread coach, for the position when the best candidate lives about an hour away from Charlotte: South Carolina women’s coach Dawn Staley.

Dawn Staley has coached the Gamecocks to two national championships, and led Team USA to Olympic gold in Tokyo.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Let’s see, Staley has coached the Gamecocks to two national championships and just led the US women’s basketball team to Olympic gold in Tokyo. She is highly respected not only in women’s basketball but the sport as a whole as a Naismith Hall of Famer, and a bright mind who needs a new challenge.

Staley agreed to a seven-year, $22.4 million deal last October to become the highest paid coach in women’s basketball. Her position at South Carolina is secure. But the Hornets couldn’t gauge her interest? They couldn’t reach out to see if they can make this landmark hire, hiring the most successful female coach in the world to lead their NBA team that’s never reached the conference finals in 32 seasons under 11 male coaches.

A franchise that’s been to the playoffs three times in the past 18 years will fall in line with all the other organizations and hire the tried and tested, a coach with a three-year max window.

Staley is not campaigning for any NBA position and she did discuss the Portland Trail Blazers head coaching position because they hired Chauncey Billups. Brad Stevens called Staley about the Celtics’ opening a year ago.

Charlotte would be the perfect situation and the franchise, especially Jordan, would receive well-deserved kudos for breaking the barrier and investing in the most qualified candidate on the market, regardless of gender.


The NBA can only suggest teams hire female coaches. Commissioner Adam Silver is consistently asked about when the NBA will finally hire a female head coach. And there is really no excuse.

“In terms of women, it’s a little bit frustrating,” he said in October. “It’s an area where even just looking around the room here, you would like to see more women represented in the room here today, in all aspects of our business.

“We have historically made more progress on race rather than on gender. But I think that’s beginning to change. It’s slow. It’s frustrating. But it’s the work that we have to do every day to change awareness and then develop pools of candidates as well.”

Becky Hammon also interviewed in Portland. After years as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, Hammon decided to leave for a head coaching position with the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces to prove she could be a capable lead coach, which was apparently a concern for NBA teams.

Becky Hammon coaches Las Vegas in a WNBA game earlier this month.John Locher/Associated Press

But there are no such flimsy reasons to pass on Staley. She’s qualified. She’s ready and she would be impactful for a generation of players that are more open-minded than their predecessors.

If we are celebrating the anniversary of Title IX because it pushed for equality, then we need to ensure that true equality is achieved. The Phoenix Suns, mired in controversy and upheaval because of the offensive actions of owner Robert Sarver, just hired Morgan Cato as assistant general manager and vice president of basketball operations.


Now it’s time for women to become general managers and team presidents. It’s time for professional sports teams, and that especially means the NFL and Major League Baseball, to line their coaching staffs with qualified women instead of retread men.

It’s time for owners to become more visionary and less conservative when they decide to fill critical positions in their organizations. Women will no longer be appeased by entry-level positions, especially when teams like the Hornets compile a list of barely above-average candidates to lead a team with the potential to become a power in the Eastern Conference.

Let’s reflect on the progress of Title IX but also demand more from those in decision-making positions throughout professional and college sports — you don’t think Staley could lead a men’s team to the Final Four? — and then, for many in this generation, true equality will be attained.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.