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Staley and Legette-Jack Offer Glimmers of Hope
“Thank you for that question.”
It is rare that a college basketball coach thanks a member of the media for a question following a loss in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA
Tournament, but that is how University of Buffalo head coach Felisha Legette-Jack responded after she was asked about a lack of
diversity in college athletics (Mandell, 2018). Legette-Jack’s Bulls had just lost to Dawn Staley’s South Carolina team in the 2018
tournament. It was a matchup of two Black female coaches who are in the upper echelon of college basketball coaches—something
to be celebrated. For Legette-Jack, getting a second chance following her firing at Indiana University in 2012 was not easy, but she
persevered; Staley has avoided a lot of the normal barriers. Less than a year earlier, Staley’s Gamecocks topped Mississippi State
University, 67 to 55, in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) women’s tournament basketball championship. The victory
in 2017 was significant for many reasons, but three things stand out: It was the basketball program’s first NCAA title; a team other than
the University of Connecticut was left standing triumphant as the final buzzer sounded; and Staley became just the second Black female
coach to win a title in Division I women’s basketball, a sport in which rosters are largely composed of Black players. Carolyn Peck was the
first Black woman to lead her team to a national title with Purdue in 1999. It took 18 years for another Black female coach to do it.
But what is most significant is how Staley’s path has differed from most Black women who gain head coach positions. Staley’s
meteoric rise offers a glimmer of hope for Black women. Would-be coaches tend to start out as college players. Sometimes, they
play professionally as well. Staley played at the University of Virginia from 1988-1992. After a stellar career, she played in the American
Basketball League and then eight seasons in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). She began her coaching career
at Temple University in 2000 and coached there for eight seasons, compiling a 172-80 record. Staley began at the University of South
Carolina in 2008 and has compiled a 221-80 record in her nine seasons (Gamecocks Women’s Basketball, 2018). Staley sidestepped the
long ladder that many have to climb to run their own program. Often, future coaches start off as a graduate assistant to a team, move
on to roles in basketball team operations, possibly become an assistant coach and, if the program they are in is successful, they might
get some head coach offers. But many women toil away as assistant head coaches for years and never get a chance to move up. Like
other workplaces, athletic departments have glass ceilings. The problem with this glass ceiling is that it not only serves as a deterrent
to gender but it blocks race too. The 2017 Racial and Gender Report Card noted that only 10.9 percent of women’s basketball coaches
were Black females. Yet, Black women made up 45.4 percent of the player rosters (Lapchick, Marfatia, Bloom, & Sylverain, 2017). This
percentage difference led Chicago Tribune writer Shannon Ryan (2017) to declare, “Colleges are the worst employers for women and
people of color in sports.”
Consider the curious case of basketball legend Cheryl Miller. Carter-Francique and Olushola (2016) reported that when Miller
attempted to return to college coaching, she found it difficult to break back in at a big school. “There were a lot of doors that were
slammed” (Steckley 2014, para. 7). Ultimately, she was hired at Langston University in 2014. Langston is a National Association of
Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) school. It could be argued that Miller’s prowess as a player (she earned Basketball Hall of Fame honors
for accomplishments at both the collegiate and Olympics levels) and as a coach (she was head coach at her alma mater, the University
of Southern California and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury) should have earned her a better head coaching job than at Langston. In 2016,
she became head coach at California State-Los Angeles, a Division II school. Given Miller’s knowledge of the game, it is a surprise that
not more Division I athletic departments were clamoring to hire her. But people tend to hire those with whom they are comfortable and
in sports, like society, Whites and Blacks still are not as comfortable with one another as they should be (Powell, 2008). Most athletic
directors at major universities are White, likely did not grow up in a Black neighborhood, and may not have had many Black friends
growing up. A White athletic director’s (AD) circle of close friends is mostly all White (Powell, 2008) and “Whites in power tend to rely on
a tired formula: Go with whom you know” (p. 214).
Legette-Jack acknowledges how difficult it can be for Black women to get noticed: “It took an African-American woman to notice me
when I lost my job at Indiana. Had she not noticed me, Danny White (former AD at Buffalo) would never have known about me; and
because she spoke to him and I was able to present myself to him, I was able to get this opportunity to bring this—from where it was to
where it is now” (Mandell, 2018, para. 4).
Despite the barriers, Legette-Jack sounds undeterred: “The fight is for the next young lady who needs a person who looks like her to rise
above and to be coached up and create a foundation so that she can become the COO, the CFO of something very big. It’s important
that they stay in the race and keep fighting. We see them. You’re out there. Keep fighting. Go forward” (Mandell, 2018, para. 7).


Questions for Discussion:
1. What can athletic departments and hiring committees do to encourage diversity in coaching positions in Division I athletics?

Powell noted that White men, who hold many of the power positions in Division I sports, tend to only pay attention to other Whites since they most closely associate with that racial group. How can hiring committees be composed to avoid such favoritism?

According to Legette-Jack, a Black woman trying to become a head coach often needs some luck to get noticed. Knowing this, what can Black female assistant coaches who want to become head coaches do to get noticed by a mostly White establishment in Division I athletics?


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