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The war on women coaches

Sylvia Hatchell
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Former University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill head coach Sylvia Hatchell’s players claimed she had berated them, made racially insensitive remarks and forced them to play through injuries.

During the past women’s college basketball season, two prominent head coaches, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Sylvia Hatchell and Georgia Tech’s MaChelle Joseph, were fired.

In Joseph’s case, her players had accused her of being abusive, demeaning and manipulative. Hatchell’s players claimed she had berated them, made racially insensitive remarks and forced them to play through injuries.

We don’t want to litigate, refute or deny the claims against Hatchell, Joseph and countless other female coaches. But it’s not difficult to imagine a male coach with a similar style being called “tough,” “demanding” and “passionate.”

As social scientists who study coaching and leadership in sport, we’re starting to see a double standard at play – one that holds female coaches to a different standard from their male counterparts.

We think it might help explain why the percentage of collegiate women head coaches is stagnant and near an all-time low.

Dwindling numbers over the decades

In 1972, Title IX, a federal civil rights law which made gender discrimination in schools illegal, was passed. It led to record numbers of girls and women playing sports at all levels. But an unintended effect was that, over time, women started to hold a smaller share of sport leadership positions.

Laura Burton
Laura Burton
According to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, the percentage of female coaches has steadily fallen since the passage of Title IX. In 1972, more than 90% of female collegiate athletes were coached by women. Today that number hovers around 42% at the NCAA Division I level.

After Title IX required schools to allocate more resources for women’s sports, male coaches started to see coaching female athletes as a legitimate career path. Today men occupy nearly 75% of all head coaching positions in collegiate athletics.

A shorter leash?

Hatchell and Joseph’s experiences are not isolated ones.

In recent years, a number of collegiate women coaches have encountered challenges to their coaching behaviors, integrity, character and job security, some high profile, many not. In 2014, University of Minnesota-Duluth women’s hockey head coach Shannon Miller didn’t have her contract renewed despite multiple national championships, high graduation rates and no NCAA violations. Miller sued for gender discrimination and won more than US$3 million in damages.

In the wake of allegations of abuse, a few female coaches have been able to keep their jobs. Some win court cases against the university. But many end up simply leaving their positions in the hopes of landing another coaching job at a different school.

Most of these women are not rehired; if they are, it’s not at the same level or position. For example, Tracey Greisbaum, a highly successful former head field hockey coach at the University of Iowa, was fired after athlete allegations of harassment and mistreatment. She subsequently won a $1.5 million lawsuit for gender discrimination. But she’s now a volunteer coach for Duke University.

Male coaches also get accused of abuse, and some do get fired, like Maryland college football coach D.J. Durkin, who was fired in October 2018 after one of his players died after practice.

But many that exhibit behaviors their female colleagues are fired for remain employed or quickly get hired for head coaching gigs at other schools. The most prominent example of the return to coaching is former Indiana men’s basketball coach Bobby Knight, who was fired in 2000 after choking a player in practice. In 2001, Knight was hired as the head coach at Texas Tech.

Nicole LaVoi
Nicole LaVoi
On the women’s side, University of Illinois head women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant was sued by players who claimed he had created a racially abusive environment. Bollant was fired in 2017, only to be quickly hired as the head coach at Eastern Illinois University.

When women don’t behave as expected

What might explain the differential treatment?

Due to gender stereotypes, we expect women be more nurturing, caring, supportive and relationship-oriented. We expect men, on the other hand, to be assertive, independent and dominant.

Then there are behaviors we expect each gender to avoid. For men, this includes signs of weakness, like insecurity or sensitivity. Women, on the other hand, aren’t supposed to be aggressive or intimidating.

Studies show that when women exhibit dominant behavior or men appear to be weak, people tend to react negatively.

But the backlash isn’t evenly distributed: Research has shown that women who act in dominant and more masculine ways generate much stronger feelings of contempt, disgust, revulsion and disdain in others.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

It’s easy to see how these gender stereotypes can make things more difficult for female coaches.

Coaches are expected to be confident, demanding and assertive. Women in head coaching roles are, not surprisingly, expected to act “like a coach.”

But many of the behaviors expected of coaches also align with stereotypical male behaviors. So when women act like a coach, it violates traditional female gender stereotypes, subjecting them to backlash.

Another problem is that female college athletes seem to value coaches who act in dominant, sometimes authoritarian ways. When female athletes are asked what they want in a coach, they’ll say they want someone who is commanding, confident, assertive and knowledgeable.

At the same time, female athletes consider ideal female coaches to be caring, supportive and nurturing. But this contradicts what they value in a coach.

Female coaches ultimately find themselves in a double bind: They’re damned if they act like men, and damned if they don’t.

On March 30, Notre Dame head women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw told Think Progress that she would no longer hire men coaches for her staff. A few days later, when she was asked to elaborate on her stance, she said:

“Girls are socialized to know … that gender roles are already set. Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It’s always the men that [are] the stronger ones. When these girls are coming out, who are they looking up to telling them that that’s not the way it has to be? And where better to do that than in sports?”

McGraw’s impulse to hire more women is well-founded. But the issue goes beyond simply hiring more women. These women, once they’re hired, need to be able to thrive in their jobs. Understanding how – and why – they’re held to a different standard is an important step in addressing the larger problem of inequality.The Conversation

Laura Burton, Ph.D., is a professor of sport management at the University of ConnecticutNicole LaVoi, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer of social and behavioral sciences of physical activity at the University of Minnesota.

This article is republished with permission from The Conversation. 

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/21/2019 - 03:29 pm.

    I would rename this piece “the war on women athletes.” The behavior by Hatchell was absolutely atrocious. Of course she was fired. Yet she appears in an article about unfair treatment of women coaches?

    I am sure there is a double standard. But this terribly written piece certainly isn’t going to help.

    • Submitted by Betsy Larey on 06/22/2019 - 08:36 pm.

      Obviously you know nothing about women’s sports and coaching. I’m not sure why you even bothered to respond

      • Submitted by Toni Bergner on 06/23/2019 - 02:57 pm.

        It would seem that a major part of the problem is that ‘female collegiate athletes value coaches who act in dominant, sometimes authoritarian ways’ and ‘female athletes consider ideal coaches to be caring, supportive and nurturing.’ The article says ‘they find themselves in a double bind: They are damned if they act like men coaches, and damned if they don’t.’

        Haven’t the women athletes created a double standard by what they want in a coach ….. and therein lies the problem for women coaches?

        I am sure that athletes are interviewed and listened to, especially when there are perceived problems in a program, and that is a major factor in whether a coach is retained or not. Does the coach have the support of her players? That is the dilemma for women coaches and is probably a big part of the program.

        Regarding the comment about the coach having to clean the bus … so it would be OK for the team to leave a mess in the bus ….. or their bench area …. or in their locker room …. and expect someone else to clean up for them? I coached and always expected my team to clean up the area they used ….. or, if they didn’t for some reason, I took care of it. I didn’t consider that discrimination …. it was just common sense.

        • Submitted by Michael Ofjord on 06/23/2019 - 07:42 pm.

          Thank you, Ms. Bergner, for another perspective on this issue.

          I think it is rather bizarre to think that the coaches are in a double bind. It is no surprise to me that athletes, male or female, tend to be more aggressive or driven on average. So, if a female coach has players who want the coach to be aggressive yet nurturing, all I can say is “duh.” No surprise there, and it’s up to the coach to deal with those personalities. Every good coach, parent, teacher or mentor does the same thing and is flexible enough to deal with the cards they are dealt. The coach is not a victim here, nor are the female athletes to blame.

          If i were a coach for a female team and had to clean the bus, I wouldn’t be happy if they should be doing it, but I’d do it and not think it was based on discrimination, unless there was evidence otherwise. I appreciate Ms. Bergner’s comments on that.

      • Submitted by Michael Ofjord on 06/23/2019 - 05:22 pm.

        Well, I am glad he did, because I agree with Mr. Terry. This article is so convoluted, it’s hard to know where to start. An abusive coach, whether male or female, should be terminated if there is a pattern of abuse. And I think most of us know intuitively, that we want coaches or teachers to be both demanding and nurturing, and there is no contradiction being both. This has little to do with being male or female and more about being a decent human being, which we always need more of.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/24/2019 - 11:54 am.

        I know enough to recognize horribly abusive behavior. Any coach who behaves that way, male or female, deserves to be fired. If male coaches are getting away with this kind of behavior, we need to put the focus there, not defending someone like Hatchell.

        If you think that Hatchell’s behavior is in any way acceptable, then it is you who knows nothing about women’s sports and coaching.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/21/2019 - 04:00 pm.

    Maybe it’s male coaches that should change?

  3. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 06/21/2019 - 07:11 pm.

    It’s this simple…you win–you keep your job and make a lot of money. You don’t–and you get fired. That’s coaching. Or at least it was until recently.

    • Submitted by B. Dalager on 06/24/2019 - 12:02 pm.

      “In 2014, University of Minnesota-Duluth women’s hockey head coach Shannon Miller didn’t have her contract renewed despite multiple national championships, high graduation rates and no NCAA violations.”

  4. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 06/22/2019 - 09:16 am.

    I recently was the head Girls golf coach at WBL high school. I had repeated run ins with the male AD. He deemed me “too assertive, too pushy, arguing with other coaches ( who were all male) and the best one was not knowing my place”. And I almost forgot, not cleaning up the bus after our match. All of this because I tried to get equal access to the indoor golf facility at out school.The majority of coaches in our conference were male.
    This article is one of the best I’ve ever read. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The reason why the big push to hire men is twofold. The money got a lot better and the AD’s who do the hiring are men. Men like to work with other men in the sports industry. It was truly heartbreaking when the U of M dismantled the separate women’s athletic department. I don’t see this changing, I really don’t.

    • Submitted by Toni Bergner on 06/23/2019 - 03:07 pm.

      I am sorry that you feel you were treated unfairly.

      And who should clean the bus ….. after your team has used it and created the mess?

      What is your basis for your comment that ‘men like to work with men in the sports industry?’ I haven’t found this to be true. It is your perspective and …. it is just your perspective.

      I wonder …. would an athletic director hire the best coach for the athletic program or hire an inferior coach simply because of their gender? I would certainly hope, and I believe they do, hire the best coach regardless of gender. Do athletic directors want their teams to lose …. of course not ….. and they therefore hire the best coach.

      There were numerous problems in the U of M Women’s Athletic Department …. and therefore it was reorganized. The U of M women’s athletic teams are doing quite well in numerous areas in this reorganization …. why do you believe it should change?

      Very frankly …. it seems that your response is simply sour grapes.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/24/2019 - 06:16 pm.

        You think employers routinely hire based on merit?

        Out here in the real world, I’ve seen hires based on gender, race, friendships, familial relationships, and geographic proximity (neighbors).

        And yeah, sometimes even based on merit.

        Years ago, the old Doonesbury comic had good joke. One guy started a company, and hired his old college buddy, Mike Doonesbury. Shortly after starting work, Doonesbury asked his buddy/boss, “Wait, did I get hired based on merit, and not friendship? Because I’m a Republican now…”

        “Relax. You were the most qualified friend I could find.”

        “Oh, good.”

        This country is not a meritocracy.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/22/2019 - 04:45 pm.

    Clearly, abusive coaches regardless of gender need to be fired and not rehired. The current situation for abusive male head coaches is akin to pedophile priests. The male dominated institutions cover up and forgive. This is not a case of double standards, but no standards applied to even moderately successful male coaches.

  6. Submitted by Michael Ofjord on 06/22/2019 - 07:09 pm.

    If those coaches were abusive, demeaning, racially insensitive and made their team play even when injured, that is wrong behavior, regardless of whether it is a man or woman. There is no double standard. They deserved to be fired.

    I think part of the reason of this constant blaming of men and complaining of double standard is that women are now gaining power in most facets of life and the work world, and seeing that they themselves are also very capable of abusing it. That goes against their own internalized stereotype of women always being the more compassionate, and they don’t quite know what to do with that information.

  7. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/23/2019 - 09:52 pm.

    Apparently the war on women coaches has been declared by their women athletes.

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