In my time as college coach I have been subjected to and observed more than my fair share of sexism, but with this opening, make no assumptions that this article only applies to women. This article is for awareness to all coaches, athletes, parents and the general world of athletics.
Of course, male coaches in my profession can be sympathetic and most that I speak with will listen. At times they are shocked. However, also in my experience, only a select few have ever actively or openly supported a female colleague on this subject when and where we need it most. Regardless of gender, I encourage you to move away from the mindset of equivocation for a moment and promise you there may be something helpful in this piece for all.
In 2004, I opted for grad school after a year coaching multiple sports at a small Division III school. As an assistant coach, I returned to my alma mater to coach NCAA rugby.
I recall our bus arriving to pick up our team for our last away match of the year and my male head coach having to make a few last-minute copies.
Our driver was a male in his early 30s, one I did not recognize in our rotation. As I stepped onto the bus and took the seat behind the driver, he turned to me and said, "The head coach sits there so he can give me any instructions needed, you may want to grab another seat."
Being 23, I chalked it up to being an age issue and introduced myself as the assistant coach. I was dressed distinctively different from the players and perhaps was under the illusion that I looked a lot older. Even so, I reached out to shake his hand and introduced myself as Coach Carlson. I was met with a zero verbal acknowledgment and a limp handshake.
Of course, once I actually had time to marinate I thought to myself, how did he know that I wasn't the head coach?
As I pondered this and replayed the scenario in my head, I recalled a female superior of mine from a few years before in a summer job telling me that as a woman I should "get used to no one taking me seriously until I was 35". I could hear that comment playing over and over in my head as I went against the driver's recommendation and took my seat directly behind him.
As I counted players on the bus, my male head coach came up the steps and was welcomed by the driver with an enthusiastic handshake. The entire trip that followed was filled with cordial language exchanges between them that included "coach, "sir" and "boss".
Despite my gut shouting directly at me and my initial reactions being spot on, as if programmed to do so, I mentally diverted my attention back to the fact that the rudeness could only have stemmed from me looking young, rather than it being because I was a female. Recognizing that neither was acceptable was sadly something that was not immediately apparent.
After a few more cold exchanges and dismissals of me by the driver during the trip, I confronted my head coach privately who had been sitting directly across the aisle. I assumed he was witnessing the behavior, but when he insisted that the driver may just be "old fashioned”, I realized my coach was operating with a blind-spot.
I was puzzled and a bit disappointed but was certain my head coach he would stick up for me if he genuinely witnessed any disrespect toward me.
Throughout the ride, I began to listen to some of the conversations between my head coach and the driver. The driver chatted about how he had been driving "the men's basketball team" and the "men's swimming team", yet when he referred to our program or any other women's program he used on the word "girls". He was not once corrected by my head coach.
As we returned from dinner, my head coach instructed me to take the team to the bus and to have the driver pull around to the front so he could pay the bill. I led the team to the bus and as I stepped on I let him know he could move the bus to the front.
My statement was met with silence.
I asked once more and waited a few moments. Finally, I said, "Hey Joe, if you could pull the bus around front please, coach is waiting for us."
The driver turned to me and sternly said, "I will wait for the head coach to give me any instructions. You got that, girl?"
In that moment, I realized it was less about my age. My position as the assistant was irrelevant to this man and he would only be receptive to instructions from a male.
My head coach returned to the bus and gave a bit of a motion as if to ask why I had not had the driver pull around. Already annoyed I just pointed to the driver and said out loud, "Apparently, Joe is opposed to any kind of instructions unless you are male." Both responded with silence and neither refuted. I assumed my head coach would discuss this with me at a later time. Once again, my assumption of expected support was incorrect.
This was one of the defining moments in my coaching career that I will never forget.
I know what you are thinking. Not everyone is this antiquated bus driver and he was just a rude stranger. This is true, but my head coach was certainly no stranger and it was so easily dismissed that to this day, I am baffled how he did not demand a higher level of respect for his own staff.
However, not every exchange of sexism in college sports is so obvious. Most of the time we sweep it under the rug and pass up our opportunities to educate.
I am now 36. I am one year beyond the mythical age where I will magically be taken seriously … according to some bad advice I received many years ago.
Today, my current college coaching staff is made up of myself, a female assistant and a male assistant.
If I had a dollar for every time someone assumed that my 25-year old male assistant was the head coach or in charge, I wouldn't need a paycheck.
My male assistant is about the same age now that I was when I began coaching. The list is long but every part of my profession as a female head coach is daily faced with the assumption that there is a male at the helm. In my daily tasks of administrative duties there are numerous encounters with those outside our athletic staff from bus drivers, athletic trainers, officials, parents, recruits, flight attendants, TSA officials, wait staff, hotel clerks etc.
If you are thinking right now that this is an ego-based article and that somehow my firsthand experiences as a grad assistant has turned me bitter and paranoid, please think again. I am not alone in this experience as a female coach where there are countless experiences of our roles being overlooked in power positions in athletics. As women it is not uncommon but, why aren’t we talking about it?
I deal with referees who approach our benches looking for “him”, restaurant waitstaff who hands my student male trainers the bill, opponent trainers asking to speak to "the guy in charge" or any of the 50 other examples I could give where the male domination in our field leads to these kind of assumptions.
I have become so accustomed to the assumption of others that this has become somewhat of a social experiment.
However, being overlooked in a position of authority is far less concerning than the constant messaging that my athletes who witness and are receiving these messages through their eyes and ears.
Even more alarming is what both my male and female assistants are seeing through their lenses. When these kinds of "mistakes" happen, we do not realize that the true damage we are inflicting is our inability to respond or our ability to stay silent.
Our message as a society is that coaching leadership is an assumed male role. Writing this piece is not just about pointing out what women go through but what male coaches can do to be more aware and how they can become allies for their staff and colleagues. If you are a coach and you witness this kind of behavior, you must be strong enough to address it for the sake of your athletes and staff - regardless of gender. Remember, if you would like to change this, it starts with you.
Here are a few tips to remember:
1. Language reflects values. It does matter.
If you are a college coach and you hear your athletes being referred to as "girls", do your best to present a gentle reminder that referring to them as "team" or as "women" is more appropriate. All the better if your athletes can hear this exchange, which can serve as a gentle reminder about our language reflecting our attitudes.
2. Do not assume that coaching roles are male by default.
This one is pretty simple and straight forward. Women coaches are everywhere in just about every sport. The sooner we acknowledge this, the less we will have to correct you.
3. Speaking up creates stronger teams.
This generation is not properly equipped to deal with face-to-face discussion or tension. Most of your athletes would rather walk away and then correct someone even if it is sexist, racist or hateful. The more discussions you are able to have or examples you are able to give, the stronger their response habits will become. Advocacy for your own staff and athletes can be a very powerful reminder to both entities that you will protect them and demonstrates a high level of proficiency in care for your athletes. Teams that feel this kind of trust will have even more reason to play better, together.
4. Be firm and unapologetic when you have the opportunity to educate.
Do not excuse sexist language, ignore it, laugh it off or tell the opposing person that mistakes happens all the time. Some people DO get it right, so let's not reward the majority for failing to do what the minority already has correct.
When my team travels through the airport the top two comments to our athletes are about the pronunciation of our school name and nature of our sport. These are both completely acceptable due to the nature of curiosity. When it crosses a line into sexism, this is a different story. At one point a few years ago we traveled through JFK as a team and the TSA agent said, "Wow, I didn't know women were allowed to play rugby."
My athletes immediately looked at me where I responded, "Yes, it's amazing and women can also be lawyers, doctors and we are allowed to vote."
No later than two weeks after this, I overheard a few of my athletes use this exact response when an airport employee used the "Wow, I can't believe women are allowed to ---" comment. Basically, if they see you stand up even in times that it may not be comfortable, they themselves will feel they can do it too.
5. This message is not just for female coaches. Male coaches, we need you too.
We need allies in this. Whether it is your female athletes or assistant coaches, we need you to stand up for us too. Women coaches and athletes cannot stand alone on this. Sexism in college coaching and dealing with outside entities can only change when we speak up and make people aware of their own behavior from the bus driver to admin, to an opposing coach. After all, by design our female athletes will have no choice in the workforce to deal with facing these kinds of issues and this is on all of us to arm them with knowledge and power.
NOTE FROM THE FEARLESS COACH:
I have often wondered if my experiences as a coach are truly able to help other coaches. Through my writing on various topics in our space, I have realized that countless coaches have found commonality with my experiences. As we all share dialogue on entitlement, parents, recruiting, retention, culture and so many other subjects, we are connected in our profession in many ways. On the other side, there is a less noticeable disconnect. This disconnect deals in the idea many do not recognize that female coaches face extra challenges than many of their male counterparts. We can all learn something and become better if we recognize it together.
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