NBA Teams Airball When It Comes to Promoting Women

(This is part one in a special 5-part series by sports analyst David J. Leonard on the NBA’s abysmal performance when it comes to gender equity.)

The NBA is often praised for its diversity, celebrated as some model of how sports should handle race.  While researching and writing After Artest I spent ample analyzing the widespread celebration of the NBA in this regard.  The NBA is presumably the gold standard when it comes to the hiring and advancement of racial minorities in front office and head-coaching positions.  However, when we swap gender for race, the NBA’s AAA Diversity rating is significantly downgraded.

This past summer, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at of University of Central Florida released its report on the NBA.   While providing ample data, the conclusion/summary was as follows:

The NBA had an A+ for race and an A- for gender for a combined A.

Based on the total points used in these weighted scales, the NBA earned its highest grade combined grade ever at 92.2, up from its previous high of 91.5 in 2010. The NBA grade for race was 95.3, which was up significantly from the 2010 Report when it was 93.8. The combined total and the total for race were both higher than for any other men’s sport in the history of the Racial and Gender Report Card. The NBA again received men’s pro sports’ only A for a combined grade for race and gender. As has often been the case since TIDES began issuing its annual report there were countless headlines praising the NBA’s Diversity Efforts, such as “NBA remains leader in sports diversity” and “NBA gets an ‘A’ for Diversity.”  Yet, as we look at the report and beyond, it is hard to imagine how the NBA can get an “A-” for gender, much less an overall A.

For gender, the NBA earned an A in the league office and an A- for professional administrators. It received a C for team senior administration and an F for team vice presidents.  At best, this is a B average, but a closer look reveals how troubling the NBA’s approach to gender has become.

  • Of the 60 NBA Referees, there was 1 woman (or .02 percent)
  • Women made up 3-percent of Radio/TV Broadcasters
  • Of the 320 Team Vice Presidents, only 48 were women (15%)
  • Women held 27% of team senior administrative jobs (an all-time high)

TIDES depends on close cooperation of league offices to produce its report so there are myriad reasons why it would be in their best interest to accentuate the positives about the NBA.  The league however has been far less complimentary regarding these continued inquiries into their diversity practices.  In a recent article by the New York Times’ Harvey Araton NBA commissioner David Stern is quoted as saying:

“I recognize the presumption that an organization that is not diverse has a job to do. But once you reach a certain critical distribution, the counting should stop.”

Even though the NBA received the highest gender grade of the four major sports, Stern was still overly sensitive regarding ongoing calls for greater gender equity throughout various branches of the NBA.

Interestingly, in this report about diversity in the NBA, there are no grades for gender as it relates to coach, assistant coaches, president/CEO, and general manager.  There are multiple ways to interpret this omission: (1) in the absence of any women in these positions, the grade is obviously an “F.”  Yet, in unmarking that exclusion, the report fails to highlight the absence of female coaches and top executives within the NBA.  (2) The erasure of these numbers normalizes the absence of women within the key basketball-related within the NBA.

In effect, by failing to note these abysmal numbers, the report seemingly renders this reality as both unexpected and a given, not worthy of notation.  This represents a major shortcoming within the report and more importantly the overall tenor of discussions regarding women in the NBA.  Naturalizing exclusion renders women as coaches, presidents, and general managers as unthinkable within the dominant imagination.  The report does grade the NBA as it relates to women vice-presidents, in which the league gets an “F.”  Beyond the abysmal numbers – there were 48 women vice presidents during the 2010-11 NBA season, accounting for 15 percent of vice-presidents league-wide – it is quick to see how few women serve in basketball-related capacities. Female vice-presidents so often found in positions within human resources, marketing, and other business related activities.  There are few women who are both visible, and integral to basketball operations.

Again, it should be noted that this report praises the NBA’s diversity record in the league office, i.e., central administration (“manager, coordinator, supervisor or administrator in business operations, marketing, promotions, publications and various other departments”), giving the NBA an  A- here.  Its when it gets to the individual teams that there is a steep drop off in performance.  Therefore, what becomes evident is that its been normalized that the place for women within the NBA is peripheral; at its best, we see women as league vice presidents, albeit outside of basketball relations.  At worse, and more commonly, women can be found in support roles, in those accepted gender roles as sideline reporters, secretaries, personal-assistants, cheerleaders, and as the case of tomorrow’s subject Jeanie Buss reveals, even when a woman is an accomplished front-office professional she is still rendered as someone’s, girlfriend.

Part II: The NBA’s Glass Wall: The Case of Jeanie Buss

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