(This is part three in a special 5-part series by sports analyst David J. Leonard on the NBA’s abysmal performance when it comes to gender equity.)
Following the announcement that Nancy Lieberman was going to become the first female head coach in the NBA system in 2009, the sports media gathered around in celebration. Chris Tomasson asked “Could Nancy Lieberman Become the NBA’s First Female Head Coach?” while Scott Schroeder celebrated Lieberman as “Still a Pioneer.” Although clearly a break through movement for the league, the media focused on celebrating the individual achievement rather than the dismantling of the NBA’s boys-only coaching carousel. For example, Tomasson rhetorically asked: “The D-League today. The NBA tomorrow.” Depicting her as a pioneer, as a trailblazer, and as someone who will open up opportunities for other women in the NBA, he concluded: “If there ever will be a female NBA head coach in my lifetime, I’m thinking Nancy Lieberman has got a shot. Lieberman took the first step toward that Thursday when she was named head coach of the Dallas Mavericks’ D-League team in Frisco, Texas.“
Similarly an Associated Press story, quoting Lieberman as a transformational figure, as someone who has the potential to usher in sea change within the NBA, continued the celebratory tone. It describes her struggle “to break another gender barrier, one she hopes “could be the last barrier.” The efforts to imagine her as a transformational figure, as someone who could lead the NBA into a post-gender reality is evident in comments from Lieberman herself: “I kind of look at President Obama,” she noted. “Everybody knows it’s historical because he’s a man of color. But at the end of the day, regardless of his race, creed, color or gender, he has to be president. Everybody knows I’m a woman, but at the end of the day, regardless of my race, creed, color or gender, I have to win basketball games.
Noting the importance of her success, the overall narrative focused on Lieberman as an ideal pioneer, given her ample successes, including her playing against men. Yet, the media tended to focus on the burden and responsibility she faced. Her success and failure would invariably impact whether or not other women would have the chance to become coaches. She noted, “If I am successful, I’m sure that I will be looked at (by the NBA).” Unfortunately, after a 24-26 record in her only season on the bench, Lieberman moved into the front office. The fanfare and celebratory tone has vanished, as has the commitment to breaking down the gender barriers for female coaches. The culture of masculinity and the persistence of the old-boys club, all while the narrative focuses on the ways in which it is the league’s players are reluctant to accept a female coach, illustrate that hegemony of the NBA’s gender problem.
A single person, even the great Nancy Lieberman, a lone hire, never had the power to undermine the belief that leaders are male. The fact that there is little conversation about the lack of female coaches is a testament to the ways in which male coaches have been normalized within the NBA. It is no wonder that Mark Cuban thinks the NBA will have an openly gay player before it has a female head coach. It no wonder that Pat Summit, collegiate basketball winningest coach, described the chance of a women coaching in the NBA a “longshot.” Because of patriarchy and sexism, evidenced by the entrenched NBA culture, and given the persistence of Glass Walls within the NBA, I guess the hope of Lieberman is not hope we can believe in.