Tagged: women in sports

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

(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.)

One of the more popular minstrel reality shows in VH1’s roster is the program Basketball Wives.  This show is consistently lampooned and derided online whenever it airs for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that none of the women on the show are actually NBA Wives, not even in the common law sense.  That wives and girlfriends are interchangeable in VH1 parlance is peculiar enough, but more troubling is the fact that in an era where accomplished women are leading nations, running Fortune 500 companies, and in the case of Oprah Winfrey, a multi-platform media empire, when it comes to the NBA, the most prominent women is this gaggle of pseudo-celebrities.

Clearly, the NBA does not endorse Basketball Wives, so the point here is not to attribute the show as an extension of the league.  No, the issue is how does a multi-national corporation like the NBA which has housed two of the biggest sports stars of the last thirty-years, Michael Jordan and Yao Ming, allow itself to get outmaneuvered by VH1 and its tabloid fare when it comes to the dissemination of women’s images.

One way to begin this discussion is to explore the experiences of Jeanie Buss, which is profoundly instructive as to how the image of the “girlfriend” has become the league’s dominant meme when it comes to women.

In spite of her numerous professional accomplishments, most people know Buss more for her relationship with Phil Jackson, her appearance in Playboy, and her potential participation in the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and not as a Los Angeles Lakers executive (she is executive vice president of Business Operations).  It should come as no surprise that little has been made over the assumed anointing of Jim Buss and not her as the next leader of the Lakers.  After all, “It’s a man world,” and her entry into a hyper masculine space has been through her sexuality and body.

While I don’t speculate to understand the dynamics here, but raise the issue in regards to how little has been made about her not even being included in the conversation as a potential successor to Jerry Buss.  Jim Buss’ role as president and his power within the organization is obvious, yet little has been made as why him and not her.  Take a report on ESPN.com shortly before Buss’ promotion:

But now, with legendary coach Phil Jackson retiring and his father, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, retreating a bit further from the day-to-day operations of the team each year, Jim Buss’ influence on the future of the franchise will be hard to miss.

His whims, his voice, will be the single most important force in the way the Lakers move out of this failed season.

Jim Buss has been constructed as the natural successor while Jeanie is depicted as Phil Jackson’s girlfriend.   Although Jim Buss has been routinely criticized for his decisions and communication skills, it is hard to find anyone suggesting that Jeanie would be better for the job.  This in spite of a fact that her success as a manager dates back to her early days serving as chief executive of the Los Angeles Forum, and overseeing business operations of the Lakers during both the Shaquille-Kobe era and the more recent Kobe-Pau period.  By contrast, Jim Buss’ two most important decisions in the last fifteen years has been hiring Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Brown.

In short, Jeanie Buss is the most prominent example of the glass wall that seems to permeate the NBA.  Women are able to rise to the executive ranks in the NBA’s league office and the business side of many franchises, but they dare not cross over to managing day to day basketball operations.  That even a family owned franchise like the Lakers that has been extremely successful over the last thirty years would not portend to let a woman exist as a voice of the franchise is really telling about the density of this glass wall.

The themes here transcend the Lakers and the Buss family as we can see how the NBA is a hyper-masculine enterprise and that the participation of women so often comes in the form of traditional supports and sexual objects.  “The NBA would rightly point out that a number of women work in fairly important positions in the league office, where it’s easy to find people who care sincerely about such things,” writes Henry Abbott. “But women not only don’t play basketball for the NBA or its teams. They also don’t coach, make trades or hand out punishments. (They do, however, at almost every public NBA event, dance around in skimpy outfits for money.)”

That Jeanie Buss receives more attention, from media and otherwise, for her relationship history rather than her managerial acumen is indicative of the ways that women are accepted within sporting cultures.  Consumed as sexual object, as fulfilling traditionally accepted gender roles, Jeanie Buss has illustrated the difficulty of being seen in other contexts.

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