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Near the end of the trailer for Wildcats, a 1986 sports comedy with a 13 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating, a voice-over actor informs prospective moviegoers that during the film, “Goldie Hawn tackles the impossible.” The movie is about a woman who coaches a men’s football team, and the implication is that such an endeavor equates to doing that which is undoable.
Sadly, that disembodied voice from the mid-’80s was on to something. Huge numbers of otherwise reasonable people, in 2012, simply take it as a given that women couldn’t possibly coach men’s sports teams. And so, regardless of ability, talent, or potential outcomes, a woman who aspires to lead a high-level men’s team is actually reaching for the near impossible.
There are exactly zero women working as coaches for the 122 teams playing in the NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL. Zero head coaches, zero assistant coaches, zero assistant to the assistant coaches. The average NFL team employs 18 coaches. Major League Baseball teams have six coaches and a manager. Most NHL teams carry at least four coaches, and a typical NBA squad has one head coach and four to six assistants. All together, that’s more than 1,000 jobs ... all held by men. To state it another way: 50.8 percent of the U.S. population has virtually no shot of becoming men’s football, baseball, basketball, or hockey coaches at any level that would involve payment for services due.
OK, fine, they have a tiny shot: At the college level, women coach fewer than 3 percent of men’s teams. And three people—Bernadette Maddox, Jennifer Johnston, and Stephanie Ready—represent the entire universe of women who have served as coaches for Division I men’s basketball teams. They were all assistants.
There are, to be sure, some women coaching men’s teams at the more than 36,000 high schools in the United States—in fact, more women than ever before. But if one of these individuals resides in your town, you are in the tiniest minority. Case in point: Natalie Randolph, a teacher at Washington, D.C.’s Calvin Coolidge Senior High School, appears to be one of only two women serving as head coach of a high school football team in the United States.
Women coach women’s teams at all levels. But so do men. In fact, the percentage of women’s college teams coached by women, for instance, has shrunk considerably since the passage and implementation of Title IX. (In 1972, 90 percent of women’s college teams were coached by women—that number is now down to 42.9 percent. And according to this ESPN story, men have been hired for 68.5 percent of the college women’s team coaching openings filled since 2000.) This is by no means meant to suggest that coaching men’s teams should be valued more highly than coaching women’s teams or represent the ultimate goal for a coach. The point here is simply that choosing a coach from an inherently flawed and unnecessarily narrow universe of candidates is probably not the best way to proceed. Not to mention that coaching women generally pays far less than coaching men.
There are all sorts of reasons why women almost never coach men’s teams, most of which fall under the category of Catch-22s: the lack of women actively seeking these jobs due to existing norms that are reinforced at every athletic level, the dearth of female candidates with the type of experience that is valued by those filling positions to coach men’s teams, the lack of female role models who have successfully coached men, the persistence of discrimination and stereotypes that die slowly, etc. Basically: Women never coach men’s teams because they’ve never coached men’s teams. Then there are these loopy justifications that you’ve surely heard, or maybe even uttered yourself: Women don’t play some men’s sports competitively, so they couldn’t possibly be good at coaching those sports; men won’t take orders from, or sufficiently respect, women; women have no place in men’s locker rooms; and, of course, women are way too [insert your stereotype of choice here regarding emotional fragility] to successfully coach men’s teams.
Here is the point in this article at which I would love to combat all of the above with numerous examples of women coaches killing it in men’s sports. Only there’s not much of a well from which to draw. So let’s look at the rationales when applied to men.
The claim that is perhaps trotted out most often is the one about how women couldn’t effectively coach sports such as football and baseball that they don’t play competitively, and how they wouldn’t be successful coaching men in the sports women do play, because they haven’t competed in them against men or at the highest of levels. (Remember: This is not about women playing against men, where, in some instances, strength and muscular advantages are unmistakable factors.)