Seeking a level playing field

Fredonia head coach Linda Hill-MacDonald has coached in the WNBA, but her most impactful career move have been the stand she took for pay equity at the University of Minnesota in 1995.
File photo by Fredonia State athletics

By Ryan Scott

When Title IX went into effect in 1972, more than 90 percent of college women’s athletic teams were coached by women. It was 55 percent by 1981 when the NCAA began oversight of women’s athletics and today the number hovers around 40 percent and continues to shrink. Women’s basketball is a bright spot at 56 percent, but that number continues to go down as well.

“When I got into the profession there were virtually no men,” says Linda Hill-MacDonald, currently head coach at Fredonia, who has led teams across all levels, including as the first coach of the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers. “We were making almost no money – at one point we didn’t even have a national championship. There was nothing to even draw people into the profession besides love of the game."

As things developed and money and prestige became a part of women’s basketball, men entered the workforce. Men continue to be the decision-makers and those responsible for hiring and they’re disproportionately hiring men.

Adds Hill-MacDonald, “I coached before Title IX and I coached during Title IX, and things have gotten worse instead of better when it comes to opportunities for women.”

The picture is a little brighter when we look specifically at the Division III level – 61 percent of women’s basketball coaches are women and that number has been rising steadily for the last five seasons. Money is less of a factor at this level and there’s also the principle of critical mass.

A number of studies have shown that organizations are capable of making large-scale changes when a minority group reaches 30 percent participation among decision-makers. At the Division III level, 2016-17 saw the first year in which women comprised more than 30 percent of athletic directors.

Despite this good news for us, the overall numbers continue to move away from opportunities for women. Coaching is not segregated by division and even the best constructed bastion of equality can’t stand up to tidal pressure from outside.

“It’s going to take a lot of people to come together and say we need change and believe we need change and implement the change,” says Capital head coach Dixie Jeffers who recently earned her 700th victory. “I’m not convinced people think we need to change.”

Many of these numbers were shocking to the men I spoke with this week. None of them came as a surprise to the women. “These young women coaches are frustrated and demoralized,” adds Jeffers. “They see a student manager or a practice player come in with no experience and get jobs ahead of women who played four years at good programs and spent time on the bench as assistants.”

Dixie Jeffers, Capital University head coach
Photo by Joe Maiorana, Impact Action Sports Photography

Jeffers continues, “Years and years ago it was split. You had a female AD and a male AD. I’m not opposed to that, if it means getting more women more jobs. I’m not saying men shouldn’t be in the business – by any means – I think the best coach should have the job, but it’s kind of skewed so that men always seem to be the best coach.”

The NCAA produced an excellent piece that lays out some of the difficulties women face in the coaching profession and some of the means by which the NCAA is tackling these problems. Jeffers says, “We get money from the NCAA to bring diversity people to the campus and they present incredible workshops to us, but it doesn’t result in change. You can’t point the finger at the NCAA as much as we’d all like because it’s the schools that aren’t hiring women.” 

The implementation of the Senior Woman Administrator position has empowered women to be more involved in decisions at all NCAA member schools, but the women put into those positions don’t always know what their duties and responsibilities entail, especially at smaller schools with lower budgets where many people are doing multiple jobs – a reality for many Division III institutions. It falls on individual schools to monitor, maintain, and empower true equal access.

Equal access may also mean giving women opportunities that haven’t traditionally been open to them. “I couldn’t not have basketball in my life,” says Case Western Reserve University men’s assistant Liz Hornberger, an all-conference performer at Youngstown State who wanted to keep one foot in the game while attending law school at CWRU.

“I reached out to both head coaches and the men’s coach at the time, Sean McDonnell, responded first. I told him I’d fill water bottles, but he said, ‘No, you played in college, you know what you’re talking about. I’ll give you a shot as an assistant coach.’ I’ve been here four years now and I absolutely love it.”

Hornberger, now finished with law school, continues to volunteer and expand her coaching role. She is responsible for all guard development at practice. “I have never had a situation where I felt uncomfortable. Being a woman has never been an issue – except for road trips when I have to change in the public restrooms with the spectators.”

After the educational investment she made, it would be a difficult decision to pursue coaching as a full-time profession. But you can hear a passion in her voice that perhaps betrays a true calling.

Current Case Western Reserve head coach Todd McGuiness is entirely supportive. “I believe Liz can do anything she wants. She’s really bright and really talented. If she wants to be a Division III head coach, and put everything into it, she could be really good. She could be a Division I coach or an athletic director. Whatever Liz wants to do, I have confidence she will do it.”

“The common sense step is a head high school girls coach, but I haven’t done that because I love coaching men’s basketball,” says Hornberger. "I’d hate to say I can’t be a men’s head coach, but the trailblazing hasn’t really happened for that yet.”

Maybe Hornberger is the one – she or any of the other 13 women currently on men’s basketball staffs around Division III might be the trailblazer that true equal opportunity needs.

“If we want women to enter and stay in the profession, we have to do that with intention from very early ages. Little girls need to see women coaches.”

- Lori Kerans, Millikin University head coach

“It’s never been like she’s a woman coach. She’s just our coach,” says Case senior captain TJ Duckett. She has so much experience and ability. She’s definitely got the mentality to be a head coach.”

"Good players are looking for any way they can to improve and develop their game,” adds Ohio Wesleyan senior All-American Nate Axlerod. “They’ll play for anyone they see as someone who can teach them the game of basketball. Players just want to get better.”

We can call it a generational shift, but it was almost awkward even asking current players about women coaching men. The response was always polite, but implied a sort of bewilderment that the question even needs to be asked, which is another positive sign for the future.

Moving forward, though, it is important to remember how far things have come for women in basketball and the truly difficult fights and sacrifices that have been made to get even to the present day. Fredonia’s Hill-MacDonald found herself in the middle of great controversy in 1995, when, as the head coach at Minnesota, she asked for pay equal to that of the men’s coach.

“It was the volleyball coach [Stephanie Schleuder, who finished her Hall of Fame career at Macalaster] and I, but it wasn’t about us, it was about how all the women coaches were being paid across the board. The pay equity was out of whack.” Both coaches eventually lost their positions.

“I don’t regret it because I know that in the long run the program advanced. Every coach of female athletics at Minnesota benefitted. The trustees were forced to take a look and they had to do something about it. Would I have liked to spend my career at Minnesota? Absolutely. I loved it there, but this was, I think, more valuable than my future."

When asked about how aware their players are of the history their coaches were involved with, all the women I spoke with joked about their players hearing “too many stories from the old days.” Of course, one of the great benefits of college is to be relieved of your ignorance, but this is not a history disconnected from issues women continue to face in all walks of life.

“It is important for [my players] to understand where they are now compared to where things were when I was a player myself,” says Hill-MacDonald, “Things are light years away from what they used to be. Sometimes athletes think they have it bad when they really have no clue. If there are things that are not equitable, I teach them to step up and take the bull by the horns. That’s their responsibility.”

Those words could not come with more authority, not with better role models for making a difference.

Millikin head coach Lori Kerans serves on the Board of Directors for the Alliance of Women Coaches, which partners with the NCAA and Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) to provide opportunities for training and connection, developing networks of support so they can make coaching a lifelong career.

"When I entered the profession, there were very few women who found support to both have a family and coach,” says Kerans. “Almost all of the hiring decisions were being made by men and the process of hiring and retaining coaches for men is just different than what it is for women."

Kerans speaks passionately about providing space for her assistants – both young mothers – to have flexible schedules, bring their kids to work, or work from home. The culture needs to change, not just so more women have coaching jobs, but so schools don’t miss out on really talented coaches.

Says Kerans, “Some of the very best coaches I’ve seen are women – that doesn’t mean the men aren’t good coaches – but many more women would continue in the coaching profession if they felt supported."

Hill-MacDonald notes, “Men are connected in ways women have never been – in terms of calling their buddies and getting names of people. That’s not a bad thing. It’s networking, but women, in many respects, have not been included in that networking."

The NCAA’s Women Coaches Academy provides four days of training for female NCAA coaches with experienced speakers and opportunities for networking and professional development.

The WBCA offers a number of mentoring opportunities, with very specific interest groups, designed to give personal connection between experienced and developing coaches. Jeffers speaks glowingly of the opportunity to mentor young coaches. “I learn just as much from the women I mentor. It’s a breath of fresh air that we can reassure each other and help each other be better coaches."

The WBCA also works with the Alliance of Women Coaches to sponsor “So You Want to Be A Coach,” a highly competitive training program for recently graduated and soon-to-graduate student-athletes looking to get into coaching. This event happens during the WBCA convention each year and the list of 2018 invitees features a number of Division III student-athletes.

"Many times we have coaches who come to interview participants for graduate assistant and entry level coaching positions,” says WBCA Executive Director Danielle Donehew. "We’ve had great success getting those participants right into the profession."

Kerans says that through these programs, “women are being empowered to seek those relationships where they do feel supported and validated.” They’re creating the networks that have been lacking in the past and working to create foundations for a process by which each generation can mentor, encourage, and support the next.

This may seem obvious, but with women often isolated in athletic departments and so few in positions of power, there have been real drawbacks for women coaches to ask questions or appear vulnerable in ways male coaches don’t often experience.

“We’re working with administrators to set up processes that allow them to have ready short lists of women for coaching positions and to encourage a diverse and inclusive search process,” says Kerans.

These efforts aren’t just serving the coaches of today, but setting the table for generations to come. Says Hill-MacDonald: "The trend [of women losing opportunities] is even worse in high school and AAU. Young women may not be getting into coaching because they don’t see women doing it.”

“We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re not asking for more. We’re asking for a level playing field and the numbers right now don’t indicate a level playing field.”

- Dixie Jeffers, Capital University head coach

Kerans adds, “If we want women to enter and stay in the profession, we have to do that with intention from very early ages. Little girls need to see women coaches. Girls need to be told that coaching is one of the greatest professions there is because you get to transform the life of a young person. You get to have an impact, not just on the X's and O's, but on how they see themselves as a confident young woman or young man."

In the end, though, it takes institutions making real decisions that lead to real actions that lead to real opportunities. Division III is populated with private schools, many elite and progressive, priding themselves on inclusivity and diversity. The foundations for an equal future exist, but we all need to be more intentional about supporting change. Inertia is a powerful force and in a society long dominated by men, even the best intentions won’t bring about change – a counter force is necessary.

Division III is primed to lead in this. While our lack of media exposure and financial clout might make it an uphill battle against the decreasing opportunities for women in the profession at large, those of us who know and care for young women in our families, schools, and communities must make it one worth fighting.

Jeffers says, “We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re not asking for more. We’re asking for a level playing field and the numbers right now don’t indicate a level playing field. I believe deeply in equality. I don’t believe I’m better than any man, but I also don’t believe any man is better than any of us.”

Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon