Black women athletes: Having black women coaches is crucial

South Carolina senior guard Brea Beal knew she could trust Dawn Staley before she even qualified for the Gamecocks.

It wasn’t just Staley’s coaching accolades, which included South Carolina’s meteoric rise in women’s basketball, that sold Beal. Beal knew that Staley — a black woman like her — would understand best how to guide her, both navigating life and playing basketball on a big stage.

“People who have told me what this community is about, I know I wanted to be there,” Beal said. “As soon as I got here, she definitely took me on a journey to discover who I am.”

The representation of black women in the ranks of coaches and sports administrators has existed on a small scale—even in a sport like basketball, which has the highest concentration of black female collegiate athletes next to track and field. Black players who were coached by a black woman told The Associated Press that it was crucial to their development.

“There are some coaches that just have all the boys without understanding that sometimes there are things that a young woman needs to talk to another woman about,” said Kiki Barnes, a former basketball player and jumper in New Orleans and currently on the Gulf Coast Commissioner for Sports Conference.

While the number of women’s sports coaches has increased over the past decade, black women continue to lag behind most other groups. In the 2021–22 school year, 399 Black women coached women’s NCAA athletic teams in Divisions I, II, and III, compared to 3,760 white women and 5,236 white men.

In NCAA women’s basketball, a sport made up of 30% black athletes, black women made up 12% of the head coaches of all divisions for the 2021-22 season, according to the NCAA demographic database.

Fourteen Black women led women’s basketball teams in 65 Power Five programs last season — one more than in 2021. That’s less than 22% of the total in a sport that had more Black athletes (40.7%) played than any other races in Division I, according to a report using data from the 2020–21 season.

For the first time in a decade, four black coaches advanced to the women’s basketball tournament’s Sweet 16, including Staley, who said she believes it’s more popular to hire a woman at “this stage of the game.”

“And that’s not to say that I’m going to sit here and beat men because we have a lot of male coaches that have been in our game for decades,” said Staley, who will lead her team to the Final Four this weekend. “But I will say that being able to coach women and helping women navigate life the way they have navigated life will give your student-athletes a different experience than having a male coach. “

Staley has been an advocate for hiring more women coaches — particularly from minorities — in college basketball for years, but WNBA player Angel McCoughtry said black women coaches who are as successful as Staley are still short in the sport.

“When I was recruited in high school, I don’t remember having a Dawn Staley to look up to,” said McCoughtry, who played in Louisville from 2005-09.

McCoughtry also cited Carolyn Peck, the first African American woman to coach her team to an NCAA women’s basketball title with Purdue in 1999, as another example of representation in the sport.

“So there’s one or two every ten years,” McCoughtry said. “Why can’t we have 10? There are 10 Caucasian coaches in every decade.”

McCoughtry, a former No. 1 overall on the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, got used to being with people who didn’t look like her or didn’t understand her. She is black. Her AAU and high school coaches were black males. Her college coaches were white men. Marynell Meadors, a white woman, was her first coach in Atlanta.

She’s faced frustrating questions from white peers, coaches and owners — how often does she wash her hair or if her passionate game is because she’s from Baltimore.

“There’s just a misunderstanding of things,” said the 36-year-old, adding: “We need more coaches to protect us.”

McCoughtry has never had a black head coach but has had the effective leadership of Michelle Clark-Heard, a black woman who hired Jeff Walz as an assistant when he took over in Louisville in 2008.

She also relied on Tim Eaton, a black assistant coach, who had stood up for her in her freshman year when then-coach Tom Collen wanted to send her back to Baltimore because she was late for one of their first workouts. Similarly, McCoughtry said, they felt they had less room for error than white teammates. When she questioned a trainer, she was labeled a troublemaker; When she got upset about a play, she was told she had a bad attitude.

“We just never had an inch to be human like our Caucasian counterparts,” she said, adding, “But who understands that? Our black trainers. Because they went through everything we went through. You also have a story.”

Part of the reason for the lack of black female coaches is who ultimately has the power to hire, Barnes said. Those are often athletic directors, a level where diversity is even more lacking — 224 out of 350 in Division I are white males. Also, she added, there are changing requirements for what it takes to get leadership opportunities.

“And now the system has changed in that now you need to know about search firms because now search firms are the ones who are managing those opportunities and determining who gets those opportunities,” she said. “Every time we understand how to get into the space and what it takes to be prepared, it’s like the rules change.”

Barnes played high school basketball in her hometown of Minden, Louisiana, where she had an assistant coach who was a black woman. Barnes still refers to her as “Coach Smith”.

“It wasn’t just about basketball for her. It was about who I was as a young lady,” Barnes recalled, adding, “I would say it’s similar to a young woman wanting to talk to a mother about feminine things. It’s not that a man can’t, but I wouldn’t be as comfortable talking about women’s things with my dad or any other man.”

Priscilla Loomis, a 2016 Olympic high jumper who is black, said she became a coach to offer children who look like her the representation the sport has lacked. The NCAA track and field numbers mirrored the women’s basketball numbers in 2021-22: 5% of head coaches were black women, while 19% of NCAA women track and field athletes were black.

“They desperately want to feel seen and loved and given guidance,” Loomis said. “That’s why I always say it’s important to get women and men of color out there because we’re often so many steps behind.”

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