Becky Hammon became the first female head coach in the NBA Summer League, then led her young Spurs team to a championship win in Las Vegas.
Now, the basketball Internet's collective attention has turned toward her future. Is she ready to be the NBA's first female head coach? And if so, how long will it take her to get there? Is she being treated fairly?
These issues are all worthy of careful, nuanced discussion. But let's not overlook where this conversation is happening.
Of America's four major professional sports, the NBA is the only league where hiring a female head coach is even on the table. Several possible reasons for that:
1. The WNBA. Regardless of sport, many head coaches are former players. But the NFL, MLB and NHL don't have established professional counterparts for women. In other sports (with the possible exception of soccer), women simply don't have the same opportunity for professional success as a player. It's easier for women to compete with men for coaching jobs when their résumés show comparable experience playing at the highest level.
2. The Internet. The modern NBA has integrated itself with the Internet and social media. This makes the league and its players more responsive, and in some ways beholden, to the way social attitudes evolve online. For example, the NBA engages with the basketball blogosphere by allowing liberal use of game highlights and making player-tracking data available to the public. Remember that time commissioner Adam Silver personally responded to a lottery reform suggestion by FiveThirtyEight? And because the NBA has comparatively fewer players with longer careers, even non-stars get enough exposure to grow an Internet following, especially through social media.
The more the NBA interacts with an online audience, the more influence that audience exerts. Don't think of it as Twitter mobs forcing the league to accept women, but rather players and executives and writers and fans informing each other's opinions about social issues like gender equality.
3. Gender sensitive PR. It's no coincidence that Silver announced a review of the league's domestic violence policy in the wake of the NFL controversy last season. He acted decisively and transparently in suspending Hornets forward Jeff Taylor for 24 games for domestic violence, avoiding much of the criticism leveled at the NFL.
The NBA also partnered with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg for the #LeanInTogether campaign. It included commercials with NBA and WNBA stars talking about how men can 'Lean In' to help women level the playing field. “The NBA is committed to creating a work environment that expects -- and benefits from -- gender equality,” Silver said in a statement about the initiative. “#LeanInTogether provides men with the tools to share responsibilities equally in the office with our colleagues and at home with our families.”
To be clear, embracing a female coach isn't a public relations ploy. It's the league walking its talk, or more aptly, putting its money where its mouth is.
And that hasn't happened anywhere but the NBA.
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