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The promising and problematic aspects of more women working in the NBA

The NBA is moving in the right direction, but it’s important to recognize how the presence of women in the NBA also can protect traditional power arrangements.

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NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Final Four - Semifinals
In joining the coaching staff of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lindsay Gottlieb becomes the first women’s college coach to jump to the NBA.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

A few days after the New Orleans Pelicans named Swin Cash vice president of basketball operations and team development, the Cleveland Cavaliers hired Lindsay Gottlieb as an assistant coach. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the former head coach of the University of California will “play a prominent role in support of [new head coach John] Beilein and associate head coach JB Bickerstaff,” a role that reportedly will give her influence comparable to that of Becky Hammon in San Antonio. Gottlieb is also the first women’s college coach to be hired by an NBA team.

Together, these hirings appear to prove basketball is basketball, expressing the gender equity that increasingly defines the sport in the United States.

Not so fast.

Rather than uncritically celebrating a basketball world where gender is becoming less relevant, it is important to unpack and understand the gender dynamics involved with more women entering the men’s game.

Binders full of women coaches?

The ESPN report on Gottlieb’s hiring notes Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager Koby Altman “had been interested in pursuing a high-level women’s college coach as part of the team’s new staff. He identified and brought the idea to Beilein, sources said.”

It sounds a bit like Altman, resembling then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, had “binders full of women” coaches.

Yes, Altman should be applauded for intentionally seeking to add a woman to the Cavaliers organization. Gottlieb herself praised his perspective. According to The Athletic, Gottlieb and Altman were introduced by a mutual friend in the NBA who had said to her, “‘Do you know Koby Altman? He’s awesome … he’s young and progressive and really smart, and you guys would be great friends.’”

Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the reality that hiring a woman now seems to be a surefire positive public relations strategy for an NBA team. The Cash and Gottlieb hires both inspired praise (or, possibly more accurately, performative praise) from across the NBA world.

For an organization still looking to define itself apart from LeBron James (as well as one facing an age discrimination lawsuit), welcoming Gottlieb to the sideline serves to signal a new direction. The Cavs, in short, will not be the same old Cavs, hopeless unless the Kid from Akron is wearing wine and gold. They instead become the type of progressive, forward-thinking, and flexible organization preferred by Commissioner Adam Silver.

As noted by ESPN’s Mechelle Vopel, “Silver has been vocal about wanting to see more women hired for various NBA jobs, including coaching, administration and officiating.” She further states, “Silver’s push to expand hiring practices isn’t just posturing; he understands that it makes sense in any profession to widen the talent pool.”

However, diversifying the genders, colors, and sexualities of people who work in the NBA does not guarantee a more diverse, different NBA.

The NBA is a sport where a majority of white men own teams comprised of mostly black men. Front offices and sidelines also remained dominated by white men. The en vogue ways of thinking about basketball also advantage white men. But by beginning to hire more diverse personnel, the NBA and its teams can meet the cultural demands of a post-Obama America, allowing the excitement about increasing inclusivity to obscure the fact that most of the critical infrastructure remains controlled by those who are white, male, and heterosexual.

The gender dynamics of the Dallas Mavericks’ clean up

In February 2018, Sports Illustrated published an expose detailing the extensive sexual misconduct by former Dallas Mavericks team president and CEO Tederma Ussery. Shortly thereafter, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban hired Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall as CEO, empowering the former AT&T executive to clean up the toxic culture that had festered on the business side of the organization. However, the fact that Marshall so quickly was brought in to “clean up” a long simmering mess should raise questions.

Hiring a woman seemed to show Cuban was taking the matter seriously, although his subsequent inability adequately to answer hard questions suggests otherwise. Throughout a rather emotional interview with Rachel Nichols on The Jump, Cuban resisted taking full responsibility for the past. During a shared segment with Marshall, he also seemed reluctant to take responsibility for creating a better present and future, referring all inquires to Marshall.

In one sense, it is admirable that Cuban brought in someone who possesses the expertise he lacks, giving her the authority to make the necessary changes that he failed to identify and address. Yet, while hiring the über-competent Marshall was a smart decision, it also was one that preserves Cuban’s power, quieting any calls that he face more substantial punishment or even sell his team.

Marshall’s path to power thus exemplifies the somewhat contradictory ways that gender operates in the modern NBA.

In the world of men’s basketball, women often serve a sanitizing role; they gain power because they are believed to communicate the change that may or may not become a reality. It is impertinent not to ignore these complicated dynamics, even as the outcome in Dallas certainly seems positive. Additional changes lend further credence to their commitment to creating a more equitable organization.

Not long after Marshall assumed authority, former WNBA player and coach, Jenny Boucek, most recently of the Seattle Storm, accepted a coaching job with the Mavericks. As reported by ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Boucek was “sensitive that some might perceive her hiring as a public relations move.” She thus insisted, “If I thought this was a PR move in any way, I wouldn’t do it.”

To their credit, Cuban and Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle conscientiously worked to accommodate Boucek’s particular needs, as she then was pregnant and now is a single mother. She was hired as a non-traveling coach. According to Lowe:

“When the Mavs are on the road, Boucek will watch games, scout opponents, and provide feedback to the coaches and the team’s analytics department, Carlisle says. When they are at home, she will do all that, plus attend shootarounds, practices, coaches meetings and games. She will not sit behind the bench at first, but that could change if she begins traveling, Carlisle says.”

These arrangements model the substantive, not merely symbolic, change that hiring women and other minorities should bring - a diversification not only of people but also of practices and processes.

The curious cultural status of the male women’s basketball coach

Nonetheless, that NBA teams have not sought the services of men who have coached women still raises suspicions about the possibly performative purpose of hiring women.

The WNBA features male coaches and assistant coaches who possess a depth of experience that should be of interest to NBA squads. Yet a man who coaches in the WNBA seems to acquire a scarlet letter, a mark of illegitimacy that excludes him from any future opportunity in the NBA. While Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer may have burned too many bridges, it is curious that no other male coach who has succeeded in WNBA has earned even an assistant position in the NBA. This reality strongly suggests that a woman’s identity, as much as her expertise, makes her attractive to NBA teams.

Only when coaches or executives, regardless of gender, race, or sexuality, can jump between working in the WNBA and NBA, will it indicate that we actually are approaching a world where basketball is basketball and equality of opportunity reigns. The Indiana Pacers naming Kelly Krauskopf Assistant General Manager represents promising a step, as she had served as the Fever’s President and General Manager since the franchise’s inception.

Gender, credibility and legitimacy

Another such step will be achieved when WNBA players who spend their offseason assisting women’s college teams, as Briann January did the past two seasons with her alma mater Arizona State, are as celebrated as those who work with NBA teams, like Sue Bird and Kristi Toliver. For now, the basketball knowledge possessed by women only is legible and legitimized when they enter the NBA.

However, within the NBA, this knowledge does not always earn women automatic respect. It is important not to allow inspirational narratives to erase the challenges that women coaches still encounter. For instance, in an interview with The Undefeated, former Duke and WNBA star Lindsey Harding, who works as player development coach for the Philadelphia 76ers after first serving as a scout for the team, shared:

“No one has been unwelcoming. But there have been situations where you can talk to certain people that may want to downplay your accomplishments because it might not have been in the NBA — not to mention that these people might not have played either in the NBA. It’s a very competitive industry to be in, whether on the court or off. I ran into things like that.”

The basketball public must not see Harding as simply an optimistic symbol - the first black woman to work in the NBA as a scout and player development coach - but also be willing to see the difficulties she might face as a black woman working in an institution that traditionally has not welcomed people like her.

Basketball can be basketball

Despite warranted skepticism, the NBA is moving in the right direction. Hiring more diverse front office and sideline personnel can - and hopefully will - produce a different, more equitable power structure. Then, basketball can be basketball, where the identities, experiences, and expertise of all equally are valid and validated.