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The significance of Candice Storey Lee, the first black woman to serve as athletic director in the SEC

When Vanderbilt named Candice Storey Lee its athletic director, she became the first black woman to serve in that role in the SEC, and only the fifth woman currently leading the athletic department of a Power Five school. Here’s why her hiring is so significant:

Candice Storey Lee makes history in the SEC.
Photo courtesy of Style Blueprint via Instagram.

In recent years, those at the head of the benches of women’s basketball teams in the SEC increasingly have looked like the young women on the court.

Since South Carolina hired the game-changing Dawn Staley in 2008, five other programs have turned their women’s hoops programs over to women of color — Nikki Fargas at LSU (2011), Terry Williams-Flournoy at Auburn (2012), Joni Taylor at UGA (2015), Yolett McPhee-McCuin at Ole Miss (2018) and Nikki McCray at Mississippi State (2020).

Prior to Staley assuming leadership of the Gamecocks, only two women of color had served as head coaches of women’s basketball teams in the SEC — Peggie Gillom-Granderson at Ole Miss (1998-03) and Carolyn Peck at Florida (2002-07).

Vanderbilt’s recent decision to name Candice Storey Lee the university’s athletic director — officially, vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletic director — appears to be an extension of the effort to make a more equitable SEC sports world. A former women’s basketball star at Vandy, Storey Lee becomes the fifth woman, and second woman of color, to serve as athletic director at a Power Five university.

Yet, it is important to appreciate the distinct significance of Lee’s elevation.

Lee has been empowered to lead all the persons — coaches, athletes and other staff; men, women and non-binary; black, brown and white — who are part of the institution’s athletic infrastructure, endowing her with a level of leadership responsibility rare for women of color in sports or society.

The limitations of progressive hiring practices in women’s sports

While it is worth celebrating the representational power of the SEC’s women’s basketball coaches of color, it also is important to understand the limitations of this symbolism.

In the SEC, there is only one woman of color who is a head coach in another sport. Connie Price-Smith has served as the head coach of Ole Miss’s track and field team since 2013. Otherwise, only four other women of color hold coaching positions with a modicum of authority:

  • April Thomas, associate head coach of track and field at Mississippi State
  • Natasha Brown, associate head coach of track and field at Missouri
  • Delethea Quarles, assistant head coach of track and field at South Carolina
  • Althea Thomas, recruiting coordinator for track and field at UGA

A pattern thus emerges.

In the SEC (and the SEC is not especially unique), women of color only have been empowered to lead teams that mostly include young women of color, creating the perception that women of color only can coach teams that mostly are composed of young women of color. Hiring decisions suggest that women’s basketball, a sport understood as “black,” is the “safest” sport for a woman of color to gain a measure of authority and influence.

Yes, the longstanding racialized socialization of the sport of basketball means that women of color are more likely to possess the expertise and experience required to coach basketball in a Power Five conference.

However, young women of color increasingly populate the rosters of the SEC’s softball, volleyball and soccer teams. But because more young white women play these sports than their black counterparts, these sports remain coded as “white,” which, in turn, continues to position white men and white women as the “most qualified” coaches for them.

Unintentionally or not, women’s basketball programs have become progressive “ghettos,” for lack of a better term. The sport’s hiring practices can communicate visible change, even as such practices simultaneously perpetuate racialized understandings about sports, knowledge and power. A greater number of women of color coaching women’s college basketball (but only women’s college basketball) is a form of demonstrable yet deceiving progress in college sports.

Like many matters that involve the intersection of gender, race, opportunity and authority, it is quite the conundrum.

AD Storey Lee can shift assumptions about power in sports

Lee’s hiring, however, challenges and has the potential to alter this pattern.

Her position does not mean that Vanderbilt, which currently employs no women of color as head coaches, suddenly will hire more women coaches and officials of color.

Rather, as the leader of an elite institution’s athletic department, Lee ascends to a position long understood as a privileged province of white male patriarchal power. As such, her status can encourage a wider re-visioning of the politics of power in sports, providing tangible evidence of a woman of color leading all types of people, not just those who also look like her.

It is important to recognize that Lee possesses a sparkling resume. She could not just be qualified to ascend to the athletic directorship — she had to be supra-qualified.

Vanderbilt’s official announcement emphasizes Lee’s unimpeachable credentials:

As a captain and four-year letter winner for Vanderbilt’s women’s basketball team, Lee graduated with a bachelor of science degree in human and organizational development in 2000. She also received her master’s degree in counseling from Vanderbilt in 2002, and in 2012, Lee earned her doctorate from Vanderbilt in higher education administration.

The barrier to entry for those who break the mold is high. In contrast, doors to the upper-echelon of university athletic administration often easily opens for white male former football coaches.

Furthermore, that Vanderbilt was the first school in the SEC to make such a move should not be ignored. In the mid-1960s, the SEC’s lone private institution also was the first school to integrate its primer men’s sports teams, with Nashville-native Perry Wallace joining the Commodore basketball team in 1966.

In 1977, the school issued its first scholarship to a black woman athlete: basketball player Teresa Phillips.

Unlike the SEC’s public schools, Vanderbilt is not subject to the political and financial pressures imposed by the governments of states in the Southeast. Well into the 21st century, the states of in the South mostly remain controlled by officials committed to the preservation, even intensification, of white patriarchal power. In short, it would be optimistic to assume that other SEC athletic programs soon will follow Vanderbilt’s lead, a circumstance that underscores Lee’s significance.

Nevertheless, it is worth wondering if the state of Tennessee’s other SEC institution could provide a pleasant hiring surprise? Might the nearly 70-year-old Phillip Fulmer, athletic director at Tennessee since 2017, one day pass the torch to Kara Lawson or Candace Parker, two women of color and Lady Vols legends who have demonstrated their sports intelligence and acute business acumen respectively as an NBA assistant coach and analyst?

Lee’s hiring at least makes such a possibility imaginable.