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Why it’s the perfect time for Marianne Stanley to be a head coach in the WNBA again

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Based on her extensive resume, Marianne Stanley seems to be the most qualified candidate for the Indiana Fever’s head coaching job. Yet, it is her history of fighting for equal pay that makes her return to the first seat of a WNBA bench so exciting. 

AT&T Her Time To Play Panel and Clinic
New Indiana Fever head coach Marianne Stanley, then an assistant with the Washington Mystics, speaks at a WNBA Her Time to Play Clinic during the 2019 WNBA Finals.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Nearly 25 years ago, the Los Angeles Times described Marianne Stanley as a “coaching outcast” — “a whiner, a crier, a sniveler.”

Huh?

In 2020, as Marianne Stanley recently has been named head coach of the Indiana Fever, such descriptors seem inconceivable. Today, she is a monument in modern women’s basketball.

Announcements of her elevation to the first seat in the Indiana bench exalt her extensive resume. After suiting up for one of women’s college basketball’s first great teams — the pioneering Immaculata Mighty Macs — Stanley joined the Immaculata bench as an assistant. She then became the head coach at Old Dominion, winning the AIAW championship in 1979 and 1980 and the NCAA championship in 1985. Thereafter, she helmed the programs at Penn, USC and Cal, with a stop as an assistant at Stanford in between. She jumped to the WNBA in 2000, first serving as an assistant for the Los Angeles Sparks and Washington Mystics before taking over the Mystics in 2002. Her two-season stint as a head job was followed by a return to an assistant role with the New York Liberty, Rutgers, the Sparks and, of course, back to the Mystics for the past nine seasons.

Along the way, Stanley has coached the likes of Nancy Lieberman, Anne Donovan, Lisa Leslie, Chamique Holdsclaw, Becky Hammon, Cappie Pondexter, Candace Parker and, yes, Elena Delle Donne.

Even more impressive than her basketball resume is Stanley’s temporary status as an “outcast” that makes her the right coach for the Fever. She was declared an “outcast” because she was willing to fight for her right to equal pay and she also was willing to face the consequences.

Stanley’s stance

Prior to the 1993-94 college basketball season, being head coach of the USC women’s basketball team appeared to be an enviable position. USC claimed the services of Lisa Leslie, who was entering her senior season and would go on to be named the 1994 National Player of the Year. So, who wouldn’t do anything to coach such a generational talent in her final collegiate season?

Stanley, who had been head coach at Southern Cal since 1989, was more than happy to lead Leslie and the Women of Troy — but only as long as she received fair compensation.

After the 1992-93 season, Stanley’s contract expired. With a new contract, she expected to be rewarded for the turnaround she steered at USC. A 8-19 season in 1989-90 had become a 22-7 season in 1992-93. A dispute ensued, with Stanley rejecting what she considered an unfair offer from USC athletic director Mark Garrett. She was no longer interested in accepting approximately $54,000 less than Southern Cal’s men’s coach George Raveling.

Stanley’s suit

It is imaginable that Garrett and USC believed Stanley would cave eventually after making a stand before agreeing to an offer. For Southern Cal, like much of the intransigent, male-dominated institutions that make up the sports world, probably presumed that Stanley should be grateful for the opportunity to coach. All the more, they likely assumed the talented Leslie gave them leverage.

Instead, Stanley sued for sex discrimination.

The Los Angeles Times reported:

She claimed in papers filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court that she was promised a lucrative multiyear contract if she turned around USC’s women’s basketball program.

In response to the $8-million suit, USC doubled down, seemingly relying on its long unequal investment in women’s basketball to justify Stanley’s salary offer. As The Christian Science Monitor noted:

USC argues that since the men’s team draws more fans and generates 90 percent more revenue than the women do, Mr. Raveling’s job entails substantially more pressure than Stanley’s. Bell [Stanley’s attorney] alleges that the school is failing to adequately promote the women’s sport; the men have a poster advertising their schedule, for example, while the women do not. Moreover, Stanley’s record as a coach is more successful than Raveling’s.

Stanley eventually was dismissed from her position and replaced by former Woman of Troy Cheryl Miller.

Stanley’s support

The world of women’s basketball stood behind Stanley. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Rene Portland, Stanley’s former teammate at Immaculata who went on to become the head coach at Penn State, insisted, “We shouldn’t schedule them (USC) at all — that should be the national reaction.”

Portland elaborated:

Here, the coach went in and asked for what we all should, and they knocked the stuffing out of the term `gender equity.’ We should be saying, `Hey, I can be fired and they can hire a less qualified coach.’

Nancy Lieberman, one of Stanley’s former players, later added:

I think that USC was absolutely in the wrong. Marianne Stanley is one of the finest people I know. She didn’t lie, she didn’t cheat, she didn’t get anyone on probation. She didn’t ask for anything more than the law said she was entitled to.

Stanley’s USC players also expressed disappointment at her dismissal, with 12 of 14, including Lisa Leslie, seriously considering transferring. Leslie told the New York Times, “I’ve heard from my other teammates that they will transfer. If you’re talking about me staying here by myself, you’re crazy.”

Stanley’s sacrifice

Yet, the institutional infrastructure of college basketball worked to snuff out any sympathy for Stanley. She risked her job to assert her rights at a time when wider society did not outwardly support women’s economic rights. In turn, Stanley was ostracized, cast as a “a whiner, a crier, a sniveler.”

After her termination from USC, Stanley struggled to find another coaching job, even at the Division II and III levels.

Describing her fate to the Los Angeles Times in 1996, Stanley stated:

I lost the security of my retirement. All my income has either gone toward legal fees or just to support myself when I didn’t have a job. I’d applied for lots of jobs and never got a chance to coach, because I’d done something taboo in sports: You don’t stand up to the status quo.

She was made an example, with her circumstances effectively discouraging her colleagues from taking a similarly bold stand. As Tim Stoner, then-counsel for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, told the New York Times:

How willing are you going to be to talk about equality of pay or other inequities when you know that in 60 or 90 days they can terminate you?

Stanley’s ongoing mission

Tara VanDerveer rescued Stanley from exile, hiring her as an assistant coach before the 1995-96 season when VanDerveer was taking a leave of absence from Stanford to prepare Team USA for the 1996 Olympic Games.

Stanley later was hired as head coach at Cal, where she received the same salary as the men’s coach. So, her stance and sacrifice did make a difference — eventually. But more than 20 years later, a difference still persists. Equitable pay for women coaches and women athletes remains unfulfilled.

It is thus apropos that Stanley will be a head coach again. The WNBA and WNBPA remain engaged in CBA negotiations, with the Dec. 31 extended deadline fast approaching. Stanley serves as an example and inspiration, but one that reminds the current generation of women fighting for equal pay that the process is not necessarily easy or without complication. The institutions that control women’s sports today — from universities and the NCAA to the NBA, WNBA and mainstream sports media — still assume that women athletes and coaches should be grateful for any form of compensation, coverage or credit. These outdated views persist across historically male-dominated industries.

Will the WNBPA sacrifice to fulfill Stanley’s mission?

Approximately 25 years ago, Stanley did not cower to the status quo. Today, WNBA players must adopt the same attitude in the interest of long-term change. Are they ready to stand their ground? Will they refuse to abandon their principles? Will they strike? Will they ignore any short-sighted spewing about the “death” of the WNBA to do what they believe is right and fair?

Or, better yet: Will the WNBA see Marianne Stanley, remember her story and strive to enact the change she fought for?

The WNBA has done much to advertise its support for its players and their ingenuity and integrity. Will the league also listen to the words of Stanley from 1996:

I look at the young women I work with as the people I have to be an example for, and my daughter is a senior at USC. If I’m telling them to stand up for themselves, and distinguish between right and wrong and make decisions based on what’s right, I’ve got to do the same thing, or I’m a hypocrite.