When the news first came across the wire it read like any other coaching acquisition, “Spurs Hire Hammon as Assistant Coach,” but those who follow basketball recognized the news as significant considering the only Hammon currently recognized in the basketball world is retiring WNBA player Becky Hammon.
Hammon has spent the last 16 seasons playing in the WNBA along with several other domestic and international professional basketball leagues. After going undrafted in 1999, she worked her way up with the New York Liberty to become of the the top point guards in women’s basketball. In 2007, she was traded to the San Antonio Silver Stars where she improved her scoring average and led the team to several playoff births, including a trip to the WNBA Finals in 2008.
As her career wound down, Hammon started looking forward to coaching, taking any opportunity she could get to gain experience. Many assumed she would take over the Colorado State program where she spent her collegiate career. In the summer of 2013, she tore her ACL during the WNBA season, and while rehabbing her knee she began to spend time with the Spurs’ practices, even providing insight to players throughout the season. She announced before the 2014 season she would retire, and on Tuesday the Spurs made it official, hiring her as the first full time female assistant coach upon completion of the WNBA year.
Often, signings like this are followed by a line of questions by both insiders and outsiders questioning the merits of the hire and whether it is merely a publicity stunt. Fortunately, In this case, the reputation of both the employer and employee has superseded many of these questions. However, as we look around the larger sports world new questions arise, specifically, why does the NBA often seem more accepting or even progressive than most other sports leagues both in North America and Internationally?
The NBA is far from perfect. Like any single sex sports league, they have to deal with issues related to misogyny and tolerance. Reports of abuse against women still trickle from the headlines, and like many other sports, they still trot out scantily clad women during game breaks, but over the last two decades the NBA has done more than any other league to embrace social changes. As much as I loved Allen Iverson, he represented an era of crime and hip-hop inspired misogyny in the NBA. The league began to combat this image with superficial actions, like the dress code, but what really changed the direction of the league are the players themselves. Smarter, more mature players like Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade began to populate the league and the NBA saw its name less and less in the crime blotters as leagues like the NFL experienced an increase of negative publicity both on and off the field.
While the NBA was experiencing a shift in its public image, it continued to stand by its female counterpart, the WNBA. Founded in 1997, the WNBA, like any new league, has had a lot of ups and downs and has been the butt of a few jokes, however, the league continues to draw the best women’s basketball players in the world by playing an offseason summer schedule. More importantly, it is the only North American female professional sports league directly associated with the male professional league in the same sport. This relationship between the leagues and efforts by the NBA to include WNBA stars in league events, like the NBA All-Star Weekend, has helped legitimize the WNBA while familiarizing NBA fans with the best female players in the world.
For other professional sports organizations, it is not merely a matter of starting its own female professional counterpart, especially since there are very few organized leagues for young women in both football and baseball. Women are not playing football, and playing softball instead of baseball, there is less interaction and sharing of facilities between males and females than in basketball. At some schools, this also goes for hockey but the sport is still growing among females and most schools do not have NCAA hockey programs.
Members of both men’s and women’s basketball teams at many colleges and high schools not only share a gym, but will play pick-up together and socialize. Women’s and men’s games are often scheduled back to back due to this relationship and the fact that, since there is very little difference between the games aside from the gender of the participants, fans of the team are willing to watch both and expose themselves to both types of basketball.
I fully believe this consistent exposure and interaction with women through basketball has contributed to an environment in the NBA more open-minded and accepting than other leagues when it comes to sex and gender issues. Even though Jason Collins and Michael Sam received mostly support throughout the sports world for coming out, there seemed to be more concern from NFL players than NBA players about what it would mean to share a locker room with someone who is gay. Football at all levels is also seeing an increase in sexual and physical assaults reported against players, which may be related to the lack of positive interactions with women as these players mature. This, combined with the lack of “feminization” of the rules of women’s basketball, has created a more supportive social and professional environment for women than any other professional men’s league.
Interestingly, the hiring seemed to be bigger news outside the NBA world than inside. Hammon ultimately just wanted to coach basketball, and she took every opportunity afforded to her to get there. One of these opportunities included working with the team that her WNBA team shared facilities, and the Spurs saw a smart, accomplished player ready to share her basketball knowledge with other players, whether they are men or women. Unfortunately, no other league presents opportunities to minorities and especially women like the NBA, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
The structure and organization of sports outside of basketball will probably limit the on-field opportunities for women, however, they can still work toward presenting more opportunities off the field while working to build an environment of respect and tolerance among their players and coaches. It says a lot about two leagues when one is celebrating an historic hire and the other is deflecting negative publicity about a star player knocking his now-wife out in a casino.