In a world where the attention-grabbing headlines are all too often negative and tragic, it’s a perfect time to examine a blossoming narrative in sports. I’ll admit it’s near and dear to my heart: women barging into the center ring of the circus and stealing the spotlight, earning respect across the board. Women in sports are trending!
What a summer it’s been for female athletes on the international stage. Carli Lloyd sparked Team USA to World Cup glory with an amazing run in Canada, capped by her stunning hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the final. The highest-rated soccer broadcast in our nation’s history was watched by an average 26 million people, topping even men’s games from the last World Cup. Serena Williams captured both the French Open and Wimbledon singles’ championships, putting her in possession of all 4 Grand Slam titles at once. It’s the second time she’s accomplished the feat, but nearly unheard of at age 33. Ronda Rousey stayed undefeated by knocking out yet another challenger in less than a minute. Her last three UFC bouts have barely lasted 60 seconds combined! And on the sidelines, the trend is just as powerful. A year after she was hired as the NBA’s first full-time female assistant, Becky Hammon coached the Spurs to victory in the Summer League, also a first for a woman. The Arizona Cardinals brought Dr. Jen Welter on board to work with inside linebackers during preseason and training camp. Already a ground-breaker in her playing career, she made history as the NFL’s first female assistant. Only a few months earlier, Sarah Thomas earned a job as the NFL’s first female referee. Most recently, the Sacramento Kings tabbed Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman to serve as one of their assistant coaches.
Notable feats all of them, and this group of Wonder Women is to be celebrated. I’ve enjoyed watching the biggest names in sports and entertainment jostle for room on the bandwagon. Movie stars, musicians, NFL quarterbacks, and NBA MVPs all want to rub shoulders with the athletes. And all eyes are trained on the new coaches to see what they can offer in a man’s world. In the spotlight, each of these women models honesty, humor, and grace. “Just because something’s never been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Leadership has no gender.” No wonder Gregg Popovich wanted Hammon on his staff. While she’s focused on coaching and winning, the magnitude of the moment is not lost on her.
Blazing a trail is never easy. To be the first at ANYTHING requires strength, perseverance, and confidence when support falls away. The one carving a path through a forest must inevitably fight through the overhanging branches of criticism, the uneven ground of resistance, and the shadows of uncertainty. Carli gets blasted on social media for caring more about her newfound celebrity than her soccer training. (None other than Kobe Bryant jumped to her defense.) Serena is hounded mercilessly for being too muscular and not thin or feminine enough. Unbelievable! (See my previous blog post: “Role Model, Not Supermodel”) Ronda is denounced for preying on weaker competition. And I hear the same tired line from a cross-section of listeners whenever I talk about women’s sports: “No one cares.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. But our society is reluctant to change; many are slow to accept women in roles where they’ve only previously seen men.
As a pioneer in sports radio, I grapple with similar challenges. More than 15 years in the business, including 10 at the network level, yet every fall, I hear from tough guys who won’t accept a female talking about football. A recent message suggested I should “stop embarrassing myself” since I never played the game. Ha! In this age of social media, every fan can share opinions, and very rarely are they held back. Women in sports radio and television are directly in the line of fire and judged by very different standards than our male counterparts. The glass ceiling is real. At more than one previous job, I was counseled to be more like the men on the radio and to downplay the qualities that emphasized my unique perspective as a female. One former boss even told me to stop smiling while I was on air because as a woman, that would damage my credibility. Breaking new ground is often a lonely venture. Very few see the extra work and determination behind the scenes or the blood, sweat, and tears poured into the effort. The journey is filled with stops and starts, trial and error, failures and face plants, resets and do-overs. But all the pitfalls and missteps make the eventual breakthroughs that much sweeter.
Recognition of a trailblazer can take years, even decades. It’s very rarely instantaneous so it’s hardly motivation. Seeking the approval of others usually ends in disappointment. Instead, I am constantly pursuing an array of lifelong dreams, a passion for my craft, a desire to be the best, and a goal to inspire others. I love how Coach Welter puts it: “I want little girls to grow up knowing that when they put their mind to something, when they work hard, that they can do anything.”
Not all women are created the same; not all women are created to fill the same roles or travel the same paths. Carli Lloyd, Serena Williams, Ronda Rousey, Becky Hammon, Jen Welter, Sarah Thomas, Nancy Lieberman are all distinct individuals. Different colors, shapes, sizes, and ages with a broad range of strengths, talents, and abilities. But each possesses the heart and soul of a champion, the ability to shrug off failure and criticism and keep pushing upward until the glass ceiling is shattered into a million pieces. Each is proof that Wonder Woman is not a myth. She’s alive and kicking.