NBA Gender Equity: What Does It Take?

WNBA Player Nneka Ogwumike Photo by Gary A. Vasquez USA Today

The NBA’s February 2019 All-Star Weekend bash in Charlotte staged events on and off the court. Most were designed to be entertaining, others enlightening. Of course, there was the celebrity game, the three-point shooting contest, the dunk contest, musical performances, fashion, art and interactive activities offered to enhance the fan experience.

Other events took on a dimension of social impact. The National Basketball Wives Association (NBWA) presented The Women’s Empowerment Summit, honoring the Evolution of Women in Business. It also, along with the March of Dimes, co-sponsored a baby shower for low income mothers. Aside from gifting strollers, car seats and clothes, the shower served the greater purpose of outreach, to expectant mothers at higher risk of dying during pregnancy.

There was also a focus on gender equity in the league. The Female Quotient (FQ), a female-owned business with a staunch commitment for advancing equality in the workplace, hosted the FQ Equality Lounge, which served as a forum for women to connect and collaborate.

The Thursday before All-Star Weekend festivities began, The FQ Equality Lounge conducted the Women in Basketball Operations forum, the goal of which is to develop female leaders and executives for basketball operations roles. The forum was supported and attended by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who acknowledges the gender imbalance in senior NBA roles. He also realizes that the disparity will not improve, without the proactive hiring intention of the league’s decision makers — the owners, presidents and general managers, who are predominantly men. To Silver’s credit, he is creating an infrastructure to build upon that intention. To that end, he asked various attendees at the forum, for ideas about how to position more women in the pipeline for roles as General Manager and Head Coach.

Two weeks later, at the MIT/Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, Commissioner Silver sat for an interview with Bill Simmons of The Ringer. During the hour-long discussion, Silver spoke comprehensively and insightfully about free agency and player leverage, the changes in contract structures through the decades, the role and future of the G-League, audience viewing habits, league expansion, global development of the game — an A-Z topic list regarding all things NBA. There was a glaring omission of one letter, in that topic alphabet. It was surprising given Silver’s comments about gender equity in the NBA, just two weeks prior at the All-Star game. There was no “W”.

Not once did Silver or Simmons mention the words “woman” or “women”. This means there was no discussion about increasing the ranks of women in the NBA, in basketball operations and coaching. It also means there was no mention of the WNBA, a league started by the NBA with the promotional merit of gender equity. This is noteworthy given the ongoing gender equity issues WNBA players clamor to be addressed: salaries, training facilities, travel arrangements, marketing and endorsement opportunities. The word “girls” did come up, when Silver spoke about improving youth development so “boys and girls” are better equipped to handle the consequences of anxiety and loneliness, concerns Silver very recently brought attention to.

Basketball is not a sport played, cheered, understood, taught, talked about, wagered on, followed, loved, coached, viewed and economically supported only by men. There’s not a continent on the planet (Antarctica, maybe) where girls and women are not dribbling, passing, shooting, rebounding, displeased with referees and yes, even dunking. From its inception in 1891, when Dr. James Naismith invented the game, basketball has developed as a sport for women and men simultaneously. If that’s not enough for Silver, Simmons and others to give equitable credence to, they might consider this.

Mothers are generally the parent who pays the fees and signs the permission slips, for their daughters and sons to play at schools and park district field houses across the country. Mothers are largely responsible for transporting their daughters and sons to and from practices and games. Mothers are most often relied on to escort their aspiring athletes to sporting goods stores, to buy the shoes and equipment they play with, and the athletic apparel that must be laundered later. Mothers are generally the parent signing up their future Breanna Stewarts and Steph Currys for clinics and camps and tournaments. Mothers are counted on most to never miss a game. Mothers instill confidence in their young competitors that leads them to victories, and console the psyches of their defeated brood when they suffer losses. In short, from birth to draft night, whether it’s the WNBA or the NBA, mothers create the players Silver and Simmons rely on. Mothers also represent a $2.4 trillion demographic market. Men who run the business and media of the league can periodically watch Kevin Durant’s tearful expression of gratitude to his mother when accepting the MVP award, to realize who the real MVP is.

A few days after the conference in Boston, ESPN posted a Players Only video called In the League. It features women in the NBA talking about what it means to be a woman working in a male-dominated sport. While the NBA boasts a handful of women executives, trainers and assistant coaches, the mantle of General Manager or Head Coach still remains an all-male domain.

The last team presented in the video, the Toronto Raptors, offers some hope of continued progress. The Raptors featured five women on the team’s employee roster. A quote from team president Masai Ujiri provides insight as to why Toronto is more progressive than other teams, as well as instructional insight for the league about how it can be: “People see [hiring women] as an obligation. It is not that to me. It’s an opportunity.” The risk in not viewing it as such is that gender equity can be viewed as a socially conscious marketing lure for female fans, rather than an earnest initiative with real intent and application. Female fans number in the millions — — millions. That’s an audience to propagate not patronize.

Girls’ and women’s sports teams, from elementary school to the Olympics to the professional level, have long been overshadowed by men as coaches, officials, administrators, executives and owners. That men can be presumed to have a competent and credible stewardship of teams and leagues for women but not vice versa, goes beyond being a rational disconnect. It speaks to sexist sophistry. This is most insultingly ironic given that historically many women in sports have been trained, coached, taught and mentored by men. Jeanie Buss and every woman who has played for the UCONN Huskies since 1985 are superb examples.

A comparable sophistry exists relative to race. For athletes of color, who in some cases dominate certain sports, to not be hired as head coaches and executives in proportion to their representation as players, while their white counterparts are being hired at an inverse proportion to their representation ratio, speaks not to the ineptitude of athletes of color but to the exclusion of white owners and executives who control professional sports. African American players comprise roughly 75% of team rosters, in the NBA. At the start of the 2018–2019 season, 494 players filled roster spots, 367 of whom were African American. However, the NBA has only 8 African American men as head coaches and 7 African American men in positions of president or general manager — the only minorities influencing decision making from the front office, in the entire NBA. Juxtapose this against the reality that the predominantly African American NBPA, the union for NBA players, hired Michele Roberts, an African American woman, to be its Executive Director and a discrepancy in intent becomes flagrantly obvious.

Each year, NBA coaches and executives are hired, fired and replaced. The end of the 2018–2019 season resulted in one of the highest coaching and GM turnovers in history: 9 head coaches and 3 general managers. Despite the league’s touting of Becky Hammond being interviewed for head coach by the Milwaukee Bucks, — the first woman to ever be interviewed for that position by any team in the league, men were hired to fill all of those vacancies. The recycling carousel of failed male coaches and front office directors continues, gender equity marketing aside.

The NBA has been pointing an incriminating finger at itself about this, for the past two decades. The league approved formation of the WNBA in 1996, with the first season beginning the following year in 1997. That same year, a Chicago Tribune op-ed, by freelance writer and basketball fan Michael Tyler, criticized the double-standard which posits that men can coach women in the WNBA, but women can’t coach men in the NBA. The article suggested legendary University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers Head Coach Pat Summit as an unassailable NBA candidate. It states that “relative to instruction of fundamentals, talent assessment, development of plays, game strategy and orchestration of staff”, Summit has proven herself. That Becky Hammond is the first and only woman to garner a head coach interview from the NBA, 23 years after the inception of the WNBA, charts the reluctant pace of progress of the league.

The topic of hiring women in the NBA has to become part of a constant and continuous conversation, if an obvious, significant, culture-shifting impact on gender equity is to be achieved by the league. This point is one Masai Ujiri brings up during his interview for In the League. Though input and participation from women is vital for realizing gender equity, this conversation needs to occur more between the men who govern and comprise the league — — the owners, the Commissioner, the presidents, the general managers and the players. Why?

History is clear about the pursuit of enfranchisement by a disenfranchised people. Pleas, petitions and protests for inclusion are first and repeatedly rejected by those with the power of redress. This has been true for the great campaigns of history: the abolition of slavery, the guarantee of suffrage, the enactment of civil rights. Those efforts took years, decades and centuries before being actualized. The challenge for any disenfranchised people has always been to press the cause of their humanity, until the insistence of their value eclipses the injustice done to them.

That surpassing moment occurs, when enough people privileged by their enfranchisement gain the conversion of conscience to create it for others. That critical mass point occurred for the great campaigns mentioned above. When it becomes evident amongst the men of the NBA, women in the NBA will become a customary reality. Relative to gender equity, women must always campaign its validity, but it will require men to reconcile it amongst themselves for it to become a reality. A lesson from baseball demonstrates this.

Jackie Robinson is remembered for creating a seismic shift in America’s race relations, by breaking the color barrier in baseball. While he did, in fact, create that shift, he didn’t actually break the barrier. It is undeniable that Robinson, demonstrating heroic nobility, incomprehensible restraint and unimaginable courage triumphed over the blatant bigotry, the egregious indignities and the daily death threats that accompanied every moment of his playing against the white exclusivity of America’s favorite pastime. Whatever praise has been lauded on him for his excellence as an athlete, an individual and an American are all warranted and deserving without stipulation. However, the disconcerting truth is there was nothing Robinson did or could do to autonomously and unilaterally effect his entry into Major League Baseball. More to the point, he was allowed in by the daring of Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who for reasons more financial than principled, created the opportunity for Robinson to enter the league. Subsequently, more white owners, managers, coaches, teammates, fans and journalists entered a nearly two-decade national conversation that led to a conversion of conscience, which became sweeping and permanent for the entire league.

Had the Milwaukee Bucks hired Becky Hammond, a similar momentous, historic society-changing opportunity would have been created for women. And like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, Turkey Stearnes and Cool Papa Bell, other Negro League players who were as deserving if not more so than Robinson to have been granted an MLB opportunity, there is an around the corner, down the block, mile-long line of women who have been standing in front of, next to and behind Becky Hammond, women who are as capable and deserving of the opportunity to a take a seat on the sidelines and in the front offices of the NBA’s 30 franchises.

What remains for this to be realized is determining the content for the conversation. There are three questions that can be asked, when considering it:

1. What is the functioning mindset needed?

2. Why hire women?

3. What are feasible solutions for immediate impact?


When considering women, ethnic/race minorities and the LGBTQ community, the issue of inclusivity is dependent on the perspective towards diversity. If diversity is viewed only as an obligation, then there will always be a reluctance for, a resistance to and a resentment of it. It will be viewed as an unfounded request leveraged by an undeserving people for an unfair advantage, an infringement on a proprietary claim preordained by a preferred gender, race and sexuality.

Consequently, considering inclusivity will always be seen as a forced concession to an enforced compliance, rather than a willing ratification of the universal humanity of others. This is why laws have proven necessary to mandate and protect measures for the equitable treatment of people. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked how he felt about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he responded, “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

Morality resides in the conscience, and a conversion of conscience changes the heart. This is what is required to replace what is heartless with what is heartfelt. That replacement is not a submission to guilt-gorging sentimentality. What is heartfelt defines what is deeply believed. This means that not only is something done because it is legislated to be right, fair and just but that it is done because it is believed to be right, fair and just. When this is the thought directive, diversity is viewed as an opportunity, and can be resourced for a greater exchange of thoughts, ideas and experiences to be cultivated for a greater level of creativity, ingenuity and productivity.

This is not a tremendous mentality leap for the NBA. It’s a mindset already in place, but one that needs to be made more universal in its application. Decades ago, the league proved itself willing to opportunistically capitalize on the diversity of player talent that existed in African American communities across the country. It has also done so throughout the world, globally mining exceptional talent for the ongoing excellence of the league. There are currently 108 international players from 42 countries, in the NBA.

Players play the game. They are, in essence, the product the NBA markets to the world. The player diversity initiatives of the league have given it the highest product quality, of any professional league, worldwide. As a result, the NBA enjoys a global fan base, and has become an extremely lucrative commercial, business and financial success. The Forbes 2019 valuation of NBA teams estimates that the average team is worth $1.9 billion, up 13% over last year and three times the value from five years ago. That’s a staggering appreciation, from the $10,000 franchise fee owners paid to the start the league in 1946. Last year, each team received more than $110 million from shared revenues. Such is the profitability of diversity.

Reluctance, resistance and resentment also greeted player diversity initiatives, but try to imagine the NBA now without them being carried forth. As unimaginable as it was for some to favor the possibility of benefit from being more inclusive of minority players, it remains unimaginable for others to likewise do so from being more inclusive of women. The NBA can again carry forth. History will again be on its side.

The required participants for this conversation, the men of the NBA, will have to expand their mindset beyond player talent, to similarly benefit from the exceptional talent pool of women capable of enhancing the excellence of the league. The onus of adopting and implementing this mindset as policy and practice is weighted more on some than others. Players can offer vocal support of and draw media attention to the issue, to promote and drive the gender equity conversation for the league, as they have done for other timely, socially conscious issues. In fact, the players seem to be ahead of the other men of the league, as many have expressed no qualms about playing for a female head coach. Also, their lead by example hiring of Michele Robertsis concrete demonstration of what they believe. But players cannot directly act to make changes about more female representation in the league. They do not have rule changing power for league policies, or hiring authority for team coaches and personnel. Owners, presidents, general managers and head coaches do.


When public schools were integrated by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the courts differentiated between de jure segregation and de facto segregation. De jure means that it legally exists because laws mandate it. De facto means that it socially exists because of custom, habit and voluntary conduct. This differentiation is relevant to the NBA. There are no rules or by-laws that restrict or prohibit women from being head coaches or executives. However, there is a custom, habit and voluntary conduct that makes this a reality. When considering the outcome of the landmark Brown case, the choice between de jure gender exclusion and de facto gender exclusion can be thought of as either being unconstitutional or unconscionable.

A substantiated truth offered from history further underscores this. Nations that most severely repress and oppress entire segments of their populations lag behind technologically, economically, socially, culturally and politically than nations that don’t. Why would governments, businesses, organizations and teams be an exception to this? The highest achievement of a people is more apt to be accomplished when its total population is tapped for ideas, talents and skills not when it is limited to the craft of a single gender, race or ideology. In America, women comprise 51% of the population. To think that the chiming of the bell, on America’s finest hour, will only be rung by the hands of men is either a statistical absurdity or an obstinate irrationality, or both.

This absurdity-irrationality likewise confronts the NBA. Its men feel no motivation and operate with no mandate to meaningfully address the gender disparity of the league. It has been preferable and easier to consider this a gratuitous concern, or to impose arbitrary criteria for women that it does not impose for men (how many owners, presidents and general managers have played in the NBA?), or to dismiss women for not having the necessities (aptitude, organizational skills, temperament, etc.) or desire, something former General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers Al Campanis once opined, as the reason for the dearth of black managers in professional baseball. It is worth noting that Campanis was once a teammate and roommate with Jackie Robinson.

During an October 2017 interview on The Ringer, at minute 1:38, Bill Simmons asked Masai Ujiri for his best management advice. Initially stumped, Ujiri answered, “Be more passionate than ambitious.” Simmons was impressed by the response but with more time to think, Ujiri continued, “Can I say another one which is very underrated? Hire women. I am not just saying it…There is something about them that brings us to a level that…we think better…where our egos start to get in crazy places…they are really, really good…very level headed…and they just have a good way… of putting things in perspective.” Simmons replied “…the one thing I’ve learned is…diversity of who is around you…and not just like what people look like, male and female, but backgrounds…where do you come from and what did you learn and what do you bring to the table that I’m not getting from this person…”.

Simmons agrees that diversity has value, but his response reveals a logic loophole that dodges diversity as an equal opportunity for all. White Americans, relative to race, and men, relative to gender, often engage in a whitewashing and manstaining of diversity. To paint a variety of backgrounds and experiences within a homogeneous class of people, as being morally equal to the socially uplifting contributions from the cultural acquirements and insights of a heterogeneous society, is a self-serving exemption for behaving with bias. It is the immunity of entitlement not the rectitude of enlightenment, a privileged appeasement of conscience not a profound conversion of it.

This loophole has thwarted inclusivity, since the birth of the nation. From the outset, the opportunity for women to participate in every social, financial and legislative process and institution was denied, and the opportunity for African Americans to merely be regarded as human was chained in bondage. This “Founding Fathers” mindset has allowed white men to affirm actions that advance them, to the setback exclusion of others. That those men came and come from different parts of the country with different life experiences, regional backgrounds and cultural upbringings did and has done nothing to safeguard against the exclusion that enables their exclusivity. This loophole is used in legislative bodies, boardrooms and executive suites from coast to coast. It is an intentional negation that cannot be excused for its deceptive justification.

That negation is countered by a reason Ujiri endorses for hiring women, “…we think better.” Academic research supports this legitimate phenomenon. Groups that include women have greater success with collaboration. In fact, groups that are at least 50% women have the best results. A possible reason for this is an area of performance women consistently demonstrate having an advantage over men. Soft skills.

Most people comprehend and give great value to hard skills. These are defined as the practical and technical abilities specific to each job. They are learned from formal education, tutorial instruction, standardized training and trade certifications. They can also be quantified, graded and ranked for the tangible evaluation of performance. Some examples are: typing, reading, software development, computer programming, baking, carpentry, chemical engineering, neurosurgery, physical therapy, accounting, analytics, passing, dribbling, shooting.

Conversely, soft skills are not as easily quantifiable and are generally more undervalued. They are attributes and qualities derived from emotional and social intelligence rather than academic or technical intelligence. Though they can be acquired, they are more likely to be intrinsic to the character and personality of the individual. They enable people to interact more effectively and collectively with others. Some examples are: active listening, conflict management, strategic thinking, multitasking, integrity, reciprocal communication, supportive leadership, problem solving, empathy, social fluency, rapport development, collaboration, team building, work ethic.

According to research by the Hay Group, women outperform men in all areas of soft skills other than emotional self-control, in which case they show equal results. This enhanced competency enables women to have more conscientious consideration for how decisions and actions impact others, rather than evaluate potential outcomes mainly according to self-interest. It commissions an awareness and responsiveness that promotes better teamwork, fruitful partnerships and contributions to the establishment of work cultures that promote, protect and preserve communal participation rather than rebuff, restrict and reject it. With soft skill proficiency, women more consistently project a positive outlook; influence and inspire unity; mentor and model cooperative conduct; and reduce and resolve the tensions and conflicts of organizational politics.


The NBA can regard gender diversity, with the same moral imperative it shows for racial diversity. As chief administrator of the league’s players and overseer for the concerns of its owners, Commissioner Adam Silver is suited to the times to do so. For example, he does not punitively sanction players for being outspoken about political and social issues, something the NFL does. When Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling sparked a public relations crisis, Silver took immediate action an issued a lifetime ban of Sterling from the league. During his tenure, the NBA has also addressed, through public service announcements, significant issues like AIDS, gun violence, gay shaming, domestic violence and gender equity (#LeanInTogether). These campaigns have been guided by the President of Social Responsibility and Player Programs, Kathy Behrens.

The NBA has fully embraced the social media technology of the day. So, fans who value gender equity, women and men alike, can express their concerns to the Commissioner and the principal owners of each team, by forwarding suggestions and solutions.Here are a few reasonable, result-producing measures that can create a measurable difference:

Talk more.

Many basketball fans have experienced talking to someone, who is disinterested or disinclined about the sport. They not only don’t appreciate your love of the game, but they don’t possess the basketball IQ or vocabulary to comprehend or respond to your narrative about it.

A similar truth exists for team owners, presidents, general managers and players who have been disinterested and disinclined about women as head coaches and executives in the NBA. Silver can counter this with consistent messaging to increase the gender equity IQ and vocabulary, throughout the league and fan base. He can apply his views about women in the NBA, to any current topic he is addressing regarding the operations, personnel makeup and future enterprise of the league. Moreover, he can promote gender equity as being essential to enhancing the longevity, creativity, ingenuity, productivity, marketability and fan base of the league. To the last point, the diminishing incomes of the middle class marks a purchasing decline in a male consumer all sports have always relied on. The female market still has an enormous upside for cultivating.

The more said more often, the less stigma, taboo and resistance — — three words 51% of the country no longer wants to determine their opportunities.

Deadline a goal.

Without a deadline, most objectives end up dead. Establish concrete goals to create gender equity and assign a target date for achieving them. For example, by September 2019:

· Each team can hire at least two women assistant coaches, analytics staff, medical staff and scouting staff.

· Each team can interview at least 3 women candidates for any open position. In a sector in which most men are almost entirely segregated from senior women professionals, the exposure will serve to desensitize, educate and even surprise men about what professional women are like.

· Continue the Basketball Operations Associate Program with a more aggressive recruitment of women on college campuses and universities, and a more visible promotion of it via career venues and publications for women.

· Erase the pay disgrace. The average woman earns just 80.7 cents to the dollars of her male counterpart. For Kristi Toliver, it’s less than 10 cents. During her offseason from the WNBA, she was hired as an assistant coach for the NBA’s Washington Wizards. However, WNBA players are limited to earning just $50,000 from off-season work. So instead of getting $100,000 or more like male assistant coaches, Toliver was only paid $10,000. A discouraging, if not insulting sum and a pay slight that often sends WNBA players overseas in the offseason to play for more money, rather than rest their bodies, as NBA players do, or pursue post-playing career development in professional basketball. A similar restriction on NBA players is meaningless given the salary disparity is so astronomical. When women are hired as coaches and executives, pay them exactly what their male counterparts are paid. Gender equity should also mean earnings parity.

· Don’t be the sports league of yesterday’s mentality, be the league of today’s reality. WNBA players find themselves in a similar situation to as the world champion U.S. Women’s soccer team, when it comes to pay equity and working conditions. The soccer team is now suing the U.S. Soccer federation to resolve this. It’s a tough sell on integrity to pay players of the WNBA and the U.S. Women’s soccer forty cents or less on the dollar, to what their male counterparts are paid. Doing so puts them at greater risks for financial stress, mental and psychological fatigue, isolation from being forced to play in foreign countries with language and cultural barriers and away from family and loved ones, injuries, relationship hardships and shortened careers as athletes. If Silver is considering adding more capital resources to the NBA’s G-League, seeing it as another basketball product to market, he can also encourage and prompt WNBA owners to do the same.

Connect the connections.

Become the source of referrals for women professionals. Invest time to identify and learn about who the current and emerging women leaders are in other sectors and industries. This will not only expand the pool of candidates for participation in the NBA, it will also create a resource for WNBA players and other female athletes to find mentors to develop their business IQ. This will also help develop the gender IQ of the men in the NBA, about the competency of women in leadership positions.

Spotlight and highlight.

Always invite women to participate on panels and in conferences that are about the NBA. To not do so puts the league’s professed interest in gender equity at risk, for being seen as pretense not sincerity. If girls and young women don’t see women on the stage, they won’t have much hope of seeing themselves in the league.

The NBA is highly regarded as being the most progressive professional sports league in the country. As such, it is positioned to take the lead on making standard what is still regarded as an exception. Then, one day it might be NBA Commissioner Nneka Ogwumike awarding the Larry O’Brien trophy to the NBA campion. Ogwumike, NBA. That even sounds like poetic justice.