The NBA’s Glass Wall


My 5-part series with Lay Up-line on gender, sexism, and the NBA
March 7, 2012

NBA’s Glass Wall: Cheerleaders

(This is part four in a special 5-part series by sports analyst David J. Leonard on the NBA’s abysmal performance when it comes to gender equity.)

Mary Jo Kane, in “Sex sells Sex, Not Women’s Sports” links the marginalization of female athletes to the hegemony of sex within sports.  She successfully debunks the claim that sex sells women’s sports: “Sex sells sex, not women’s sports.” As part of the Nation’s series on sports, Kane argues:  “Millions of fans around the globe just witnessed such media images and narratives during coverage of the Women’s World Cup in Germany. Perhaps such coverage will start a trend whereby those who cover women’s sports will simply turn on the camera and let us see the reality—not the sexualized caricature—of today’s female athletes. If and when that happens, sportswomen will receive the respect and admiration they so richly deserve.”

This is pretty easy to see as one looks at the ways female athletes enter into the sports media sphere. Historian Patricia Hill Collins notes how contemporary sports cultures works to “simultaneously” “celebrate and ‘feminize” their athleticism by showing women in action and showing their navels”.  Coming on the WNBA’s marketing campaign, Collins argues that WNBA “ads all shared another feature — unlike their basketball uniforms that provide more than adequate coverage for their breasts and buttocks, each woman was dressed in fitted sweat pants and in a form-fitting top that, for some exposed a hint of their midriffs, an occasional naval”.

In regards to the WNBA, one has to look no farther than google to see the hegemony of sexualization.  If one types in WNBA and “hotties,” “sexy” or “sexiest” one is faced by an avalanche of websites offering top-10 lists.  Whether on the Bleacher Report, Spike TV, ESPN, and YouTube, women in the WNBA are far more readily available as sexual objects than ballers. Routinely radio stations and websites pit women of the WNBA in a battle for who will be crowned as the “hottest” WNBA star (see here for example).   In these contests, presumably male fans vote for the “hottest player” illustrating the ways in which primarily male fans interact with women ballers: as sex objects, as body parts, as sources of pleasure.  Women, thus, enter into the sports realm reaffirming patriarchy and gender boundaries, reinforcing the primacy of males in this space.

The sexualization of women within basketball is of course not limited to WNBA players, but is on full display during each and every NBA game.  Over the past decade women have been deposed from their positions as referees and play by play analysts.  When the NBA hired two women referees, Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner, in 1999 three years after promoting Cheryl Miller as a play by play analyst, it appeared as if women were shattering the NBA”s glass wall that kept women away from on-court positions of authority.   However by 2003, Palmer was the lone woman referee in the NBA and there were no other women doing play by play for nationally televised games.  Therefore if you watched an NBA game on TV in the last thirty years the only women you saw was either a sideline television reporter—but that still depended heavily on which team you were viewing and whether it was a televised game.  So more likely than not the only women you saw gracing the courts during NBA games were cheerleaders.

The sight of scantily clad cheerleaders who make limited wages for their in-game performances (around $100 dollars per game) affirms that the place of women on the basketball floor is quite clear.  Cheerleaders are the most prominent examples of the “sexy babe mode” mode of representing women.  According to Kane, the “sexy babe mode” “represents a “hot” female athlete, falls just short of soft pornography.” This carries over into sports media with websites and “mainstream” sports like NBC Sports or Sports Illustrated offering pictorial slide shows, often showing women in sexualized positions (cleavage shots seem to be a requirement for some websites).

In spite of the fact that it operates a professional woman’s basketball league sex and sexuality remains the predominant vehicle through which the NBA transmits images of women.  While sex sells sex, it also sells “MEN’S SPORTs.”  Whether in advertisements for strip clubs in local newspapers, athlete pictorials, or eye-candy cheerleaders, women in sports remain sexualized objects for the consumption of male consumers.

NBA’s Glass Wall: The Case of Nancy Lieberman

(This is part three in a special 5-part series by sports analyst David J. Leonard on the NBA’s abysmal performance when it comes to gender equity.)

Following the announcement that Nancy Lieberman was going to become the first female head coach in the NBA system in 2009, the sports media gathered around in celebration.  Chris Tomasson asked “Could Nancy Lieberman Become the NBA’s First Female Head Coach?” while Scott Schroeder celebrated Lieberman as  “Still a Pioneer.”  Although clearly a break through movement for the league, the media focused on celebrating the individual achievement rather than the dismantling of the NBA’s boys-only coaching carousel.  For example, Tomasson rhetorically asked: “The D-League today. The NBA tomorrow.”  Depicting her as a pioneer, as a trailblazer, and as someone who will open up opportunities for other women in the NBA, he concluded:  “If there ever will be a female NBA head coach in my lifetime, I’m thinking Nancy Lieberman has got a shot. Lieberman took the first step toward that Thursday when she was named head coach of the Dallas Mavericks’ D-League team in Frisco, Texas.“

Similarly an Associated Press story, quoting Lieberman as a transformational figure, as someone who has the potential to usher in sea change within the NBA, continued the celebratory tone.  It describes her struggle “to break another gender barrier, one she hopes “could be the last barrier.”  The efforts to imagine her as a transformational figure, as someone who could lead the NBA into a post-gender reality is evident in comments from Lieberman herself:  “I kind of look at President Obama,” she noted. “Everybody knows it’s historical because he’s a man of color. But at the end of the day, regardless of his race, creed, color or gender, he has to be president. Everybody knows I’m a woman, but at the end of the day, regardless of my race, creed, color or gender, I have to win basketball games.

Noting the importance of her success, the overall narrative focused on Lieberman as an ideal pioneer, given her ample successes, including her playing against men.  Yet, the media tended to focus on the burden and responsibility she faced.  Her success and failure would invariably impact whether or not other women would have the chance to become coaches. She noted, “If I am successful, I’m sure that I will be looked at (by the NBA).”  Unfortunately, after a 24-26 record in her only season on the bench, Lieberman moved into the front office.  The fanfare and celebratory tone has vanished, as has the commitment to breaking down the gender barriers for female coaches.  The culture of masculinity and the persistence of the old-boys club, all while the narrative focuses on the ways in which it is the league’s players are reluctant to accept a female coach, illustrate that hegemony of the NBA’s gender problem.

A single person, even the great Nancy Lieberman, a lone hire, never had the power to undermine the belief that leaders are male.  The fact that there is little conversation about the lack of female coaches is a testament to the ways in which male coaches have been normalized within the NBA.  It is no wonder that Mark Cuban thinks the NBA will have an openly gay player before it has a female head coach.  It no wonder that Pat Summit, collegiate basketball winningest coach, described the chance of a women coaching in the NBA a “longshot.” Because of patriarchy and sexism, evidenced by the entrenched NBA culture, and given the persistence of Glass Walls within the NBA, I guess the hope of Lieberman is not hope we can believe in.

The NBA’s Glass Wall: The Case of Jeanie Buss

(This is part 2 in a special 5-part series by sports analyst David J. Leonard on the NBA’s abysmal performance when it comes to gender equity.)

One of the more popular minstrel reality shows in VH1’s roster is the program Basketball Wives.  This show is consistently lampooned and derided online whenever it airs for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that none of the women on the show are actually NBA Wives, not even in the common law sense.  That wives and girlfriends are interchangeable in VH1 parlance is peculiar enough, but more troubling is the fact that in an era where accomplished women are leading nations, running Fortune 500 companies, and in the case of Oprah Winfrey, a multi-platform media empire, when it comes to the NBA, the most prominent women is this gaggle of pseudo-celebrities.

Clearly, the NBA does not endorse Basketball Wives, so the point here is not to attribute the show as an extension of the league.  No, the issue is how does a multi-national corporation like the NBA which has housed two of the biggest sports stars of the last thirty-years, Michael Jordan and Yao Ming, allow itself to get outmaneuvered by VH1 and its tabloid fare when it comes to the dissemination of women’s images.

One way to begin this discussion is to explore the experiences of Jeanie Buss, which is profoundly instructive as to how the image of the “girlfriend” has become the league’s dominant meme when it comes to women.

In spite of her numerous professional accomplishments, most people know Buss more for her relationship with Phil Jackson, her appearance in Playboy, and her potential participation in the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and not as a Los Angeles Lakers executive (she is executive vice president of Business Operations).  It should come as no surprise that little has been made over the assumed anointing of Jim Buss and not her as the next leader of the Lakers.  After all, “It’s a man world,” and her entry into a hyper masculine space has been through her sexuality and body.

While I don’t speculate to understand the dynamics here, but raise the issue in regards to how little has been made about her not even being included in the conversation as a potential successor to Jerry Buss.  Jim Buss’ role as president and his power within the organization is obvious, yet little has been made as why him and not her.  Take a report on shortly before Buss’ promotion:

But now, with legendary coach Phil Jackson retiring and his father, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, retreating a bit further from the day-to-day operations of the team each year, Jim Buss’ influence on the future of the franchise will be hard to miss.

His whims, his voice, will be the single most important force in the way the Lakers move out of this failed season.

Jim Buss has been constructed as the natural successor while Jeanie is depicted as Phil Jackson’s girlfriend.   Although Jim Buss has been routinely criticized for his decisions and communication skills, it is hard to find anyone suggesting that Jeanie would be better for the job.  This in spite of a fact that her success as a manager dates back to her early days serving as chief executive of the Los Angeles Forum, and overseeing business operations of the Lakers during both the Shaquille-Kobe era and the more recent Kobe-Pau period.  By contrast, Jim Buss’ two most important decisions in the last fifteen years has been hiring Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Brown.

In short, Jeanie Buss is the most prominent example of the glass wall that seems to permeate the NBA.  Women are able to rise to the executive ranks in the NBA’s league office and the business side of many franchises, but they dare not cross over to managing day to day basketball operations.  That even a family owned franchise like the Lakers that has been extremely successful over the last thirty years would not portend to let a woman exist as a voice of the franchise is really telling about the density of this glass wall.

The themes here transcend the Lakers and the Buss family as we can see how the NBA is a hyper-masculine enterprise and that the participation of women so often comes in the form of traditional supports and sexual objects.  “The NBA would rightly point out that a number of women work in fairly important positions in the league office, where it’s easy to find people who care sincerely about such things,” writes Henry Abbott. “But women not only don’t play basketball for the NBA or its teams. They also don’t coach, make trades or hand out punishments. (They do, however, at almost every public NBA event, dance around in skimpy outfits for money.)”

That Jeanie Buss receives more attention, from media and otherwise, for her relationship history rather than her managerial acumen is indicative of the ways that women are accepted within sporting cultures.  Consumed as sexual object, as fulfilling traditionally accepted gender roles, Jeanie Buss has illustrated the difficulty of being seen in other contexts.

February 27, 2012

NBA Teams Airball When It Comes to Promoting Women


(This is part one in a special 5-part series by sports analyst David J. Leonard on the NBA’s abysmal performance when it comes to gender equity.)

The NBA is often praised for its diversity, celebrated as some model of how sports should handle race.  While researching and writing After Artest I spent ample analyzing the widespread celebration of the NBA in this regard.  The NBA is presumably the gold standard when it comes to the hiring and advancement of racial minorities in front office and head-coaching positions.  However, when we swap gender for race, the NBA’s AAA Diversity rating is significantly downgraded.

This past summer, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at of University of Central Florida released its report on the NBA.   While providing ample data, the conclusion/summary was as follows:

The NBA had an A+ for race and an A- for gender for a combined A.

Based on the total points used in these weighted scales, the NBA earned its highest grade combined grade ever at 92.2, up from its previous high of 91.5 in 2010. The NBA grade for race was 95.3, which was up significantly from the 2010 Report when it was 93.8. The combined total and the total for race were both higher than for any other men’s sport in the history of the Racial and Gender Report Card. The NBA again received men’s pro sports’ only A for a combined grade for race and gender. As has often been the case since TIDES began issuing its annual report there were countless headlines praising the NBA’s Diversity Efforts, such as “NBA remains leader in sports diversity” and “NBA gets an ‘A’ for Diversity.”  Yet, as we look at the report and beyond, it is hard to imagine how the NBA can get an “A-” for gender, much less an overall A.

For gender, the NBA earned an A in the league office and an A- for professional administrators. It received a C for team senior administration and an F for team vice presidents.  At best, this is a B average, but a closer look reveals how troubling the NBA’s approach to gender has become.

  • Of the 60 NBA Referees, there was 1 woman (or .02 percent)
  • Women made up 3-percent of Radio/TV Broadcasters
  • Of the 320 Team Vice Presidents, only 48 were women (15%)
  • Women held 27% of team senior administrative jobs (an all-time high)

TIDES depends on close cooperation of league offices to produce its report so there are myriad reasons why it would be in their best interest to accentuate the positives about the NBA.  The league however has been far less complimentary regarding these continued inquiries into their diversity practices.  In a recent article by the New York Times’ Harvey Araton NBA commissioner David Stern is quoted as saying:

“I recognize the presumption that an organization that is not diverse has a job to do. But once you reach a certain critical distribution, the counting should stop.”

Even though the NBA received the highest gender grade of the four major sports, Stern was still overly sensitive regarding ongoing calls for greater gender equity throughout various branches of the NBA.

Interestingly, in this report about diversity in the NBA, there are no grades for gender as it relates to coach, assistant coaches, president/CEO, and general manager.  There are multiple ways to interpret this omission: (1) in the absence of any women in these positions, the grade is obviously an “F.”  Yet, in unmarking that exclusion, the report fails to highlight the absence of female coaches and top executives within the NBA.  (2) The erasure of these numbers normalizes the absence of women within the key basketball-related within the NBA.

In effect, by failing to note these abysmal numbers, the report seemingly renders this reality as both unexpected and a given, not worthy of notation.  This represents a major shortcoming within the report and more importantly the overall tenor of discussions regarding women in the NBA.  Naturalizing exclusion renders women as coaches, presidents, and general managers as unthinkable within the dominant imagination.  The report does grade the NBA as it relates to women vice-presidents, in which the league gets an “F.”  Beyond the abysmal numbers – there were 48 women vice presidents during the 2010-11 NBA season, accounting for 15 percent of vice-presidents league-wide – it is quick to see how few women serve in basketball-related capacities. Female vice-presidents so often found in positions within human resources, marketing, and other business related activities.  There are few women who are both visible, and integral to basketball operations.

Again, it should be noted that this report praises the NBA’s diversity record in the league office, i.e., central administration (“manager, coordinator, supervisor or administrator in business operations, marketing, promotions, publications and various other departments”), giving the NBA an  A- here.  Its when it gets to the individual teams that there is a steep drop off in performance.  Therefore, what becomes evident is that its been normalized that the place for women within the NBA is peripheral; at its best, we see women as league vice presidents, albeit outside of basketball relations.  At worse, and more commonly, women can be found in support roles, in those accepted gender roles as sideline reporters, secretaries, personal-assistants, cheerleaders, and as the case of tomorrow’s subject Jeanie Buss reveals, even when a woman is an accomplished front-office professional she is still rendered as someone’s, girlfriend.