Bless Coach Dawn Staley for not mincing words. For the first time, two Black coaches have reached the NCAA women’s Final Four. Staley is one of those coaches, and she uses her platform to say those who run college basketball have no right to bask in this moment.
“There’s so many Black coaches out there that don’t get opportunities,” Staley said after her South Carolina Gamecocks throttled Texas to earn the right to play Stanford. Arizona’s Adia Barnes is the other Black coach in the Final Four, as her team faces perennial juggernaut UConn on Friday in San Antonio.
Pinpointing a system in which too many athletic directors “don’t see” the intellect of Black women as head coaches, Staley, who steered her team to the NCAA title in 2017, proclaimed, “They’re gonna see it on the biggest stage.” For emphasis, she added the story of women’s basketball “is filled with so many Black bodies, for this to be happening in 2021, to me, is long overdue.”
Two Black coaches in the women’s Final Four is so overdue that it only serves to shine a harsh light on the overall lack of Black head coaches that scandalizes both the women’s and men’s game. It also renders the NCAA’s pablum over ongoing racial unrest to, as they say in sarcastic social justice parlance, an exercise in empty, “performative wokeness.”
For instance, in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, NCAA president Mark Emmert said the tragedy “laid bare the continued existence of inequality and injustice in America. The college athletic community must be clear in our stand that it cannot be tolerated.”
After the double tragedy in Wisconsin in which Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake in the back, and a white vigilante then killed two people during subsequent protests, Emmert said the events “once again brought to the forefront the issues of race, social justice and social responsibility that we all need to commit to.”
The NCAA is committed to nothing when it comes to Black head coaches, tolerating one of the most blatant forms of inequality the college athletic community, university presidents and athletic departments can offer. Black bodies on the basketball court have long been quadruple their actual 13% share of the U.S. population. But the head-coaching ranks, especially in the top conferences, are ridiculously whiter than their 60% share of the population and the 23% of players in Division I identified as white.
The only thing missing is Black assistant coaches fanning white head coaches on the plantation veranda.
All talk, no action
On the men’s side, the Power 5 conferences of the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 supplied half the 68-team tournament field. In the latest comprehensive NCAA data that goes up to 2020:
- the Big Ten had 33% white players and 93% white head coaches.
- the ACC: 29% white players, 73% white head coaches.
- the Big 12: 22% white players, 80% white head coaches.
- the SEC: 18% white players, 79% white head coaches.
- the Pac-12: 27% white players, 92% white head coaches.
In rough percentages – rough because conferences have different numbers of teams – the Power 5 is 26% white in players and 83% white in head coaches.
Conversely, the percentage of Black players compared with Black head coaches:
- the Big Ten: 38% Black players, 7% Black head coaches.
- the ACC: 54% Black players, 27% Black head coaches.
- the Big 12: 54% Black players, 20% Black head coaches.
- the SEC: 62% Black players, 14% Black head coaches.
- the Pac-12: 40% Black players, no Black head coaches.
In rough summation, the Power 5 has 50% Black players and just 14% Black head coaches in 2020. The percentage of Black head coaches slipped even further this season to 12%.
White head coaches’ share of jobs is triple the presence of white players. But the presence of Black head coaches is only a fraction that of Black players, between a quarter and a third. That represents a suppression of opportunity for qualified Black candidates.
And this represents an overall backslide that ironically began when the United States was governed by a Black man, himself a former high school basketball player who relished filling out his March Madness bracket at the White House. The percentage of white head coaches in the SEC and Pac-12 actually soared between 2012 and 2020, from 58% to 79% in the SEC and from 67% to 92% in the Pac-12.
Remember who’s playing. The presence of Black head coaches in the ACC, the highest in the Power 5, is still only half the conference’s 54% of Black players.
The Big Ten’s head-coaching ranks have been plain frozen at more than 90% white in the last decade. The Big 12 only had a slight shift down to 80%. Of these five superpower conferences, only the ACC saw its white head-coaching ranks decline significantly since 2012, from 92% to 73%. Black head coaches increased from 8% to 27%.
But, again, remember who’s playing. The presence of Black head coaches in the ACC, the highest in the Power 5, is still only half the conference’s 54% of Black players.
An example of better efforts toward parity in the men’s game is the Big East, at 61% Black in players and 50% Black in head coaches. Also worthy of mention are the American Athletic Conference (66% to 42%) and the West Coast Conference (34% to 36%).
The paucity of Black head coaches is not for lack of a talent pool. Black men are between 50% and 64% of assistant coaches in the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and SEC. But there have been many stories in sports media as to how they’ve been pigeonholed as one-trick recruiters who can relate to kids but don’t get the chances to coach them.
As an NBC Sports online feature said last year, being labeled a recruiter implies a Black assistant coach is “not there to develop players. They’re not there to scout or game-plan. They’re not there to draw up practice plans, or to mentor the athletes on the roster, or raise money for the athletic department, or glad-hand administrators and boosters, or to evaluate which prospects should be offered.
“They’re there to get the players they’re told to get.”
On the women’s side, Black women have it even tougher getting head-coaching positions because of both systemic racism and sexism. At predominantly white institutions (PWIs), they are crowded out by white men and white women. At historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), they split the jobs in the women’s game with Black men.
The only bright spot by conference is the SEC. With between 65% and 70% of its players being Black over the last decade, it has seen its percentage of Black women head coaches rise from 17% in 2012 to 50% this season (seven coaches among 14 teams). This year’s SEC tournament marked the first time two Black women coaches ever faced each other in a Power 5 conference championship game, Staley and Georgia’s Joni Taylor.
SEC is making headway
After the game, won by South Carolina, Staley said, “What you saw gives Black women hope.” Later, Taylor told , “I’m going to credit Dawn Staley because she got to South Carolina first and she won, and she was successful. Athletic directors, presidents, anybody who is running a program, running a business, they want to win, want to be successful. It’s like, ‘Hey, let’s look at what Dawn did and do the same thing.’ ”
No other conference is doing the same thing. Outside of the SEC, there were only six other Black female coaches scattered among the other four power conferences. In 2020:
- the Big 12 was 27% white players and 100% white coaches (with white men having half the jobs).
- the Big Ten: 33% white players, 93% white head coaches.
- the ACC: 22% white players, 75% white head coaches.
- the Pac-12: 23% white players, 80% white head coaches.
According to the NCAA data, there has not been a single Black coach in women’s basketball in the Big 12 since 2012.
Again, there is no excuse. The pipeline is available if athletic directors and the NCAA want to develop it. Black women might not be seen to be fit to be head coaches, but they sure are deemed valuable to relate to athletes as they are between 36% and 42% of assistant coaches. Adding in Black men, and Black assistants make up between 50% and 66% of assistants in the Power 5.
HBCUs can do better, too
Also, HBCUs need to do some soul-searching about gender and internalized suppression of Black women’s aspirations. The men’s side offers no particular surprise as 23 of 24 men’s head coaches in 2020 were Black, with a white male getting the last spot.
The hiring in the women’s game is so different it should shock the senses. Nine of 10 HBCU women’s basketball players are Black, but only 50% of head coaches are Black women. Black men held 42% of slots and white men held the remaining 8%. The assistant coach pipeline was similarly split, with Black women stuck at 50% and nearly all the other half going to Black men, white men and white women.
Vanderbilt University’s Candice Lee, one of the few Black athletic directors in the nation, said there is a culture that invisibly excludes Black coaches from consideration for the head job. She was speaking about PWIs, but what she said could easily be extrapolated to Black women at HBCUs, not being seen as smart at the X’s and O’s of basketball as men of any color.
“Sometimes we exclude people because we use words like pedigree and pipeline when the reality is that we’re not making it a priority,” Lee told the Associated Press. “And if we believe that representation matters, and many of our women’s basketball student-athletes are Black and brown, then I think it would come to bear that you would see more diversity in the coaching ranks. And I just think we’ve got to be intentional about rewarding opportunities.”
Staley has repeatedly said that there is no magic to discovering that the intelligence Black athletes possess on the court can be transferred to coaching. Athletic directors, universities and the NCAA just have to “see it.” Saying last year, “I will not be silent about that willful disparity any longer,” Staley said Black people “have earned the right through our sweat, skill and fight to be called the best in the world athletically. We have been largely denied the opportunities to show that we are capable of the very same level of excellence off the court or field as well.”
She certainly has not been silent in this March Madness, criticizing the second-class treatment and amenities of the women’s tournament relative to the men, going so far as to say the NCAA’s Floyd pablum “was about convenience and a sound bite.” She enters the Final Four challenging the nation to see that if the women’s Final Four can be 50% Black in head coaches in a sport that is half Black in players, so can the rest of the sport.
Saying that this particular Final Four “is exactly what can happen when you give a Black woman an opportunity,” Staley said, “When you see two Black women representing in this way, I hope the decision-makers [notice]. Because there are a lot of jobs out there.”
The question is when will the NCAA and universities listen.