WNBA improves on already stellar racial and gender hiring practices

Vickie Johnson helped launch the WNBA as a player before becoming an assistant coach. Today she is the league's lone Black woman head coach. Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor's note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author.

As I reflect on this past year, it's clear that 2020 forever will be stamped in the history books of professional sport. In 2020, leagues and teams across professional and college sports shut down and geared back up during the devastating coronavirus pandemic. Simultaneously, our country endured a much-needed racial awakening that featured professional athletes at the helm of the social movement. The WNBA and its players, like other leagues and athletes, have consistently used their platform to fuel these social movements. Notably, though, the WNBA has embedded itself as the leader among its league counterparts, doubling down on its change-infused public relations strategies through standard-raising racial and gender hiring practices.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida (UCF) released its 2020 WNBA Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) on Wednesday. The WNBA, led by commissioner Cathy Engelbert, earned three A+ grades after scoring 96.7% and 98.0% in racial hiring practices and gender hiring practices, respectively. This resulted in an overall grade of 97.4%. This is the eighth time that the WNBA has earned a racial and gender hat trick of all A+ grades in racial, gender and overall hiring practices. The league's record has been remarkable. And unmatched.

One of the WNBA's most notable improvements from 2019 occurred in the number of women in CEO/president positions. Seven of the 12 positions were held by women in 2020, increasing by two from 2019. This was the highest number recorded in a WNBA Report Card and the first year that women held a majority of these positions. Similarly, the percentage of women holding WNBA league office positions increased substantially from 48.9% in 2019 to 60.9% in 2020.

Of course, despite the array of A grades, getting even better at diversity and inclusion is always a goal. There are a few areas of concern, including women in general manager roles, represented by an underwhelming 27.3%. This is in a league in which 79.6% of the players were players of color, down from 82.7% in 2019.

These women athletes of 2020 stand on the foundation built by the women who challenged the status quo in the years prior like Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, Martina Navratilova and Serena and Venus Williams. Those women devoted their careers to advocating for more equity and inclusiveness beyond the sports industry and throughout the country. Their efforts have helped give current athletes a larger platform to unite, collaborate and spark meaningful change. This burst of athlete activism as an unparalleled force seemed ever-present throughout 2020.

Collectively, teams across the WNBA, including the Seattle Storm, Atlanta Dream, Phoenix Mercury and Chicago Sky, wore "Vote Warnock" shirts to support the U.S. Senate campaign of Raphael Warnock in Georgia, who defeated Dream owner Kelly Loeffler, an outspoken opponent of the Black Lives Matter organization. Many are crediting the WNBA players for Warnock's win. Similarly, to voice their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, athletes and staff across all teams wore warm-up shirts that said "Black Lives Matter" on the front and "Say Her Name," to honor Breonna Taylor, on the back. The WNBA also allowed teams to add Taylor's name to the backs of jerseys and dedicated the season to her.

Washington Mystics players wore white shirts with seven bullet holes painted on the back, calling for action against the officers who shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. During the national anthem, players linked arms and knelt in a peaceful protest and decided to sit out all games on Aug. 26. In an interview afterward, Ariel Atkins of the Mystics said, "We aren't just basketball players. And just because we are basketball players doesn't mean that's our only platform. We need to understand that when most of us go home we still are Black."

Individually, players like Candace Parker, Devereaux Peters, Jonquel Jones, A'ja Wilson and Layshia Clarendon spoke about their experiences as Black women in the U.S. Incredibly, players such as Maya Moore, Natasha Cloud, Renee Montgomery and others opted out of the 2020 season, pausing their WNBA careers to fight for social justice off the court.

Athlete activism is a powerful tool for change and can yield even more influence as other professional sports leagues and the NCAA mirror their WNBA counterparts in listening to athletes. I am hopeful that athlete activism also focuses its attention on racial and gender hiring practices and that more leagues will reflect the practices seen within the WNBA.

Such hiring practices include the upward mobility of those on the cusp of key decision-making roles. Often times within sport, diversity is either unequally distributed or not distributed at all. These imbalances are most prominent when comparing the racial composition of two groups: athletes and assistant coaches versus head coaches and general managers. However, the WNBA is a clear outlier.

The WNBA's racial grade of an A+ for assistant coaches is partially reflected in its A- grade for head coaches. A great example of this upward mobility is Vickie Johnson, who was hired as head coach of the Dallas Wings in December 2020. Previously, Johnson was an assistant coach with the Las Vegas Aces and, prior to that, she played in the WNBA for 13 years. She is now the only woman of color in a head-coaching position in the WNBA.

Of course, it's important to recognize the path to leadership roles beyond team basketball operations and into the team business side. For the WNBA, this trend, too, is far from neglected.

Entry-to-mid-level positions like professional team staff and team managers to senior directors saw racial scores of 34.1% and 34.9%, respectively. While there was nearly a 10% difference compared to other leadership categories like team vice presidents and above and CEOs/presidents, with scores of 26.1% and 25.0%, respectively, all racial categories notched an A+ or A-. That is impressive.

I want to congratulate the WNBA on navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and moving forward with a tremendous year. The WNBA is the leader in the charge for social change, athlete activism and diverse hiring practices. I am convinced the women who represent the league, from the athletes themselves to the individuals in the team front offices and the league office, have enhanced the confidence and opportunities of women and girls across the nation and the globe.

Now it's time for other leagues to mirror the WNBA's practices in promoting social justice, diversity and athlete activism. I am enthusiastic about the future of the WNBA and look forward to the new heights that it reaches.

A.J. Forbes and Devon Miller made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.