By Elliott Almond
San Jose Mercury News.
Pro sports — once a males-only dominion — showed signs of diversification the past year. After an empowering run for women in the workplace, you can at least say this much heading into 2016: The glass ceiling has cracks.
“We’re not asking men to give up all their toys,” said Nancy Lieberman, who became a Sacramento Kings assistant coach this season. “We’re just asking if we can play with some of the toys, too. We’re just asking for some inclusion.”
Women made historic advances on the biggest stages of men’s sports with coaching hires in baseball, football and basketball, as well as officiating in the NFL and broadcasting ESPN’s reverred “Sunday Night Baseball.” Top-level college sports got swept up in the sea change in October when Conference USA hired the first woman commissioner of a Football Bowl Subdivision league.
What in the name of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has happened?
Begrudgingly or not, opportunities have opened to women who must prove themselves on equal footing in a highly charged environment swathed in masculinity. Even as gender equity experts caution more work needs to be done to narrow the chasm, they celebrate these historical babysteps as a potential turning point.
“Something has happened in the mindset where gender by itself is no longer a singular factor that can be used to dismiss candidates,” said Drexel professor Ellen Staurowsky, a leading researcher on Title IX issues.
The door creaked open in 2014 when Becky Hammon entered the arena as the first woman assistant NBA coach.
Hammon, 38, advanced the cause in July when leading the San Antonio Spurs to the NBA Summer League title.
Ten days after Hammon’s feat, the Sacramento Kings hired Lieberman, a Hall of Fame guard and former WNBA coach.
Lieberman, 57, recalled the encouraging words she received from President Obama: “You’re a woman coaching men. You have to make it normal.”
Nothing was normal about the shift in the NFL. A league that has struggled with domestic violence issues has a woman line judge this season.
Sarah Thomas, 37, was the league’s first full-time woman official when hired in April. The Mississippi mom of three already was used to breaking barriers. She was the first woman to officiate a major college football game and the first to referee in a bowl game.
The NFL experienced perhaps a bigger breakthrough in the summer when the Arizona Cardinals opened training camp with coaching intern Jen Welter, a former collegiate rugby player and Indoor Football League tight end.
Welter, 37, spent six weeks with the Cardinals.
Major League Baseball joined the groundbreaking party in September with the introduction of Justine Siegal as a guest instructor at the A’s fall instructional league. Siegal, 40, became the first female coach in MLB history. (Siegal had become the first woman to throw batting practice for an MLB team when she did that with the A’s during spring training in 2011.)
Like many of the other women pioneers, it wasn’t the first time Siegal worked in a man’s world. In 2009, she became the first woman hired at any pro baseball level while serving as first-base coach for the independent Brockton Rox.
Siegal actually lobbied the A’s for the job, emphasizing the recent workplace gains women had made in the NBA and NFL.
“This is the moment to be part of history,” she reminded them.
The lobbying won’t stop for Siegal, who lives in Malibu with her teenage daughter.
“You can’t take anything for granted when trying to do the impossible,” she said.
Siegal wants to coach in spring training. But the leap to a big-league dugout won’t be an easy one given minor-league dues most baseball coaches must pay. Siegal just wants a chance to move up the chain after dreaming about being a college baseball coach since she was 16.
The A’s experience left her feeling encouraged and accepted.
“When players spoke to me we talked about everything from life to hitting,” she said.
Siegal was not the only woman in the spotlight as the baseball season entered autumn.
Jessica Mendoza became part of the conversation in September by replacing Curt Schilling as an analyst for “Sunday Night Baseball.”
Her ascent started three months earlier when Mendoza, 35, became the first female in the booth for ESPN’s College World Series coverage.
The former Stanford softball star did so well on “Sunday Night Baseball” that she became the first woman analyst in postseason history when covering the American League wild-card game.
The two-time Olympic medalist will return in 2016 with a prominent role for the full season.The mother of two, who holds Stanford’s career batting and home run records, understands the gravitas of her position with ESPN.
“I tried to keep it all in — this is me just calling a baseball game,” Mendoza recalled. “At the same time, I felt a responsibility to other women. I have to make sure there is not a wrong thing coming out of my mouth so this door won’t close.”
Collectively, the women have made a symbolic statement at a time Hillary Clinton is favored to become America’s first female presidential nominee from a major party.
Now the NFL’s first female executive has a bigger vision.
“What will truly be significant is when these moments no longer are significant,” said former Raiders chief Amy Trask, now an NFL analyst for CBS Sports.
That about summarizes the thoughts of Stanford basketball star Lili Thompson, who says she wants to run for president someday.
“Women have had the ability to be in leadership positions since the beginning of time,” Thompson said. “It is the opposite side that is changing to acknowledge that.”
It has been difficult to ignore in the past year.
Women kept pushing the boundaries to the edge of 2016. Scotts Valley surfer Savannah Shaughnessy recently dropped into a 40-foot giant at big-wave sanctum Mavericks and there is serious chatter about women soon joining the competitive ranks of future Mavericks events.
“There is something special going on,” Shaughnessy said.