The growing number of black women in leadership roles in basketball offers renewed optimism

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC Opinion Departmentwatch this FAQ.

During Black History Month, the Toronto Raptors organization hosted an event called “Soul 2 Sole.”

It was a fireside chat with some of the most highly ranked and influential black women in basketball. Participants included WNBA player Natalie Achonwa, Phoenix Mercury assistant GM Monica Wright Rogers and Jhanelle Peters, mental health clinician in the Raptors Organization. Dr. LaceΓ© Carmon-Johnson, director of Basketball Advancement (also with the Raptors) moderated the session.

We are certainly not a country where women are in short supply in the basketball community β€” see the commissioners and founders of the Maritime Women’s Basketball League, Hoop Queens, Girls Addicted to Basketball and the Muslim Women’s Summer Basketball League β€” as well as prominent women in broadcasting, such as Kayla Grey, Kate Beirness, Meghan McPeak, Amy Audibert and Savanna Hamilton.

Then there are people like Kia Nurse who work in broadcasting, play professionally and have a development academy for girls.

All of the aforementioned women have not only carved out spaces for themselves in a tough industry, but are also elite. I’ve covered the culture of women’s and girls’ basketball in Toronto, and what stood out to me are the women who have worked so hard to create space, but continue to need support in their work.

Although only 26 percent of university and college coaches in Canada are women, there is a space where women are thriving. and it’s in women’s basketball.

My friend, Krista Eniojukan, is the women’s basketball coach at York University. During a conversation we had over the phone, she counted at least 26 universities across Canada that have female head coaches. She told me about a coaching scholarship from Canadian Women & Sport that enabled women to coach and encouraged them to apply for head coaching positions for which they were well qualified.

“Last year there were four coaching opportunities and all four were filled by women,” Enyojukan told me.

As a coach since 2005, Enyojukan has seen growth in women’s basketball in Canada. If at least 26 of the women’s basketball programs in Canadian universities are led by women, that’s a hopeful statistic. And it extends to basketball in a broader context.

Front office roles and senior leadership positions in the Raptors organization are filled by talented and driven black women. This matters not only because the league is over 70 percent black players, but because their presence and profile matters to women of other races.

Tammy Sutton-Brown is an Olympian, former WNBA All-Star and now serves as Associate Basketball & Franchise Operations and Director of Player Development for the Raptors 905 β€” Toronto’s G-League affiliate.

Sutton-Brown told me she feels Toronto, in particular, has the leadership and interest in promoting women.

I wondered why this is. Why is Toronto a place that promotes black women in leadership, offering opportunities for women to shine?

“Male allies may be the reason,” she said.

“We have a long way to go”

He pointed out that Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, hired Becky Hammon as an assistant coach. Hammon was the first woman to serve as an NBA head coach after Popovich was ejected from a game. Hammon had to take over for the remainder of the contest.

In 2013, Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who was a vice president at the time, hired Teresa Resch. Within a few years, Resch became vice president of basketball operations and player development.

“We have a long way to go, we shouldn’t be celebrating that 11 people out of 70 or so are women in an organization. It’s changed a lot since I started, not just with the Raptors but the entire NBA.” Resch said in an interview at her alma mater in 2019.

I have to admit that having Ujiri with this type of progressive and relevant thinking can only be a positive. Likewise, his colleague John Wiggins, Vice President of Organizational Culture and Inclusion, sponsored the NBA’s first all-female broadcast team. Supporting women is a choice and that is what we continue to need in sports arenas.

WATCHES | Raps introduce NBA’s 1st all-female broadcast team in game against Nuggets:

Raptors game makes history with NBA’s first all-female broadcast team

Play-by-play announcer Meghan McPeak and WNBA player Kia Nurse working as a color analyst make the call as Jamal Murray of Kitchener, Ont., scores an impressive basket for Denver in a game against Toronto.

Sutton-Brown knows how to lead by example β€” and part of that example is not only empowering and celebrating women during Women’s History Month, but year-round.

“Men are celebrated more than women, so we really wanted to give women their flowers,” she explained.

Sutton-Brown organized the second annual International Women’s Day match with specially designed jerseys by a local female artist, as well as an all-female broadcast team and all-female referees.

Having women with lived experience leading the way and offering ideas for growth is a great way. People like Sutton-Brown, in this position, are essential for other women and girls to see.

Another friend of mine, Melissa Doldron, is a certified registered massage therapist who works with the Toronto Blue Jays. One of Doldron’s goals is to work with a national or Olympic team. It’s important to hear and see other black women in senior positions. She attended the Soul 2 Sole panel and said hearing a group of women share how they got there, what they need to learn and even offer their advice and motivation was very important.

“It helps us in the audience to continue to try to occupy space in these structures that are not often set up for us to thrive,” Doldron told me.

As a sports journalist who often investigates sports venues, it’s refreshing to see this kind of growth and flourishing. The one thing all the women I’ve heard have said in common is that they appreciate the guidance and mentorship and hope it will help the next generation.

During my conversation with Sutton-Brown, I told her that I’ve noticed that women often talk about the next generation and how we’re still making sure the foundations are laid right so they not only survive, but thrive.

She agreed and said she is often mentored and would like to see more young women shadow her in her front office role. There are so many opportunities for women in basketball and I hope that continues to be the case. I hope many young girls see themselves and get inspired.

In the meantime, I’ll take a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come.

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