“How Come We Have to Have the Girl Coach?”
By Janet Marshall Watkins
I was sitting next to my husband at breakfast recently when I saw a headline on Twitter that plunged me down a rabbit hole of fury: “Denver Nuggets mascot makes three times more than WNBA’s Highest Paid Player.”
A mascot. Making three times more than a star athlete. “Can you believe this?” I said. He could. We all can.
The facts are easy to find and tough to digest: Rocky the Mountain Lion, the highest-paid mascot in the NBA, makes $625,000 per year for entertaining fans at Denver Nuggets games. The highest-paid woman in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) makes $228,000. And according to NPR, WNBA players make 44 times less than men in the NBA.
So if you’ve been thinking that Brittney Griner is in a Russian penal colony because of a vape cartridge, think again: She’s in a Russian prison because she’s not Lebron James.
In a conventional news story, this is where I might insert some sentences about why female athletes get paid so little compared to their male counterparts. Revenue, fan base, blah blah blah. But I’m not doing that. There’s no way to justify it, and as basketball legend Sue Bird wrote a couple years back, “I’m kind of done with that. If you’re not on the right side of this fight, and advocating fiercely for equal pay…then I just straight-up feel bad for you.”
The sad true story of women’s sports in America is that we’ve always gotten the short end of the stick, financially and otherwise. But there’s a formula for changing at least some things: 1) Band together. 2) Speak up. 3) Use the law. 4) Win.
The U.S. women’s soccer team did it beautifully—crushing its global competition while filing an equal pay lawsuit that resulted, this year, in a $24 million payout and plan for equal pay going forward. A group of female athletes is now trying to force change in Hawaii, in a lawsuit the New York Times recently described as having the potential to change high school sports across America. And three decades ago, when I was a teenager in a then-rural Northern Virginia community, some teammates and I used that magic formula to change some things, too.
It was the spring of 1988 when two of my softball teammates—Anita and Angela—wrote columns for our school paper, one after another, lambasting our high school’s unequal treatment of boys’ and girls’ sports teams.
Angela’s column described in great detail how our softball team practiced on a crappy makeshift field while the baseball team practiced on our campus’ actual game field—complete with lights, bleachers, dugouts and raked dirt. We ventured onto that field only for games, and we had to play our games there: When our school and the rest of the schools in our county were built, nobody invested in softball fields for girls. They just built fields for boys.
On practice days, we took our gloves to a nearby patch of dirt and grass with no bleachers, no dugouts and lots of divots. When it rained, puddles formed around the wooden block we used as home plate, forcing batters to stand further and further away to keep their feet dry. We often abandoned the field altogether and practiced on the blacktop behind the school, plopping down orange plastic bases to create a diamond on the asphalt. I remember diving for a ball there once and realizing, mid-air, that I was going to land on concrete.
Before she wrote her column, Angela had asked the athletic coordinator whether we could alternate practice days with the boys on the game field, since that seemed fair. His answer—“What would we do with baseball?”—infuriated us.
My mom, Angela’s mom, our teammate Julie’s dad and several other parents had already met with the principal by then to make the case that things needed to change—not just for the softball team, but for female athletes as a whole. We’d gotten the worst fields, shabbiest uniforms and most inconvenient game schedules for years. The issue took on heightened urgency after the newspaper columns came out (and the athletic coordinator scolded Angela for hers). My mom recalls encouraging the principal to get on the side of equality. It was 1988 for god’s sakes.
But spring turned to fall, and nothing changed. My soccer teammates and I hung our own nets on game days, while the athletic coordinator meticulously lined the football field. The football team took a chartered bus to an away game, while our softball team had traveled to the same place the previous spring in a mini-bus without enough seats. What message does it send when female athletes squish three-to-a-seat while male athletes spread out in an air-conditioned charter bus? Everyone knows. My mom sure did. I found a letter she wrote to the School Board back then in which she lamented the message “the girls and boys” were being sent by the unequal, unfair treatment.
We’d been talking about the disparities for years—around school, at home, on bus rides. But our principal let us know he was weary of it. At some point, he told us if we kept complaining, he might just get rid of the girls’ soccer team entirely. The message was clear: Know your place. Be grateful. Keep quiet.
But quiet wasn’t in us. And one day, as my mom recalls, Angela’s mom brought up something really interesting: Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender-based discrimination in publicly-funded activities including sports. The law had been around since 1972, but it was mostly ignored and rarely enforced.
Armed with our new knowledge of the law, Angela and I went to a School Board meeting in the fall of 1988 and said our school was violating Title IX. We shared stories—of shoddy fields, itchy old uniforms and playing times that made us feel like the warm-up act for the boys. Supportive teammates filled seats around us as the School Board members and superintendent listened.
We didn’t know what would happen after the meeting; I’m not sure I even really understood what a School Board or superintendent did. My parents hoped the superintendent—relatively new to our area—would take action; surely, he wouldn’t want the legal and PR headache of being accused of a Title IX violation. The School Board requested a review of school athletic programs, and the athletic coordinator was told to take some action steps.
But when spring of 1989 arrived, the only change we noticed was an irritating one: The softball team got booted off campus. The state high school league was enforcing a rule, we were told, that softball teams couldn’t play on fields with mounds. The rule had long been ignored for the obvious reason that high school softball teams rarely had their own fields, and baseball fields all had mounds. But now, we’d have to schlep our gear to a rec-league complex a few miles away. There were mound-less fields there, usually used by middle-aged men playing slow-pitch softball after work.
We adjusted to the new “home” field and got off to a winning start. And then the shit hit the fan. It turned out the new school superintendent had taken our Title IX complaint seriously—and didn’t think our athletic director had taken it seriously enough. So he demoted the guy to a teaching gig for making “insufficient progress” on the steps he’d been ordered to take.
Actions have consequences, as we all learned in bigger-than-expected ways. Suddenly, some people who’d supported Angela and me when we spoke to the School Board about Title IX weren’t so sure we’d done the right thing. Hundreds of students walked out of our high school on the day of a big game to protest the athletic director’s demotion. Sure, we deserved better treatment, but the man was nice. And he’d been there a long time.
The walkout made the local news and The Washington Post. Things got stressful. Some people told us we’d gotten a good man fired and should go to the School Board and take back what we’d said. But we hadn’t gotten him fired, and we didn’t take anything back.
As tension swirled, our speedy, talented team kept winning. We won the district title and the regional title. And then, on a field with a mound—because apparently we could play on a field with a mound—we won the state championship.
The next year, after I graduated, I heard from our softball coach. She’d weathered quite a year helping us navigate the dual pressures of winning games and speaking up. As the next season approached, she was asked an unusual question by a new athletic director: Did the team need anything? New uniforms, maybe?
More surprisingly, the softball team got an actual home field. You could say it was already in the works, but after that state title run, after our Title IX complaint, after everything, it really happened. That crappy old field got smooth new dirt, a scoreboard, fence and bleachers—things the baseball team had had for years. Angela’s mom had gotten things moving by calling up the local National Guard unit (seriously) and asking if they would move a backstop—and they did. Our coach guided a couple more teams to state titles on that field, and she’s now in the state athletic hall of fame. That field is the vibrant legacy of a determined bunch of people who were sick of girls settling for less.
I reflect back on that time with a sense of awe and appreciation for the lessons it taught me. I know it divided my community; nobody expected the athletic director to get stripped of his position. But it was an early lesson for me in spotting inequity, speaking up and not caving to pressure to let things be the way they’ve always been. I can’t recall learning anything better in my whole K-12 life.
These days, when I see a headline about Title IX—or about a mascot’s salary, or the U.S. soccer team’s equal pay fight, or Brittney Griner languishing in a prison in Russia—a mix of solidarity and anger bubble up inside me.
I think about how important it is for women to band together—and for men to lend support. I think about the role models—my mom, Angela’s mom, Julie’s dad and many others—who showed us the way. I think about the power of being heard and the discomfort it takes to effect change. And I think about the work left to be done.
In the picture accompanying this column, taken about 14 years ago, I’m helping coach my youngest daughter’s t-ball team, crouching down to give her batting tips. Earlier in that practice, the two of us were playing catch with two boys when I heard one say to the other, in a voice all of us could hear, “How come we have to have the girl coach?”
So many sexist lessons have been taught and continue to be taught. They take work to undo.
I hope things started changing for those boys as they played catch with me and my daughter (and—I’ll say it—tried to match our strength and accuracy). Things changed at my old high school when a group of people banded together to level a Title IX complaint, and the new superintendent took us seriously.
I don’t know what it will take to change the shameful reality that the best players in the WNBA make less than a mascot—and 44 times less than their male counterparts. You can try to justify that kind of pay disparity, but it’s all rooted in discrimination.
For the whole history of American sports, boys and men have benefited from inequitable investments in fields, equipment, marketing, scheduling, TV time, everything. It’s why the NBA got a 50-year head start on the WNBA. It’s why the average NBA player made $10k more 40 years ago than the top-paid WNBA player makes now. And it’s why Abby Wambach—the Peyton Manning of soccer—didn’t end her career financially set for life, but Manning—the Abby Wambach of football—sure did.
Women have been held back for generations by sexist notions of what our bodies are and aren’t meant to do and what we do and don’t deserve. Paying women less, and giving us second-rate facilities (if any at all), shows that our abilities are still devalued.
While much has changed since I was a teenager, much still hasn’t. An October 23, 2022 New York Times story describes female athletes at Hawaii’s largest public high school suing because they lack access to things male athletes have access to—practice facilities, locker rooms, even bathrooms. And it references a threat to cancel the girls’ water polo team—the same threat my high school principal made 30+ years ago to my soccer team.
It can feel pretty dreary sometimes, the slow progress, the insistence on women settling for less. An April 2022 story on National Public Radio about women’s basketball salaries included some outrageous details about WNBA player treatment and pay. But it also cited the ongoing movement “to recognize and fully embrace the money-making potential in women’s sports – and compensate female athletes appropriately.”
I hope that movement continues. I can hear the naysayers, but, like Sue Bird, won’t argue with them. Power. Leverage. Teamwork. The law. I hope it adds up to wins, on and off the field, for more and more women. 50 years after the passage of Title IX, we’ve come a long way. Not far enough.
Janet Marshall Watkins is the co-founder of Pie & Chai magazine. She’s also a non-profit director, mom and former journalist. After high school, she co-captained Mary Washington College’s varsity softball team to its first-ever NCAA tournament. The team’s field was a huge upgrade from what she played on in high school, but it was hidden behind the baseball field, on the backside of the athletic complex, in a spot you wouldn’t know existed if you didn’t go looking for it. She hung up her cleats many years ago but still goes to batting cages sometimes; it’s a good stress reliever.