Final Four highlights progress in women’s sports, work still needed

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The NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four is bringing the best college athletes to the Twin Cities this weekend. Hopkins graduate Paige Bueckers and her University of Connecticut team will play Stanford on Friday night, after the South Carolina-Louisville game.

The buzz around basketball has created meaningful conversations about female participation in sports. Several events on Thursday empowered women to pursue careers in athletics.

“I just think that women’s sports are just getting a lot more exposure,” said Minnesota Lynx Guard Rachel Banham. “We’re finally getting on TV more, people are able to see us.”

At the North Community YMCA, Banham joined an almost all-women panel to talk about her path to becoming a professional athlete. They spoke to a group of about 40 youth.

“I always work really hard but when I knew that’s what I wanted for my job, I knew I had to put in double time,” said Banham.

Other panel members included Wilson’s senior global marketing director, associate marketing manager, product line manager, product designer, and University of Wisconsin-River Falls Head Women’s Basketball Coach Blake DuDonis.

“I obviously talk a lot about basketball and athletics but I would hope the biggest takeaway would be being a great teammate, being a great person, learning discipline,” said Banham.

The panelists described their career paths, setbacks and the challenges of working in a male-dominated field.

“I think sometimes being a woman in sports, and this has changed a lot I would say over the last three or four years, at least at Wilson, means sometimes being the only woman in the room,” said Amanda Lamb, Wilson’s Senior Global Marketing Director. “Make sure when you show up and you realize you’re the only one. That is your superpower because that allows you to have something that no one else in the room has.”

Wilson Product Line Manager Shannon Snelgrove added, “I think it’s a really exciting time to be a woman in sports.”

The message panelists shared resonated with Madeka Shaw, a senior in high school. The young basketball player is considering a path in sports medicine or physical therapy.

“It was really inspirational,” she said. “My biggest take away is to not set any boundaries for yourself and just to keep pushing through things and not give up.”

The Final Four gets underway one year after Oregon forward Sedona Prince shared a video highlighting the stark difference between weight room facilities for women compared to men at the 2021 NCAA Tournaments. It resulted in an external review of NCAA athletics, which exposed disparities between women’s and men’s programs across several sports.

This year, as a result, 68 women’s teams competed on the road to the Final Four, which was an expansion from last year. The NCAA also branded the women’s tournament as March Madness for the first time.

“The Tweet that was posted by Sedona Prince highlighted what some of us in this industry have known for years,” said Nicole M. LaVoi, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “But it just gave us a really nice platform to have it go viral and for people to get on board that maybe we’re aware that there were dramatic inequities between the experiences of female athletes and those of their male counterparts.”

LaVoi believes this year’s event in the Twin Cities is yet another opportunity to talk about the role of women in sports and showcase the achievements of female athletes and their coaches.

“There are so many careers young women can enter if they still want to stay involved in sport,” said LaVoi. “But what we find is that most careers in sport are male-dominated and that we need to give women the opportunity for those career pathways just like the men.”

She explained basketball is a sport where women are predominantly coached by women. The Tucker Center’s Women in College Coaching Report Card also shows, however, there are still disparities across all sports. 

“We know from that data that 43 percent of all female college athletes are coached by women and that number has gone down since 1972 when that number was 90 percent,” said LaVoi. “We’re trying to get back up to where we were.”

LaVoi spoke at a USA Basketball event at the Hyatt-Regency Minneapolis on Thursday, which was geared toward women who are in the early stages of their career.

Minnesota Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve and Vikings Senior Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Anne Doepner also took the stage.

“I think being a woman in a male-dominated field comes with a lot of assumptions that people make about you, either about your perceived credentials, or you’re qualifications to be there, or where your career may be headed or how far can you go with this,” said Doepner. “People can put barriers in front of you that you didn’t put there yourself and so what I try to help other women see is those barriers might be placed there for you and here is how you can push through and navigate through them.”

She has been part of the NFL since 2006 and told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS she’s encouraged by the growing network of more than 150 women working for the league.

“We’re getting past the firsts — it’s not just one woman at a team, there are multiple now and that’s the exciting part, we’re not doing this for the first time anymore,” she said. “We’re seeing women in roles in the NFL that we have not seen them in before and that we maybe we couldn’t even dream they would be in when I first started. We have women coaches, we have female trainers I believe at almost every team. We have women being visible in these roles that they haven’t been before.”

Doepner hopes to see a female NFL general manager or head coach in the years to come.

“The more women we get in leadership in sports as well, the more wide open this path will become so it’s an exciting time,” she said.