Why The NBA Should Give Female Coaches Like Becky Hammon A Shot
Becky Hammon just made history by leading the San Antonio Spurs to a NBA summer league title. Why don't more teams expand their coaching talent pools and follow suit?
Photo by Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Normally, the champion of the National Basketball Association's Las Vegas summer league doesn't generate much interest. Very few of the players involved will ever become NBA stars, and many will never even play in the league. But when the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Phoenix Suns by three points in Monday night's title game, Spurs head coach Becky Hammon made history. Already the first woman to serve as a full-time NBA assistant coach, she became the first woman to both coach a collection of men in an NBA-sponsored league and the first woman to win a title. She did both in three weeks.
Of course, Hammond's accomplishments are considered surprising. After all, the former WNBA standout and two-time Olympian (competing for Russia) is not only the first woman to coach full-time in the NBA, but also the first woman to coach men in any of the major North American sports. But if teams are serious about hiring the very best possible coaches—and they ought to be, if they care about winning—then should that be the case?
First things first: across sports, it's certainly not unusual for the gender of the coach to be different from the gender of the athletes playing the games. However, in almost every instance where the genders don't match, the coach is a man and the players are women. For example, after Title IX was passed in 1972, about 90 percent of women's teams in college sports were coached by women. But as salaries increased, more and more men applied for those jobs. Today, less than half of women's college teams are coached by women.
When we turn to men's sports, by contrast, women appear to be shut out of the market. Fewer than 1% of men's teams are coached by women, and none of these are in Division I. And at the professional level, we already know what makes Hammon unique.
This is not just a pattern we see in sports. Writing for the New York Times, Justin Wolfers noted that you have a better chance of leading a large company if your name is "John" than you do if you are a woman. And although women have led nations like the United Kingdom and Germany—and Taiwan's next presidential election is a contest between two women—a woman has never even been nominated by a major American party to run for president. (A door Hillary Clinton very likely will kick down).
So, why is there a tendency for men to dominate leadership positions? If all other things were equal, one might assume that on the whole, men are simply better leaders than women, or at least better at making themselves valuable in the leadership market. Needless to say, all other things are not equal. Not even close. Even today, women are hamstrung by a long history of sexism and gender discrimination—socially, culturally, politically and economically. And when it comes to men's sports in particular, it's downright impossible to even test the idea that men make better leaders then women. Not when women have been generally shut out of the market.
Still, we can look at some relevant data pertaining to sports and coach gender. Consider women's college softball. Although men do not generally play fast-pitch softball in college, they have been hired to coach the sport. (By contrast, women are not generally hired to coach baseball). In fact, according to R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, 83.5 percent of softball teams were coached by women in 1977. But by 2014, this number had fallen to 66.3 percent.
Women's softball has some gender diversity in its coaching ranks. And that means we can ask, are men or women "better" coaches? One might think to first look at the won-loss records of each gender. But in college athletics, there are significant disparities in the amount of money schools devote to specific sports. Before one can measure for gender impact, one has to control for expenditures. And it is just this approach economist Peter von Allmen took in a recent published study of women's softball.
Von Allmen's results indicate that—duh!—money definitely matters. Teams that spend more on a sport also win more. In addition, his study also indicates that once you control for expenditure, gender doesn't make any difference. As in: there's absolutely no evidence that men coach better than women in college softball.
Obviously, it would be nice to have more than a single study's worth of data. Better still, we'd have a corresponding study looking at a men's sport. But for that to happen, more men's teams have to be willing to hire female coaches, which leaves us in a chicken-and-egg bind.
Perhaps Hammon's success will help encourage coaching diversity. There's evidence that Spurs players reacted positively to her coaching. As Jonathan Simmons said: "I really love her, and I've only known her a couple days. She's a real cool coach. She's a player coach. That's something we all like."
Bobby Marks—a former assistant general manager with the Brooklyn Nets—gave perhaps the most ringing endorsement: "I know this is a bold statement. If I was running a team and had a head coaching opening. The first call would be to Becky Hammon."
Marks' statement made headlines at USA Today. Again—and through no fault or doing of her own—Hammon is something of a novelty. But really, it's the failure of men's teams to consider women for coaching positions that should be the story.
The Orlando Magic have not had a winning season since 2011-12. After firing Jacque Vaughn at the conclusion of the 2014-15 season, the team made a conventional move and hired Scott Skiles, a coach with 13 years of experience in the NBA. This experience, though, has not been spectacular. In eight of those seasons, Skiles' teams have failed to win more than half of their games.
Some of this may not be a reflection of Skiles' coaching acumen. Team success is often determined by talent, the skill of players at a coaches' disposal. An academic study I published with Mike Leeds, Eva Leeds and Mike Mondello indicated that most NBA coaches can't alter the performance of individual players. So maybe in his down years, Skiles was simply given bad players to coach.
Of course, the Magic really haven't made significant changes to their roster. Barring significant internal improvement—a possibility, given that most of Orlando's key players are relatively young—Skiles again will be coaching generally poor players. That means the Magic, and struggling teams like them, really need to find one of the few coaches who can actually make players play better. And to increase the chances of that happening, it helps to make one's coaching search as expansive as possible.
But if only men are considered for jobs coaching male teams, then half the population has been excluded. And that means the odds of finding the best possible coaches are lower than they have to be.
Ironically enough, the NBA already understands this when it comes to obtaining on-court talent. Teams look far and wide for players, employing an open-immigration policy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Spurs are the best example of this policy. It's time for the league to follow suit when it comes to the people on the sideline.
It's simple, really: the more you look for something, the more likely you are to find it. Hammon isn't the only talented female basketball coach out there. The next time your favorite team hires another male retread, you may find yourself wondering: did the club pass up a better option without even realizing it?