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Can Women Bring Civility to Our Playing Fields?

05/27/2013 09:53 am 09:53:27 | Updated Jul 27, 2013
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The bold move of hiring Julie Hermann as the new athletic director of Rutgers University signaled an important recognition in the sports world: not only can women do a 'man's job', but a female touch may be just what that world needs.

My question is, what took so long? And, is Hermann the right choice? While our scandal ridden sports culture is desperately seeking new perspectives -- and a female one would invite that -- we have to carefully consider who best should lead the fray.

When Congress passed Title IX 40 years ago, many believed it would be a breakthrough for women and sports. The law not only provided equal financial support for girls' teams in schools, but changed attitudes about female athleticism. Girls, who once avoided gym class, began to view being part of a team as fun, and working out as cool. Thousands went on to Division I schools, graduating with a high degree of competence and confidence as athletes. Generations of women -- many currently reaching prime coaching age -- have enough training and experience to teach others to play.

But, while an unprecedented number of young girls are now on the fields instead of the stands, few have gone on to become leaders in the sports world. There are some that stand out; Julie Hermann is one among three female athletic directors currently at a BCS school. Debbie Yow, from N.C. State and Sandy Barbour from University of California are the other two. Head basketball coach, Lindsay Gottlieb, recently led the U.C. Berkeley's women's basketball team to the NCAA Final Four. And, of course there's Pat Summit, Tennessee's legendary college basketball coach who recently retired, as well as April Heinrichs who led the USA soccer team to Olympic victory.

The fact remains that 90 percent of coaches of male and female sports teams are still men. Ironically, there has been a huge decline in the number of females coaching women's teams -- from 90 percent to 42.4 percent -- since Title IX was first enacted. Some believe that as women's sports became more popular and lucrative, the professional coaching jobs became more attractive to men. Others say it's the men doing the hiring and they often pick one of their own. Still others insist that men just have better credentials. According to the New York Times, it's the women themselves who opt out of these jobs. Qualified female athletes who could take on leadership roles just seem to lose interest -- especially as they recognize the travel and time required to run these programs -- and as they begin having families of their own.

Rutger's choice to hire Julie Hermann was a deliberate one -- a female with years of experience seemed the perfect antidote to the male dominated scandal that recently rocked their program. The videos that captured coach Mike Rice hitting, kicking and taunting players raised questions not only about the violence condoned on the Rutger's team, but on athletic fields throughout the country. And, while Hermann is no stranger to fierce competition -- allegedly using harsh coaching tactics when winning is on her mind -- she represents the potential for a different perspective on how to achieve that goal.

It's a perspective I know something about. I never made it as a college or professional athlete, but I have taken on several leadership roles in youth sports. I know first hand about the potential of a woman's influence on the playing fields. For years I coached a boy's teen travel baseball team and witnessed a great deal of violent behavior. As pitching coach, my role was not only to teach these boys how to throw a fast ball, a curve and a change-up, but how to understand the difference between discipline and abuse. As a female (often among dozens of men that worked with the team), I found my perspective made that difference clear. Perhaps it was my maternal instinct -- these boys were like family -- I would never let anyone harm them, physically or emotionally. Perhaps it was my years as a professional dancer (a world where sadistic training was not uncommon), that taught me the benefits of constructive criticism versus abuse. While my feminine touch on the baseball field wasn't always welcomed by my male counterparts, it ultimately was accepted as particularly useful by the teammates and their families. Many of the boys I coached -- three who now play at Division I schools -- tell me how grateful they were for my gentle, sane approach on fields dominated by testosterone driven men.

Stories of abuse and violence in youth, college and professional sports are emerging everyday. The sex scandal at Penn State and the ones from the USA Swim team are variations on this theme. So is the recent assault on a Salt Lake soccer referee who died from a blow to his head by a disgruntled 17-year-old goalkeeper. The competition starts young. It has become intense and lines are being crossed -- by coaches, administrators, players and their parents. With this epidemic of 'bad behavior,' one has to assume that a softer, feminine touch might bring some civility onto the fields of violence found in todays sports.

Women have broken so many glass ceilings in recent years. Coaching is another one that is ready to come crashing down. We need more women out there on the fields -- training both male and female athletes -- to bring our influence to the game and to these players' lives. While their presence is no guarantee that fewer ball fields will turn into abusive battlefields, the Rutgers' appointment is a positive step in that direction.

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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.


For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.