One year later, Felisha Legette-Jack sees progress on diversity in coaching

A viral moment leads to action.

STORRS, CT — One year ago tomorrow, I asked Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack about the astonishingly small number of women of color coaching in women’s basketball. Her answer resonated across the sport.

“I’m saddened by it,” she said that day, her emotions on full display. “I understand the problem. I know that the majority of women basketball players look like me. I think that these young women, if we really care about them as people, that they will have role models that look like them. Because they are going to play four years for whomever, and then they get an opportunity to go in this world, and they are not going to find anybody that looked like them, and they are going to have to figure out how to navigate at a different level.”

So I knew, with another chance to see her Buffalo team in person this weekend in Storrs, I wanted to ask her about this once again. She’s been busy since that day we first talked, you see.

“I know that I’m in a position now I can do something about it,” Legette-Jack told me Friday night, after her Buffalo Bulls defeated Rutgers, 82-71. “Last year I was in a position where I could talk about it. And so, this whole year we’ve been in position that we’ve done something about it. And we got together, Dawn [Staley] and myself and a few others, so five of us…and we just had a dialogue about, ‘What can we do, how can we help, how can we serve all women in general.’ But African American women in particular.”

It seemed only appropriate, then, that Legette-Jack finds herself in a Storrs pod with majority women of color head coaches: Rutgers is helmed by C. Vivian Stringer (though Tim Eatman, also an African-American, is coaching in her place while she rests under doctor’s orders) and Towson’s Diane Richardson.

Eatman, who counts Stringer as a mentor, sees this as simply an affirmation for the coaches who get an opportunity.

“First of all, all of the coaches are doing an excellent job,” Eatman said. “I believe in their programs and I think what Coach Jack is doing, Coach Stringer, Coach Richardson… I think they’re doing an awesome job. One of the things we talk about as African-American coaches is that we all are good leaders and so once we get the opportunity to lead then people get a chance to see that leadership. So I think the step that we’re making in the right direction is for us and the first part is about interviewing.

“You can’t get a job unless you’re interviewing for a job,” Eatman continued. “As long as people of color get an opportunity to interview, then administrators can see that they have an opportunity to lead. Once we get more interviews and once you get that opportunity, then I think you’ll see more people of color. At the end of the day I think we are making tremendous progress.”

Richardson, too, said from her perspective, the progress is proof that the industry is coming around on this question, making sure vital talent in the profession isn’t denied opportunities because of systemic decisions that leave necessary voices out.

“I feel honored to be one of the three [women of color in this pod],” she said. “Obviously, some women that have done some great things, and some positive things for the sport. I hope that I can represent our school just as they have. It does say that we’ve got women that are coaching women right now, and that this glass ceiling has been broken.”

And so that’s the work coming from the group Legette-Jack organized. It’s about utilizing the networks to make sure more women of color are in the room, on the lists, getting those interviews. Even for jobs they don’t get, the vital experience of going through the interview process matters.

But why do I use the word “necessary” on the question of representation? It’s more than just a question of fairness. That was brought into sharp relief by the emotion in Cierra Dillard’s voice. Coach Jack’s signature player explained what it looks like to a young woman of color when she sees people who look like her, with her background, on the sideline.

CLEVELAND, OH – MARCH 16: Buffalo Bulls guard Cierra Dillard (24) and Buffalo Bulls guard Ayoleka Sodade (22) cream for joy as they celebrate following the MAC Women’s Basketball Tournament Championship game between the Ohio Bobcats and Buffalo Bulls on March 16, 2019, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, OH. Buffalo defeated Ohio 77-61 to win the championship and an automatic birth to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I’m just so proud, not only as a player, but as an African American woman playing in front of two African-American coaches,” Dillard said. “I can’t say enough about that. You look up to them when you’re young. I see Coach Jack and I wanna be just like her. I see Coach Jack and I wanna be just like her. That’s just the type of stuff you play for, and when you see people like that in that position, you know there’s a chance. You know you have a hope. So hey, if I put in the hard work, if I put in the dedication, I can be where she’s at. I can have that resume… If I just put in the hard work I can do that.”

Look, that’s what really drives me to write about women’s sports. There are wonderful stories to tell. And it’s gloriously entertaining — Cierra Dillard up close last night alone was worth the three-hour drive.

But the stakes are enormous here, and society-wide. It’s about outcomes for everyone. Seeing it helps make it possible. The gains are their own reward for all of us, but they also magnify future changes for the better in our world.

So it meant a great deal to me to hear pride, rather than pain, in Felisha Legette-Jack’s voice last night, evaluating where the industry is on the very issue she called out last year. Not to say the work is done, of course. But I do this to lift her voice, and so let’s give her the final word here once more — final for now, that is, because she isn’t close to finished with the hard work of fighting for equality.

“Things change, and yes, it has gotten better. There’s so much further to go. I’m just so grateful for that question. It was the last question of the day and it made the biggest change in so many people’s lives including my own. I think that we have to keep this in consideration at our universities, prospective universities. Women matter. Women matter. And we may not get equal pay, but there shouldn’t be that much discrepancy in what we do. We’re doing the same exact thing. We’re growing amazing women. I have three future doctors that I coached for four years. I have these people right here that’s gonna go pro. I don’t know what’s a discrepancy, and I don’t understand. I talked to my commissioner about that, and he understands. He gets it. And my hope is that the world gets it. Who cares if you’re a woman or black or white. Equal work for equal pay. Equal pay for equal work.”

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