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  • Katica Roy

How the NBA is Bringing Gender Equity to the Homefront

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

In 2016 the NBA made a decision that impacts more than just the league’s athletes. It impacts survivors of violence, our children, and society at large.

Here’s what they did. In 2016, the NBA took a stand for gender equity by becoming the world’s first professional sports organization to hold athletes accountable for domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse—regardless of law enforcement. The NBA’s new policy includes provisions for counseling, a panel of independent experts, and a hotline for affected families.

Because of the role, both positive and negative, sports play in the lives of our children, we must explore the impact of this unprecedented policy. How might the NBA help lead the conversations surrounding gender equity?

Uncovering Toxic Masculinity in Sports

Months after the NBA implemented the policy on domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse, the league suspended Sacramento Kings player Darren Collison for the first eight games of the 2016-17 season on charges of domestic battery. His suspension resulted in $380,324 of lost salary.

In an official statement from the Sacramento Kings, team leaders acknowledged the gravity of domestic violence and reinforced the suspension, stating they “support the NBA’s decision on this matter.” We should support the league’s decision, too.

By holding athletes accountable for violent behavior, the NBA is beginning to expose and stop the toxic masculinity that sports encourage.

Some male athletes have experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their coaches starting from a young age. Yelling, fighting, aggression, anger, inappropriate joking. The hostility generates toxic masculinity, and women and girls are often the survivors of it.

One study of 16 California high schools found boys on the schools’ basketball and football teams were twice as likely to abuse their intimate partners than boys not on these sports teams. This behavior carries over to professional athletes as well., (Ray Rice, for example.)

Sports are Key to Ending Toxic Masculinity

We are living and raising our boys in a world of toxic masculinity. What does it mean to “be a man?” For many, the definition is narrow. It means hiding vulnerabilities, being the provider, and showing dominance.

Perhaps this narrow definition explains why adolescent males are three times more likely to die from suicide than adolescent females, or why men account for 79% of all suicides in the US.

We cannot sit idle to this reality. We cannot accept these harmful archetypes of masculinity. We must change sports’ influence on perceptions of what it means to “be a man.”

Speaking out against violence is key to giving our boys a pathway to break out of the “man box.” It shows them that being a man is not synonymous with toughness, dominance, and aggression. Rather, being a man is about belonging, connection, and community. The NBA’s decision brings us closer to ending a culture of toxic masculinity and protects our society from the violence it generates.

Gender Equity in the NBA: 2016 Was Only the Start

In addition to ending a culture of toxic masculinity, the NBA is taking a stand for gender equity by examining the diversity among its members.

Of the 65 NBA referees officiating for the 2018-19 season, only three were women. And, never has the NBA had a female head coach. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wants to change that.

“The goal is: Going forward, it should be roughly 50-50 of new officials entering in the league. Same for coaches, by the way. We have a program, too. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be coaching men’s basketball.”

Or other sports, quite frankly. The NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS, and MLB (and its minor league affiliates) employe a total of 2,600 coaches. Six of those 2,600 (.23%) are female. The NBA’s goal of a 50-50 slate of new officials and coaches is a step toward gender equity. Other sports leagues should follow in this direction.

Those who claim male professional athletes won’t respect their female coaches should learn from Jen Welter, the first woman football coach in NFL history, or Nancy Lieberman, the first woman to coach an NBA Development League team and play professional basketball with men.

According to Lieberman, “There’s this idea people have that men are buffoons who are impossible to coach and that they’ll never listen to or respect a woman, but that’s just false.”

First, most athletes are raised and influenced by strong women: mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, teachers, wives, and daughters. It’s often these women behind the scenes—mothers, teachers, etc—who build the athletes. Just watch Oklahoma City Thunder player Kevin Durant as he accepts his first MVP award, calling his mother the real MVP.

Second, assuming male athletes won’t listen to female coaches “doesn’t give them credit for being the professionals or genuine good people they (usually) are.”

Pay Equity and Professional Sports

In addition to balancing gender equity among NBA referees and coaches, we must also address the inherent pay inequity within all professional sports leagues. In basketball, there’s a 28-point gap between the salaries of WNBA and NBA players—and that’s the average.

The minimum salary of an NBA athlete with one year of experience is $1.35 million, which is more than the maximum salary for an entire WNBA roster. Further, NBA players earn 50% of total league revenue compared to the 22% of total league revenue that WNBA players earn.

One analysis found that WNBA star players Maya Moore, Skylar Diggins, Diana Taurasi, and Candace Parker collectively earn less than any unknown bench player on any NBA team.

Basketball isn’t alone in gender pay disparity. Forbes’ 2019 list of the 100 highest-paid athletes in the world includes one female: Serena Williams.

Sports of the Future

Let’s stand with Steph Curry in his 2018 statement regarding pay equity in sports. We need to “come together to figure out how [to] make [equal pay] possible, as soon as possible…

Because every day is when the pay gap is affecting women. And every day is when the pay gap is sending the wrong message to women about who they are, and how they’re valued, and what they can or cannot become.”

Plus, as an economic corollary to Curry’s statement, pay inequity (by way of gender inequity) affects the families who depend on mom for their wellbeing; it affects the men who aspire to have a different role in society; and it affects the broader economy by throttling GDP.

Let’s also stand with WNBA legend Taj McWilliams-Franklin when she says, “We’re basketball players. Men, women, kids, people with disabilities. We are women playing basketball but at the end of the day it’s the same game.” And we’re all playing it.

Let’s transform the culture of sports so that when our young boys look up, they know what it really means to be a man. And when our young girls look up, they know their true potential will be equitably valued. Sports can set a new tone for the future of gender equity.


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