This past week, my alma mater, The College of William and Mary, hired Samantha Huge to succeed Terry Driscoll as athletics director. Huge is the first female AD at W&M since administration of both men’s and women’s sports was merged in the 1980s, and I was pleased to see The College diversifying what is normally a male-dominated arena.
This hiring follows the University of Pittsburgh’s March hiring of Heather Lyke to lead its athletic department, which, as observed by Craig Meyer in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, means the two most prominent Pennsylvania higher education athletic departments are led by women.
This is good news for those who understand the value of diversity and equity in hiring practices. Hearing from only one demographic can cause a department to stagnate and potentially underserve groups within its own community. However, as observed by Meyer in his article, Lyke and Barbour (at Penn State) are still very much in the minority in terms of athletic administration. In fact, according to Meyer, “only 35 of the 351 NCAA Division I schools have a non-interim female AD, a 9.97 percent figure that’s nearly identical to what it was almost 20 years ago.” While female participation in college athletics has grown by leaps and bounds, why has DI leadership not kept pace?
Penn State’s Sandy Barbour suggests one theory: football. “The big one is women are not perceived as being capable or able to manage football because we didn’t play it,” Barbour says. And with football being the cash crop for many athletic departments nationwide, Barbour suspects university chancellors, boards, and presidents want people with “hand-in-the-dirt” experience.
While Barbour’s theory is an interesting one (there are many examples of people thinking former coaches and players are the only ones knowledgeable about a sport) and a relatively simple reason why women aren’t being hired as ADs, I worry it doesn’t hold water and that the lack of women in the highest echelons of sports administration is the result of something more complex and problematic than a lack of football experience.
One of the reasons for my pushback is the fact that only six of the 75 major conference schools (Power Five plus the Big East) have former football coaches as ADs. This seems to fly in the face of Barbour’s argument about football experience being a major hiring-point for department officials. But what if one drills a bit deeper? Barbour did say “because we didn’t play it.” How many of the Power Five ADs have playing college football on their resumes?
After looking at the bios of all 65 Power Five ADs, 35% are led by former college football players (see table below). Collegiate football players are still in the minority, and while these numbers better support Barbour’s theory, they’re not enough for my mind.
For me, it seems the idea that hiring men to AD positions for their football experience might not be entirely accurate. This is unfortunate because it means this disparity in hiring practices has other more complicated (and possibly insidious) motivations outside beyond who-played-what in college.