By Mark F. Gray
Since the rise of “wokeness,” when it comes to gender diversity in high places, the doors to sports management opportunities have begun opening for women to ascend to leadership positions.
Baby steps have been followed by giant leaps where the wand of “Black girl magic” has led to more than just inspirational gains in college and professional athletics.
African-American women have, arguably, been benefitting from the 50 years of Title IX — the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision that mandates equal athletic scholarships for men and women. However, recently, there has been a spike in women athletic administrators at high positions throughout the NCAA and in all four major professional sports leagues.
There’s nothing superficial about the positions, responsibilities, and impact these women have made in the short amount of time they’ve ascended to their positions. Here, they are breaking barriers and carving professional footprints in the sand for other women to follow.
Traci Otey Blunt is senior vice president of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at the NFL. In her role, Blunt is responsible for key strategic areas within the league including current affairs, business operations, government affairs, NFL Media, player health and safety and social responsibility.
Blunt was given her break by Black Entertainment Television (BET) Founder Bob Johnson.
“We can help shape some of the policy and educate people on the community overall. That part is exciting — to know that there’s not just one person at the table,” said Blunt. “If I can do one thing to help make a change of perception of what the NFL is doing or isn’t doing, then I feel like I’ve done something positive.”
Sheila Johnson, former wife of BET’s Johnson, is a barrier breaker in sports in her own right. Johnson is a vice chairman and partner with D.C’s Monumental Sports and Entertainment group. She is the only Black woman to have a principal shareholder stake in three professional sports teams: the professional men’s basketball team, the Washington Wizards, the Capitals hockey team, and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) team in Washington D.C, the Mystics.
Leslie Isler is the Professional Athletes Foundation Associate for the NFL Players Association and works in Media Relations for the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League (NHL).
In her job(s), she works for the charitable arm of the NFL Players Association, the union that represents NFL Players and helps former athletes transition from their professional football careers by helping them navigate through grants and resources provided by the NFLPA. During hockey season, she keeps busy by handling the media relations for the Washington Capitals. In this role, she assists with the media lounge and press box setup, passing out statistics between periods and recording, transcribing and distributing postgame quotes.
“My advice for Black women in a male-dominated industry is to be your professional self,” Isler said. “Our presence and opinions are valuable to organizations; always remember that.”
Historically Black Colleges and Universities have seen a spike in the number of athletic directors around the country. Two of the four HBCU conferences now have ladies at the helm, leading through the challenging waters of the pandemic.
Jacqie McWilliams has been the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) commissioner for 10 years after replacing Leon Kerry at a difficult financial time. McWilliams stabilized the conference with innovative leadership that brought them back from the brink of bankruptcy to flourishing once again.
McWilliams, a former Hampton University basketball player who groomed herself at Morgan State and at the NCAA, was instrumental in crafting the deal that brought the CIAA Basketball Tournament to Baltimore and took advantage of the Title IX opportunities, which has led her to one of the more influential positions in college sports.
Last December, Sonja Stills became the first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Commissioner when she succeeded her boss and former mentor, Dr. Dennis Thomas.
Stills faces the challenge of trying to keep the MEAC in Division I, withstanding the conference being extremely close to losing the number of teams necessary to remain in Division I.