In an unprecedented move, Renee Montgomery has jumped from the hardwood to the boardroom. Not long after announcing her retirement from the WNBA, she was introduced as a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, joining an ownership group with Larry Gottesdiener and Suzanne Abair.

In doing so, she is pioneering a new model of player empowerment, brining the player-centric perspective to “the room where it happens.” Montgomery appreciates the significance of her new status, saying on the conference call discussing the sale of the Dream:

It’s exciting when you see representation at any high level of management. It’s exciting, and there’s been a lot of talk about it amongst players, and there’s been a lot of talk about what would it look like for a player to be in that position. And so, I recognize that this is an opportunity not just for myself but for players as a whole and whether that’s women that are players or men, just seeing themselves differently, in a different light.

At the same time, Montgomery is actualizing the stated principles of the WNBA, which, under the leadership of Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, has expressed an intent to create a WNBA that is diverse and inclusive at leaderships levels, from the sidelines to the executive suites. On the conference call about the Dream sale, Engelbert spoke to issues of diversity in the leadership of the WNBA, as well as corporate opportunities for WNBA players:

But for those that have followed me since I joined the league, you know that one of the reasons I took this job was to help players in their post-playing career because I didn’t know it totally at the time but I knew they were probably in their 30s when they’d retire, and what are they going to do for the next 30 years or so and what’s the impact they’d want to make, whether it’s in broadcasting or business, and given the diversity that I saw lacking when I was in the corporate America side, I thought what better individuals to feed into become leaders of the future than these WNBA players? That has been a key part of why I actually took this role as the commissioner and I’m thrilled to see it come to fruition with Renee, but we have a lot of work to do in working with all of our players, whether it’s on internships in the off-season or, again, connecting them in the communities in which they live and work to build their leadership skills so that when they decide to retire, they’re ready, and also getting out in the corporate environment to make sure these corporations know what a huge asset these players could be to them in their post-player career life or again, even in the off-season. We’re working really hard at that at the league level.

That the Dream recently hired Brooklyn Cartwright, an Atlanta native, former collegiate assistant coach and basketball-based business owner, as Director of Basketball Operations testifies to why a diverse, inclusive group of decision makers is important, as individuals with a diversity of ideas and experiences can further contribute to an organization’s inclusivity.

With Montgomery serving as the ownership face of and Cartwright leading the basketball operations staff for the Dream, a new benchmark has been established, showing how women of color, including former players of color, can become actively integrated into the administrative infrastructure of WNBA organizations — not merely added into an organization to fulfill the expectations of diversity and inclusion.

A snapshot of diversity and inclusion in WNBA organizations

So how do other WNBA organizations measure up? Based on publicly-available information, here are the franchises that employ women of color in executive-level and/or decision-making positions:

Dallas Wings

LaDondra Wilson (VP of Social Responsibility & Executive Director of Community Foundation)

Indiana Fever

Tamika Catchings (General Manager)

Los Angeles Sparks

Natalie White (Interim President and COO of Business Operations)

Rushia Brown (Director of Community Relations & Youth Sports)

New York Liberty

Keia Clarke (Chief Executive Officer)

Alesia Howard (Director of PR & Communications)

Shana Stephenson (Vice President of Marketing)

Seattle Storm

Crystal Langhorne (Director of Community Engagement)

Washington Mystics

Ketsia Colimon (Vice President of Communications)

WNBA Her Time to Play Clinic presented by AT&T

Former WNBA player and current Los Angeles Sparks Director of Community Relations & Youth Sports Rushia Brown at the 2019 WNBA All-Star Weekend.
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

How can WNBA organizations better fulfill the values of diversity and inclusion?

It goes without saying that, for a league where more than 75 percent of players are women of color, WNBA organizations must do better to ensure that those leading from benches or offices look like the women hustling on the hardwood.

One strategy for effecting positive change would be to require open, transparent hiring processes for all head coaching, basketball operations and business executive positions. It is worth analyzing a few instances where increased transparency could have contributed to the WNBA better fulfilling the principles of diversity and inclusion, even if the same candidates were hired.

After dismissing general manager Penny Toler following the 2019 season, the Los Angles Sparks went more than a year before officially filling the position by elevating head coach Derek Fisher to the general managership. The Sparks certainly were not obligated to replace Toler with another former player or woman of color; however, they could have held an open search and interviewed a diverse pool of candidates. Even if the organization still settled on Fisher, the process would have allowed former players and/or women of color to enter the hiring pipeline, thereby establishing them as potential candidates for future positions with other organizations.

Likewise, when hiring Walt Hopkins to become head coach of the Liberty in early 2020, general manager Jonathan Kolb suggested that he interviewed “over 20 people” from a variety of backgrounds. Why not require organizations to disclose such lists? Understanding who was interviewed not only would ensure that an organization interviewed candidates of different gender, races, ethnicities and sexualities, but also would allow the WNBA to monitor, and then begin to address, how socially-ingrained biases about who is “most qualified” might be determining final decisions.

WNBA organizations must truly diversify

It also is pertinent that former players and/or women of color not be automatically tracked into “community” positions. It is encouraging that multiple WNBA organizations have established front office positions devoted to community outreach and social justice, highlighted by the Seattle Storm naming the recently-retired Crystal Langhorne the Director of Community Engagement for their Force4Change initiative.

However, these positions must not be become shortcuts for “diversifying” the organization — hiring a woman of color to work on issues of equality while not equally considering them as candidates for leadership positions related to basketball or business.

While former players and women of color can do important, exciting work around issues of community engagement and social responsibility, they also can do intelligent, strategic analysis as a basketball operations or business executive. In short, community outreach positions should be one of many leadership positions for which former players and/or women of color are considered.

As part of the new CBA, the WNBA agreed to “work with its affiliated leagues, teams and sponsors to provide off-season job opportunities designed to prepare players for their post-playing careers and will advance diversity in coaching initiatives for veteran players interested in coaching careers.” Hopefully, this career development pathway will also contribute to the changing composition of WNBA organizations.

Renee Montgomery, Brooklyn Cartwright and the Atlanta Dream should represent the future of the WNBA, where former players and women of color are empowered, involved and essential leaders within organizations.

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