Having been a shy bookworm who grew up in a football-obsessed town just 30 minutes away from Penn State University during its “JoePa” heyday — when legendary coach Joe Paterno led the team to two national championships in 1982 and 1986 — I’ve always had an urge to run in the other direction (preferably straight to the closest library) when confronted by people’s in-your-face enthusiasm for sports.
So when a good friend asked me to accompany her to a Portland Thorns FC professional women’s soccer game a few years ago, I was more excited about catching up with my friend than about watching the game.
But as the athletes raced down the field and the crowd roared and a cheerleader with a mohawk unleashed a cloud of red smoke to celebrate a goal, I came slightly undone. I couldn’t believe how incredible it felt to scream in support of … women.
After four decades of watching the women in my family — my main role models — only cheer when men were playing, the act of cheering for women was intense and empowering.
A couple years after that Thorns game, my own daughter joined her first high school athletic team and started competing at cross country meets. Later that year, she became a cheerleader. I went to her meets and to the games for which she cheered, expecting to feel a similar sense of euphoria screaming in support of my own child and the young women running and cheering alongside her.
While it was still a great experience, I couldn’t help feel a little let down by the fact that nearly 100 percent of the girls’ teams, including my daughter’s cross country team and cheer squad, were being led by men.
This is not meant to imply that men don’t make wonderful coaches or that they can’t successfully coach girls and women. Of course they do and can. But I couldn’t help wondering how different — how empowering — her experience would be if she had strong women leading and guiding her to victory.
Others have wondered the same thing.
In a 2017 article for The Atlantic magazine, journalist Linda Flanagan writes “the lack of female coaches in youth sports can make lasting impressions on boys and girls” and that “the preponderance of male coaches, even kind and gentle ones, has consequences.”
The Atlantic article quotes the the co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota as saying, “When you only see men in positions of power, you conclude, ‘sports are not for me.'”
A 2017 article by journalist Rachel Stark for the NCAA’s Champion Magazine pointed out that although women coached more than 90 percent of collegiate women’s teams in 1972, they now coach fewer than 50 percent. “Where are the women?” she asks.
The gender inequity in coaching is even more noticeable when it comes to younger female athletes. According to a 2015 survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association noted in Flanagan’s article, of the 6.5 million adults coaching youth sports teams for children ages 14 and younger, only 27 percent are women.
And, although men often coach women and girls, the flip side — women coaching men and boys — doesn’t really exist.
A 2012 article in Mother Jones Magazine that looked at how the landmark 1972 Title IX gender-equity law has affected girls and women in sports, pointed out that while men coaching teams of girls and women is the norm, the number of women coaching boys and men is an outlier, happening only about 3 percent of the time.
Knowing about — and witnessing — gender inequity in coaching makes the recent state championship wins in Camas and Washougal even more thrilling.
When our sports reporter turned in photos from the Feb. 22 Camas gymnastics team’s state championship meet and the March 2 Washougal girls basketball victory, the shots of the athletes flying over the beam and shooting 3-pointers were incredible, but the photos that most resonated with me were those of the teams’ female coaches, Carol Willson and Britney Knotts.
We should all be extraordinarily proud to see women leading Camas and Washougal’s young female athletes to state championships.
Perhaps someday a few of these local female athletes will coach their own championship teams at the high school, college or professional level. And when they do, I expect they’ll point to the female coaches who took them straight to the top this year.
Congratulations to all the Camas and Washougal gymnastics and basketball athletes who ruled their state tournaments this season — and a round of high fives to the women who led them there.
~ Kelly Moyer, managing editor