For the first time, women are joining the coaching ranks of America’s major professional sports leagues
Author Anna Katherine Clemmons Photography Norm Hall/Getty Images
When 16-year-old Justine Siegal, at the time one of the few girls to play high school baseball, confessed to her coach one afternoon that she wanted to be a coach someday, he told her that a man would never listen to a woman on a baseball field.
“Even at 16, I knew that was wrong,” says Siegal. “So I was determined.”
That determination led Siegal, now 40, from the field to the dugout at Springfield College, where she served as an assistant baseball coach for three seasons, becoming the first woman to coach at the collegiate level. In 2009, she worked as first base coach for the Brockton Rox, then of the independent Can-Am League, becoming the first woman to coach a men’s professional team. Two years later, she became the first woman to throw batting practice to a Major League squad, taking the mound with six big-league teams during spring training. That year, she also completed the program at the Major League Scouting Bureau scout school.
Finally, in early October, Siegal became the first woman employed as a coach by a Major League Baseball team, when the Oakland A’s hired her as a guest instructor for their Instructional League. “The A’s organization has been so welcoming,” Siegal says. “I also had a lot of public support, which is incredible.”
It turns out that the kind of support Siegal saw this fall extends to organizations and fanbases across pro sports. On a late July evening in 2014, former WNBA star, coach, and basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman was working with her son, T.J., inside a Dallas gym, when she got a phone call from a reporter at the Sacramento Bee. “The [NBA’s Sacramento] Kings are going to hire you,” the reporter told Lieberman. “I just talked to [Kings general manager] Vlade Divac, and he said he’s going to offer you an assistant coaching job.”
Lieberman took a moment before answering: “Will you say that again?”
The next day, she became the second female assistant coach in NBA history. (Becky Hammon is in her second season as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs; Hammon wasn’t available for an interview per the head of the Spurs’ PR department, who said in an email, “We get more media requests for [Hammon] than our entire roster combined.”)
Gender aside, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lieberman got the job. Her résumé is impeccable: She set the record for the youngest basketball player (age 18) in Olympic history to win a medal, she was a star player at Old Dominion University, and she excelled during a professional career that included stints alongside NBA players in summer leagues. After coming out of retirement to play for one season in the WNBA in 1997, Lieberman spent three years as the general manager and head coach of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, and in November 2009 she coached the NBA Developmental League’s Texas Legends, becoming the first female head coach of a men’s pro basketball team—and she led them to the playoffs.
“[Legends co-owner] Donnie Nelson deserves a lot of credit, because he wanted me to be head coach,” Lieberman says. “He never wavered. To steal a line from Donnie, ‘The right man for this job might not be a man at all—it might just be a woman.’”
As an established member of the NBA community— for the last three years she worked as a TV analyst for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and starting in 2014 she hosted a series on NBA Radio—Lieberman doesn’t foresee any unique challenges with players as she transitions into coaching for the Kings. Indeed, after Lieberman was hired, Kings all-star center DeMarcus Cousins tweeted to her: “Welcome to the family #SacramentoProud.”
It probably wouldn’t come as a surprise if football weren’t as welcoming to women. Yet the NFL broke its own glass sideline this summer, when Jen Welter took the field as a coaching intern with the Arizona Cardinals, becoming the first woman to coach in America’s most popular sports league. At the time of her hiring, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians told AZCardinals.com, “Coaching is nothing more than teaching. One thing I have learned from players is, ‘How are you going to make me better? If you can make me better, I don’t care if you’re the Green Hornet, man, I’ll listen.’”
Welter, who is the first woman to both play a non-kicking position and coach for a men’s professional football team—she lined up at running back for the Indoor Football League’s Texas Revolution in 2014, and then later worked for the team as a linebackers and special teams coach—found Arians’ assessment to be true.
“The guys all embraced it,” she says of her role as a coach for the inside linebackers. “I could get in and show them techniques that worked for me. At the end of the day, they want to be better. Whether it’s a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter.”
It turned out Welter’s biggest challenge on the practice field wasn’t the players but her wardrobe. Team coaches wear standard-issue red Cardinals shorts, but the smallest size available was a men’s medium—about five sizes too big for the 5-foot-2, 130-pound Welter. “These pants were huge on me,” she says, laughing. “The media department said, ‘Coach, we get more comments on your shorts than anything. They need their own Instagram.’”
While Welter’s internship ended after the Cardinals’ third preseason game, she hopes to coach in the NFL again. And she knows the impression she made will last.
“To hear from girls across the country that they can visualize themselves in the NFL, which was previously the No Female League, that’s one of the most priceless gifts you could ever give,” she says.
Siegal, who, like Welter, received a Ph.D. (in sport psychology; Welter’s is in psychology) during her pursuit of a coaching career, is also aware of her role in expanding opportunities. She’s the founder and head coach of Baseball for All, a nonprofit that works toward just that.
“My dream is to see girls’ baseball leagues nationwide,” Siegal says. “Today’s young men have all played with Title IX, so they’re used to seeing a female in the science club or the homecoming queen being the kicker on the football team. The more boys see girls succeeding in a coed environment, the more they’ll think it’s the way it is. I’m being called the first female coach. The goal in the end is to be a coach.”
Lieberman heard a similar sentiment five and a half years ago, when President Barack Obama invited her and her son to the White House. “When we met,” she recalls, “the president said, ‘Change is hard. I know because I’m an African-American, and I happen to be the president. You happen to be a woman coaching men on a professional level. It’s our job to make it normal.’”
Charlottesville, Virginia–based writer Anna Katherine Clemmons plans to break into the all-male coaching ranks of her local T-ball league once her toddler is old enough to play