Life comes at you fast. Regression comes at you faster.
On Sunday, July 10, inside Wintrust Arena in Chicago, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert took part in a press conference before the league’s annual All-Star Game. She said this when asked about the league’s diversity among head coaches.
“We have six out of 12, and now we have seven out of 12 women, and there were only a couple when I came into the league [in 2019],” she said. “I think we’re looking at diversity broadly, both gender and race.”
The six out of 12 she was talking about were Black coaches, as half the coaches in a league that’s around 75 percent Black looked like the players on the floor. Four months later, that’s not the case anymore. When Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault announced that he was stepping down to become the team’s general manager, as his son Eric Thibault would be the new head coach, it didn’t seem like a big deal. A franchise with a succession plan in the middle of the offseason doesn’t appear that newsworthy at first glance.
However, a second look will show that the move was the latest evidence of how the league’s head coaching vacancies were whitewashed. At the All-Star break, James Wade (Chicago), Vickie Johnson (Dallas), Tanisha Wright (Atlanta), Fred Williams (Los Angeles), Carlos Knox (Indiana), and Noelle Quinn (Seattle) made up the highest number of Black coaches the league had seen since 1998.
It was all good just a few months ago.
Since then, Latricia Trammell has taken over in Dallas after Johnson was fired, Knox’s interim tag didn’t turn into a permanent position in Indiana, as Christie Sides was brought in, and Williams left Los Angeles to take a position at Auburn, prompting the Sparks to hire former Connecticut head coach Curt Miller. The Suns then hired Stephanie White to fill the void Miller left, and then Eric Thibault took over for his father in D.C.
In just a matter of months, the WNBA lost three of the six Black head coaches it boasted, as white coaches filled all five of the league’s offseason vacancies. Ironically enough, the opposite is taking place over in the NBA. The league currently has 16 Black coaches, which is more than half — and a new record. And when you add Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to the mix — the first Asian-American coach in NBA history — it means that 17 of the league’s 30 franchises are coached by men of color.
This is why the WNBA needs a Rooney Rule, the NFL initiative that went into effect in 2003 that mandated that teams interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs. However, due to racism, teams have found ways to skirt the rule, as there are only three Black head coaches currently in the NFL, as the league is dealing with a class-action lawsuit for its racist hiring practices.
As easy as it is to argue how much of a failure the Rooney Rule has been over the years — at minimum, it serves as a constant reminder of the inequalities that are taking place when it comes to how owners hire head coaches, and points to the lengths that many will go to circumvent, and ignore the rule.
The WNBA is in a position in which the league has shown that it’s capable of following in both the footsteps of the NFL and the NBA, which sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. That means whichever step the WNBA takes next will be an important one — whether it be a march in the direction of equality or a hike toward hate.