Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw speaks out about gender inequality in sports, life

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

TAMPA, Fla. — An impassioned Muffet McGraw brought her sideline intensity to a Final Four press conference Thursday when a question about male/female hiring practices in college basketball was asked.

Her response stretched far beyond basketball.

“I’m getting tired of the novelty of ‘the first female governor of this state,’ ‘the first female African-American mayor of this city,’” the Notre Dame Hall of Fame coach said sternly of how slowly she perceives progress to be crawling along for women in many areas of society.

“When is it going to become the norm instead of the exception?” McGraw wondered. “We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power.”

McGraw’s Irish face Connecticut around 9:30 p.m. Friday in the second Final Four women’s semifinal at Amalie Arena.

Last weekend, McGraw drew criticism from UConn coach Geno Auriemma after she was quoted in a ThinkProgress.org story a day earlier as saying she’ll never hire another male assistant.

Her last one, Jonathan Tsipis, left in 2012 to become women’s head coach at George Washington and has since become the women’s head coach at Wisconsin.

An NCAA study last year indicated that about 40 percent of the head coaches in Division I women’s basketball are men, though women’s coaches in the men’s game are nearly nonexistent.

McGraw replaced Tsipis with Beth Cunningham and has had the same staff since of Cunningham, Niele Ivey and Carol Owens.

“I hope she sends a thank you to all those guys that used to be on her staff that got her all those good players that won (the 2001 national) championship,” Auriemma said of McGraw’s declaration about not hiring men. “I look at some of the top programs in America, and they seem to have pretty good coaches who happen to be men.”

Said Auriemma, “Muffet is entitled to hire anybody she wants, (but) I don’t know why she feels the need to make a statement about it. I’ve never hired a guy as one of my assistants, either. I’m not going to make a statement about it.”

When McGraw doubled down Thursday, she tried to make clear why she feels compelled to make such statements.

She added that she was “not aware” of Auriemma’s specific response, though.

“When you look at men’s basketball and 99 percent of the jobs go to men, why shouldn’t 100 or 99 percent of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women?” McGraw said with tension in her voice. “Maybe it’s because we only have 10 percent women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them. That’s the problem.”

Part of it, anyway, the coach explained.

“Girls are socialized to know (that) gender rules are already set,” McGraw said.

“Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. It’s always the man that is the stronger one.

“When these girls are (growing up), who are they looking up to to tell them that’s not the way it has to be?” the coach continued. “Where better to do that than in sports? All these millions of girls that play sports, we’re teaching them great things about life skills, but wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to watch how women lead?”

McGraw said that because women comprise about 50 percent of the country’s population, they ought to hold about 50 percent of the positions of power, but instead they make up “less than 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.”

Some other figures had the coach shaking her head.

“Did you know that the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in 1967 and it still hasn’t passed?” McGraw asked. “We need 38 states to agree that discrimination on the basis of sex is unconstitutional. We’ve had a record number of women running for office — and winning — and still, we have 23 percent of the House and 25 percent of the Senate.”

According to EqualRightsAmendment.org, 37 states have ratified the ERA. Florida, where the Final Four is being staged, is one of the states that has not.

It’s joined by Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.

While just one more state is needed for the amendment to pass, some states, according to the same website, also have tried over the years to rescind their ratifications at times, including Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Dakota and Tennessee. There remains debate over whether such rescensions would be valid.

On Thursday, shortly after McGraw’s news conference, word of her discourse began to filter through the Notre Dame locker room.

“I think it’s exciting,” senior forward Brianna Turner said upon being briefed on her coach’s words. “Coach McGraw could easily just talk strictly about basketball and not about women’s equality, but I think it’s great that she’s using her position — one of the top coaches in the country, an icon in women’s basketball — to speak about things happening in our society. I think it’s exciting and I support that.”

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw talks to reporters during locker room media access for the NCAA Final Four on Thursday in Tampa, Fla.