These Badass Women Are Shaking Up Sports

Laura Depta@lauradeptaFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2016

Women have a powerful place in American sports, perhaps more so than at any other time in the nation's history. 

Jessica Mendoza will join ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball as a permanent fixture. Misty Copeland broke through barriers as the first female black principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, will play a critical role in collective bargaining negotiations with the NBA.

Thanks to brave pioneers from all facets of the industry, women now occupy most major sports roles, including athletes, coaches, referees executives and media members.

Comedian Chris Rock talked about "opportunity" as the pivotal word in the growing conversation about diversity in Hollywood. He said in his Oscars monologue, "We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That's it," per the New York Times.

The same concept can, and should, be applied to women in sports. As more opportunities become available for women, the more women will be given the chance to not only prove themselves, but to really make an impact within the industry.

There are dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of women out there breaking ground and shaking things up in sports. They are the new wave of pioneers, and in honor of Women's History Month, a mere sampling is highlighted here. 


The Athletes

Big-time female athletes like Serena Williams and Danica Patrick are household names, but new stars of all ages and talents emerge regularly. 

Sarah Hudek is a pitcher for the Bossier Parish Community College baseball team in Louisiana and likely the only female playing college baseball in 2016. The freshman, daughter of former MLB pitcher John Hudek, has an 82 mph fastball and dreams of playing Division I ball. 

Melissa Mayeux is a teenage shortstop from France who, in June, became the first known female on the MLB international registration list. A woman in MLB? It could happen.

In January, 13-year-old Estonian skier Kelly Sildaru won gold at the X Games, the youngest ever to do so. American swimmer Katie Ledecky broke double-digit world records before the age of 19. And Nigeria's Asisat Oshoala was named the BBC Women's Footballer of the Year in 2015 at just 20 years old. The forward was also tapped to speak at the FIFA Women's Football and Leadership Conference alongside soccer legend Abby Wambach. 

In June, Copeland became the first black female principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre history. (By the way, if you don't think ballerinas are athletes, please read this from NJ.com's Erin O'Neill.)

When Time named Copeland one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2015, former Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci wrote for the magazine, "She is a model for all young girls. It doesn't matter where you're from. If you have the passion like Misty, you can be the best at what you do."

Another role model, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey, epitomizes badass and the idea of shaking things up. Her prowess in the cage and authenticity out of it made her a household name in 2015. Despite a crushing loss in November, Rousey continues to pave her own way—signing movie deals, becoming a powerful voice for healthy body image and always speaking her mind.

Female athletes have faced adversity throughout sports history, but female gamers continue to meet particularly harsh resistance from some of their male counterparts, even now. Aris Bakhtanians, a male gamer, actually called sexual harassment "part of a culture," per Kyle Orland of Ars Technica.

Despite the challenging landscape, women continue to persevere. Mike Diver of Vice talked to several British female gamers and one of whom, named Nicola, said, "I don't actually give a f--k what people think or say about me, so I'm not likely to be put off by any societal pressure on women and games."


The Coaches and Officials 

The San Antonio Spurs hired former WNBA All-Star Becky Hammon as an assistant coach in 2014, the first full-time female coach in NBA history. Since then, she has excelled in the NBA Summer League and All-Star Game and become a positive symbol for women who aspire to coach men.

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said, "As a point guard, she's a leader, she's fiery, she's got intelligence, and our guys just respected the heck out of her," per ESPN.com.

It hasn't only been Hammon. The Oakland Athletics hired Justine Siegal as a guest instructor in September. Former tennis pro Amelie Mauresmo coaches Scottish star Andy Murray. The Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter last July, and the Buffalo Bills promoted Kathryn Smith to a full-time coaching position in January. 

Females have excelled in officiating as well. In 1997, Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner became the first female referees in NBA history. The NFL caught up in April 2015, bringing Sarah Thomas on board full time.

In February, Thomas told Jane McManus of espnW.com about the philosophy she shares with her children:

Don't go out doing things in life to prove someone wrong. If you're playing baseball, if you're playing basketball, go out and do it because you've got to make a commitment to yourself and to your team—and to whomever you're working with—that you're going to be the best that you can be. And if someone else didn't believe that you could do it—so what? 


The Executives 

Female executives are becoming commonplace in sports—from International Speedway Corp. CEO Lesa France Kennedy to ESPN chief financial officer Christine Driessen, Los Angeles Lakers president Jeanie Buss and others—and more emerge with increasing regularity. 

When attorney Roberts was elected executive director of the NBPA in July 2014, she became the first female boss of a major North American sports union.

According to Mark Mensheha of Sports Business Daily, Roberts was insistent upon addressing her gender with the players. She said:

The question I would get pretty often was, 'Michele, you're about to find yourself in a meeting, and you'll be the only woman there. You might be the only black woman there. What are you going to do?' And I said, 'What do you think I've been doing for the last 25 years of my life?'

Now, Roberts stands to be a key figure in a critical moment in the NBA's business history. With an influx of television money set to increase the salary cap in 2016-17, Roberts has been working with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on a renegotiated collective bargaining agreement.

Entire leagues exist because of the passion women have for sports. Female football players organized one of America's two full-tackle women's football leagues, the Independent Women's Football League, in 2000. The other is the Women's Football Alliance, in action since 2009.

Dani Ryan is the founder and commissioner of the new National Women's Hockey League (NWHL). A former high school and college club player, she was inspired to create a professional league by the epic U.S. vs. Canada women's Olympic final in 2014, according to Kaitlin Menza of Shape.

Not only has Ryan given talented female hockey players an opportunity to compete, but she has set up a system that pays them. Each player commits to two practices per week and 18 games, for which, Ryan told Menza, "the average salary is $15,000."


The Media 

Alison Overholt, an editor with ESPN since 2005, was promoted to editor-in-chief at ESPN The Magazine in February. Overholt told Greg Dool of Folio: magazine, "It was stunning to realize that I was the first woman to be editor-in-chief of a national sports magazine. Stunning in the sense of, 'What an honor,' but at the same time, stunning in that it's 2016."

Indeed, although women have been fixtures in sports media since the pioneering days of Lesley Visser and Doris Burke, hurdles in the forms of titles and roles still exist. 

In October, former Team USA softball player Mendoza became the first woman to join the broadcast team for nationally televised MLB playoff action (and later signed on for Sunday Night Baseball full time). 

The reception was not wholly positive, but a good portion was (since she crushed it). Mendoza said on Good Morning America: "Any time there is a change, there's normally a lot of resistance. I think the [thing I was most] excited about was the aftermath and how much support there really was."

Andi Petrillo, the first female radio host in Canadian hockey, offered, "I'd love to be at the point where we can drop 'female sportscaster' and just say 'sportscaster,'" per Raju Mudhar of the Toronto Star

Women aren't just appearing in more prominent roles—they are saying more, too. From labeling NFL defensive end Greg Hardy a "garbage human" to calling out critics of Kathryn Smith's new coaching job (bleeped NSFW content in links and video), Fox Sports' Katie Nolan is a breath of fresh air. 

She told Chad Finn of the Boston Globe her intention was originally to do comedy, but serious issues in sports eventually ignited a sense of responsibility within her. Per Finn:

So that's when we realized what happens in sports or what happens around sports can dictate what our show does. It was an interesting lesson. Because before that I kept thinking I had to fit in a box: 'This is your role, don't step outside of your role, do what you are supposed to do.' Then I saw this opportunity that—I just felt irresponsible going to sleep at night as a woman working in sports who wouldn't speak to an issue that needed to be addressed.

From young athletes with an eye toward progress to females at the labor negotiating table, women in sports aren't just placeholders or token females, if you will. They are making meaningful contributions to the forward advancement of an entire industry—all because they were given the opportunity.