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Sports

Sisters in Basketball

2.7.19

Kathy Delaney-Smith Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications


Kathy Delaney-Smith Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

“At first I was a bull in a china shop,” the winningest basketball coach in Ivy League history was telling a crowded audience in Cambridge’s Central Square Tuesday night. “But I was always passionate about girls and empowering women.”

That evening, Kathy Delaney-Smith, the Friends of Harvard women’s basketball head coach—a position she has held for 37 years, though it was endowed only this season—anchored a panel discussion about gender equity and leadership in sports and life. Sponsored by Harvard Magazine, the event was moderated by the magazine’s basketball correspondent, David L. Tannenwald ’08, and tied to “An Authentic Act,” his recent story on Delaney-Smith and the complicated gender issues she and her teams have confronted: not only inequality, but sexual identity, homophobia, and mental health.

The panel included five of Delaney-Smith’s former players:

  • Kit Metoyer ’16, a senior co-captain and starting point guard who now works as a criminal financial investigator with the gaming enforcement division of the Massachusetts attorney general’s office;
  • Lindsay Hallion Miller ’08, a former Harvard assistant coach who played professionally overseas and is now a master’s candidate in Boston University’s clinical counseling and sports psychology program;
  • Hana Peljo Cluff ’04, one of the greatest players in Harvard basketball history: a two-time Ivy League player of the year and third-leading scorer in conference history, who is now is vice president in applied analytics solutions at WarnerMedia;
  • Megan Basil Song ’98, M.B.A. ’02, senior co-captain on the team that upset top-seeded Stanford in the 1998 NCAA Tournament and a former Harvard College admissions officer;
  • and Jessica Gelman ’97, who co-captained Harvard in its first undefeated regular season in Ivy League women’s basketball history and who now serves as CEO of Kraft Analytics Group, a company focusing on data and analytics in sports and entertainment.

Delaney-Smith kicked off the conversation, held at the Workbar in Central Square before an audience of about 70 people, both men and women, by recalling her early days as a high-school girls’ basketball coach, and the fights she sought out—“a bull in a china shop,” filing Title IX lawsuits in the 1970s—to force equal treatment for the young women on her team. Then, looking down at her current Crimson players, seated in the first rows of the audience, she said: “You’re going into a world that’s not fixed yet. So, be ready to be passionate about helping each other.”

Alumnae on the panel described the influence Delaney-Smith’s coaching had on their confidence as players, and, later, as adults in the professional world. “I looked at, early on in my career, where people would say, ‘You can’t do that,’ or ‘You’re not ready for that position,’” Gelman recalled. “But that’s not how Kathy taught us. …[She taught us] to understand that you can raise your hand and say you want to do more—that’s something Kathy really preached.”

 

She preached their equal worth so well, perhaps, that it sometimes came as a shock to women on the team to realize that the rest of the world did not necessarily see them the same way. Gelman remembered the day she and a few of her teammates discovered that the Harvard men’s basketball team had better equipment than they did. “In college, I thought it was equal; I thought we had everything the men’s team had,” she said. “And then one time we broke into their locker room. And they had a lot of things we did not have.…That was eye-opening.”

Metoyer noted that for women, empowerment often “isn’t necessarily something that comes natural, because we’re not necessarily told to do that. Kathy told us to do that. She tells us to do it in the locker room, and she leads by example. That’s something we witnessed her do every day for six, seven, eight months out of the year. And at 18 to 22 years old—I can’t impress upon [you enough] how important it is to get that lesson so early.”

And having a coach who fought for their equal treatment has its own profound effect on young women, Miller said. “It’s uncomfortable to make people mad,” as Delaney-Smith did with her Title IX lawsuits seeking resources and equipment equal to those given to male teams. But, Miller said, what Delaney-Smith teaches is, “You can choose comfort, you can choose greatness, but you can’t choose both.”

Delaney-Smith recalled an “experiment” she sometimes conducts when she speaks at basketball camps or youth-sports banquets, to demonstrate the confidence gap between boys and girls. “I ask, ‘How many good ball handlers are out there?’” she said. “And the boys couldn’t raise their hands fast enough. They would knock each other down to let me know they were a good ball handler. No girls would raise their hands.” No matter what question—Who’s a good shooter? A good teammate?—the response was the same, she said. Conversations with recruits often yield a similar experience: “I ask every single recruit, ‘What’s your strength?’ And it’s better now, but they’re very uncomfortable telling me what they’re good at. And I say, ‘What are your weaknesses?’ And I get a list for a half-hour.” Delaney-Smith looked out into the audience again: “Girls,” she said, “you have to have confidence. You have to be able to say, ‘I am good at this.’”

Cluff, who holds an M.B.A. from MIT, noted the parallels in business school, where male students raise their hands without hesitation to speak in class. “And sometimes I started listening to what they actually say,” she added, “and it doesn’t make sense. But what they say is confident; it’s very strong....And so they crush it. They get good grades.” Observing that gender inequities persist all the way up the corporate ladder, despite measurable and significant improvement in opportunities for women, she said, “We’re at this weird inflection point where we’ve made tons of progress in gender disparity, but there’s still such a long way to go. And we haven’t quite cracked it. I think those last few miles are so difficult—it takes the whole system. It takes women representing themselves well, but it also takes institutions that are set up to work well for them.”

Delaney-Smith talked about equitable pay for coaches of men’s and women’s teams as an important frontier in the push for gender equality. (Last year, Massachusetts enacted a law mandating equal pay for equal work, in order to close the pay gap across professions). Unequal pay “is a subtle but strong message that keeps us down,” she said. “It keeps my athletes from believing that they’re valued the same as male athletes, at any school. I’ve stayed at Harvard because I think Harvard is working hard toward that, but we have a long way to go.”

A discussion of “male allies”—encouraging men to attend women’s games, to support them in the workplace, to speak out for equality—turned to the question of female allies. During the question-and-answer period, one woman in the audience said the lack of women’s support for other women in the corporate world had surprised her. “You can certainly look at employment evaluations,” she said. “Regardless of who’s evaluating a woman in corporate America, you find that there’s a focus on personality traits....Whereas with men, it’s a focus on skill set.”  Later she added that “the more of us there are in the room, the less weight we have to carry that’s gender weight,” meaning the responsibility to represent all women as the lone woman on a board or in a C-suite. “You can actually show up as yourself.”

 

As the discussion wound to a close, the audience member interjected one last point that had simmered unspoken throughout the night and could have supported an entire panel of its own: “When we talk about women, we don’t talk about race,” she said. “I have learned that as a woman of color, my voice is not heard the same way as other women’s voices are.” She urged white women: “Get yourself where you need to be, but if you can, use some of that power to support women of color, as sisters in basketball, and also just as women out there in the workplace.”

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A.J. Mleczko interviews Buffalo Sabre Jason Pominville before a November game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Her broadcasting career began in 2005 with a cold call from NBC.

Photograph by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

A.J. Mleczko, hockey champion and broadcaster: a profile

Kathy Delaney-Smith (shown here during the January 19 win over Dartmouth) has helped her players navigate many off-court challenges.

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Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications

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Photograph by Gil Talbot/Courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Justice Shelton-Mosley to transfer