The old ballgame

The time for a woman to be the general manager of a Major League Baseball team is now

This offseason, the Atlanta Braves were the only team in the hunt for a new general manager — and the club missed out on a huge opportunity

MLB senior vice president of baseball operations Kim Ng. (Twitter)

Last spring, a steady rain fell at the Alpine Country Club in New Jersey during the 13th Annual Rusty Staub Foundation Celebrity Chef and Friends Golf Tournament. Instead of playing golf, the participants huddled under an outdoor tent. At one table, Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre held court. Torre, who is MLB’s chief baseball officer, sat with Staub, a few retired sports reporters, and league executives swapping old stories and debating the best Italian restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

As morning gave way to afternoon, one of the MLB executives whispered in Torre’s ear, and quietly headed back to Manhattan. Torre leaned into the group of men still in attendance and told them, in no uncertain terms, that any owner who was “man enough” would hire his co-worker as his team’s next general manager.

Torre was referring to Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations, who arrived at the commissioner’s office in 2011 after rising through the ranks of the Yankees, White Sox and Dodgers organizations.

“I always talk her up at owners’ meetings,“ Torre told ESPN. “At some point, somebody just has to ignore the fact that she’s a woman and just make a baseball decision. And if they do that, then I think she will get an opportunity. Somewhere.”

This offseason the Atlanta Braves were the only team in the hunt for a new general manager. Ng wasn’t on a short list of candidates, nor was any qualified woman, so the power seats at the upcoming 2017 Winter Meetings will remain occupied by an all-boys club of GMs.

The fact that women don’t get consideration for general manager jobs in baseball was questioned recently by Harold Reynolds on the MLB Network. “Why aren’t there any female candidates?” Reynolds, a former player, wondered. “We’re not talking about you had to play in the big leagues anymore. I’m serious. I’m not joking.”

A woman GM would come with a trailblazer tagline that could become a liability when the first losing streak or sign of team turmoil hits. So why should a team take the risk? Look at it another way: a team shouldn’t lose the opportunity that the Braves just failed to seize.

As a sector, sports are more than ready. Thanks to decades of hard work after the passage of Title IX in 1972, the allyship of male co-workers, and emphasis on the new market drivers, women are wielding more influence than ever. Female leadership is opening the pipeline for further diversity, broadening the appeal of sport in general, and forging a more sustainable industry.

Nevertheless, according to the 2017 TIDES Racial and Gender Report Card, MLB received a C, the lowest grade in pro sports for its gender hiring practices.

If the Braves had hired a qualified woman as their general manager it would have been the bold stroke putting baseball on par with more socially advanced leagues like the NBA, which is already committed to the merits and feasibility of a diverse and equitable workforce. Think of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs assistant coach, Becky Hammon, NBA Players Association Executive Director Michelle Roberts and the league’s President of Social Responsibility, Kathy Behrens, to name just a few.

From my discussions with high ranking executives in the industry, diversity efforts are important for both ethical reasons and as a market driver.

Even the International Olympic Committee has received the diversity memo. When IOC head Thomas Bach announced a “step change” to the 2020 Tokyo Games geared at attracting younger viewers, you could almost feel the girl power surge. At the 2016 Rio Games, 46.5 percent of the athletes were women. Bach now boasts that there will be 49 percent female participation at the Tokyo Games, the largest of any modern Olympics. Also, Tokyo 2020 will double the number of mixed gender competitions from nine at the Rio Olympics to 18 at 2020 Games, according to the IOC.

This is particularly important to millennials and plurals, the following generation, because according to researchers they have the historically unprecedented belief that there are no inherently male or female roles in society.
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“When given abstract questions in surveys, all the data comes backs that everyone should be treated the same and everyone should have the same opportunity. It’s just a fact of life with Millennials,” said Mike Hais, co-author with Morley Winograd of Millennial Momentum. “They wouldn’t be shocked by having a woman doctor, corporate CEO, or the general manager of a baseball team. Sure, she should be given a chance. Millennials are accepting of roles that a previous generation may have found shocking or distasteful. And if a qualified person was not getting an opportunity, it could hurt with this generation.”

At its best, the power of sports pushes the needle of progress ahead faster.

While many other fields like technology, academia, and of course, Hollywood, also struggle with sexism, perhaps no one sector is as uniquely positioned in cultural capital to slice through gender inequality and get us beyond persistent stereotypes as quickly and as effectively as the sports industry.

Baseball is often remembered as the sport that led the way for social change with Jackie Robinson crossing the color barrier in 1947. Still, that decision by the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey was motivated largely by the desire to put more fannies in seats.

The time for a woman GM is now.

The Braves’ ownership had an opportunity to both modernize the appeal of the grand game of baseball and, in the process, change history. Perhaps the next club in search of a GM won’t drop the ball.

Sam Marchiano is adjunct faculty at NYU’s Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media, and Business and a founding Board Member of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization fostering inclusive sports communities. During her journalism career, she reported and produced for MLB Advanced Media, Fox Sports Net, ESPN, and The New York Daily News. Her documentary, Base Ball Discovered aired on MLB Network. Follow her on Twitter here.

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