Sue Black, Wave forge pro sports history
The U.S. Cellular Arena buzzed on Schools Day on Feb. 6 as Milwaukee Wave owner Jim Lindenberg took to the microphone and announced the hiring of Sue Black as the president and chief executive officer of the longest-running Major Indoor Soccer League franchise in the country.
Gathered at midfield, the men of the Milwaukee Wave soccer team formed a half circle around her, and she smiled as they threw arms around her shoulders.
As she climbed a set of platform stairs, the crowd and the team applauded. She spoke briefly before calling the players in front of her to share in the moment. They danced, laughed, celebrated.
It was what history looked like.
In all of the male professional sports organizations in the United States, Black became the first openly gay woman to hold a chief executive position.
She joins only Rick Welts, the president and CEO of the National Basketball Association's Golden State Warriors, as openly gay executives in any male professional organization.
"(Welts) was the first openly gay person in professional sports to come out while he was still an executive – that's how bad it has been," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the Director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. "Obviously to have a woman in a men's sport is even more remarkable.
"This is an important moment in the history of sports."
For all that is good about professional athletics, it is part of society that has long operated behind tarpaulins of testosterone and false assumptions about organizational chemistry.
Lindenberg, Black and the Wave pushed aside such shrouds with one simple act.
A move forward
When discussing Black's hire, Lapchick was nearly breathless.
He has published gender and diversity report cards for Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, the NBA and the NCAA for over a decade. It wasn't more than two years ago when very little discussion was had on inclusion in male pro sports leagues, and he is surprised at how quickly the national discourse on the topic has reached a fever pitch.
"There has been, I think, a pretty remarkable change of attitude in the way this is now being regularly discussed in professional sports and college sports," Lapchick said. "I think this is one of the huge breakthroughs, like Rick Welts coming out about a year and a half ago."
Welts was the first chief executive in a male sports league to disclose his sexuality publicly, doing so to The New York Times in May 2011 when he was the president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns. He said one of the reasons it took him so long was because he would be the first and was unsure how the news would be received.
Nearly two years later, Black joins him as a beacon for change.
"It's just helpful to have yet another person out there in the world of sports who doesn't see this as the center of her universe but rather just one aspect of her life and got that job because she happens to be terrific at doing what she does, not because of her sexual preference one way or the other," said Welts, who was hired by Golden State four months after coming out.
Social change is slow – glacial to those fighting for it – but in sports that advancement can happen quickly once momentum builds.
That's how NBA commissioner David Stern sees it. He encouraged and supported Welts' decision, and the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) has had several openly gay executives and players.
Stern acknowledged that while the inclusion movement in American professional male sports is in its infancy, it's moving forward quickly – and will continue to do so – much like the last great social evolution in athletics.
"There was a time, even on the field, or on the court, where people didn't want to play with black athletes," Stern said. "And now we look back at that with some degree of dismay and disbelief. I believe this is heading in the same direction."
He said he hoped this would be the last time he would have to address such a topic but added, "We're not there yet."
The news of Black's hiring has clearly resonated, and while some would argue its importance is diminished due to the league she works in, it represents another progression in the national dialogue and is an important marker in the history of inclusion in professional male sports.
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