Women in Sports: A Success Story that Will Never Fade

by, Pete Janny & Matthew Sweeney, Sports Editor & Contributor

Manhattan College may not evoke a pioneering spirit at first glance, but given a closer look at the athletic scene, an engine of innovation comes into focus. As it’s been told before, women have historically faced rigid barriers in society, such as in the forms of unfair stereotypes and inflated standards. Evidence of these sentiments are still found across society, and sports, in particular, is an industry where women are resilient to show they both belong and have what it takes to excel at various jobs. With Title IX widely regarded as their momentous achievement, women have been on a mission ever since its inauguration in 1972 to continue making significant strides in the sports industry, with many earning their way to becoming head coaches, referees, sideline reporters, and athletic directors. 

In light of the social justice protests of 2020, Americans are thinking more than ever about the meaning of human identity and how they can do their part to help foster an egalitarian environment for all. This ethos lies at the center of an ongoing chorus of exhortations for diversity at all levels of leadership. In particular, the momentum has started to build for greater representation of women leaders in college sports, for whom the future looks bright. 

Manhattan College is a beacon of hope for women who aspire to work in sports administration. The ideals of merit and integrity are epitomized by Manhattan’s Athletic Director, Marianne Reilly, who was hired by the school in 2016 to become the first female to hold the role in school history. Her appointment to the position did not merely come on the strength of her laurels — she was a thousand-point scorer for the Lady Jaspers program– but instead, marked the culmination of a heavy lift of learning the intricacies of the profession across three decades of working at Fordham University. 

“When I went to Fordham, I learned a lot,” Reilly said. “I went there when I was in my 20’s and I left there three decades later. I moved up in positions. I always felt like I was a sponge and I’m a lifelong learner. I like to watch people and how they react to different positions in different scenarios.” 

Reilly now finds herself part of the small—and growing—percentage of female athletic directors in Division I sports. According to the New York Times, of the 65 colleges belonging to the Power Five Division I conferences, only four departments are led by female athletic directors. When expanding the scope of view to all of Division One schools, the gulf in gender disproportion among athletic directors narrows, with only 39 female athletic directors in the ranks. 

“I think any person being an athletic director, at any level, but especially at Division I, you should be really grateful,” Reilly said. “We are moving up, I think women are finally getting a c-suite and it takes certain skills to run a department. Whether you’re male or female, that’s not even a part of this equation. It really is do you have the skills to run a department, do you have the personality, do you have the stamina, the determination and the passion? Whether you’re male or female, that’s what you need to do.”

Before foraying into administrative circles, Reilly left her imprint on Manhattan sports as the first 1,000 point scorer in school history between both programs. Her success on the court has been recognized through channels not merely connected to the current dynamics of the athletic department. She joined the elite company found in the Manhattan College Athletics Hall of Fame after getting inducted into the exclusive club in 1992 as the first woman ever.

“I looked and wondered when the first female would be inducted,” Reilly said in reference to the Manhattan College Athletics Hall of Fame. “I said that because you’re looking for someone like you and so I wondered who would be the first female and for me to be inducted as the first female, I remember that moment. I went right back to that moment and went wow, that was weird, that I questioned that and now I am. So I always felt a sense of responsibility because of that.”

Jumping from New York to New England, Yale University is another school that has proved the value of investing in talented women. In 2018, the school hired Victoria Chun as their next athletic director after she held the same position at her alma mater Colgate University. At the time Colgate hired her in 2012, she became the first Asian American female to work as a Division One Athletic Director. 

Upon assuming the mantle of Yale Athletics, Chun decided to add another ambitious and like-minded individual to the community of Yale Athletics. That individual was Madison Arndt, a graduate of Manhattan in 2018 who competed for four years on the Track and Field Team as a pole vaulter and earned a bachelor’s degree in Marketing. Since May of 2019, Arndt has served as the Assistant Director of Development and Engagement in the Yale Athletic Department following one year spent with the NCAA Division II Governance team out of college. Arndt feels beholden to both Chun and Reilly for the mentorship they have provided her throughout her nascent career in college sports administration. Without Reilly, in particular, Arndt may have never ended up choosing the route of college sports administration. Reilly believed in Arndt and helped her imagine a vision for herself. 

“I think as a student-athlete at a small Division One school you’re always looking for people that can help you get to where you’re going,” Arndt said. “And sophomore year, when she came in as the athletic director, I had no idea where I was going. And then when she came in, at that point, I said you know what, I want to get involved more with the student athlete advisory committee.” 

In Arndt’s eyes, there are noticeable parallels in the management style of the two women who are each leading the athletic communities at Manhattan and Yale. The potential opportunities for women in the field are illustrated by how Yale’s athletic department looks under the direction of Chun.

“And then also, if you take a look at our [Yale Athletics] staff directory, you’ll see that there are a lot of women in the administration, which is not seen across the board in Division One athletics either,” Arndt said. “So bringing in people with her [Chun] and giving women an opportunity to succeed in these roles is a big deal. I wanted to be part of that and I think Marianne also leads that way too. I think Marianne and Vicky are similar in a way that they’ve come from similar backgrounds where they were both bred in the Title IX era of women’s athletics. They were both at the beginning of their sports at their colleges and so they know how important it is to continue to lead in spaces where women are not necessarily heard or seen as much as they have been in the past.” 

According to her Yale bio, during her undergraduate career at Manhattan, Arndt had the chance to participate in the valuable conversations that took place within the MAAC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Those three years as a representative of the conference, Arndt says, prepared her to succeed in her current position.

“I was really proud of the fact that she saw women leading and going wow I can do that,” Reilly said in reference to Arndt. “When I was coming through the ranks, I never saw that. You might see a female coach if you were lucky, but you didn’t see a female administrator, so I never thought about being an athletic director for most of my career.” 

Graduating from Manhattan College is not a prerequisite for receiving the lessons in leadership being taught at the school. 

Kiambra Griffin, better known as Kiki to many, was hired in the summer of 2019 to be the Director of Operations for the women’s basketball team on the heels of a one-year stay as a graduate assistant with the Columbia Women’s Basketball program. Before her brief tenure at Columbia — where she also completed her master’s degree in sports management — Griffin spent her undergraduate years at Davidson College where she was a manager and administrative assistant for the school’s women’s basketball team before graduating in 2018. 

Manhattan College has become much like a second home to Griffin, who also has dreams of charting her own success as an administrator in college basketball. Griffin tries to take in as much information and advice as she can from other influential women in her life. Near the top of the list of her biggest supporters is Reilly, who can relate to the grind of wanting to earn a name for herself in an industry that is disproportionately run by men.

Marianne and I actually got a chance to sit down and talk about my goals,” Griffin said. “It was just an informal conversation, and she just really wanted to get to know me. She passes on this energy of what it means to be an athletic director of a Division One program and has given me an idea of what it takes to do so.”

Griffin is used to being part of a team and values how important those bonds could be. She leverages the communication and organizational skills she’s learned over the years to be a source of mentorship and stewardship to the players on the Manhattan women’s basketball team. 

“I think in general these bonds just help us to be intentional about building a very inclusive program,” Griffin said. “We’re very honest about our identities, and very honest about how we live and how we want to portray ourselves to society. Anything from what we’re doing to market the team to just team conversations and team building, these are the things that are going to play a major role in how these young ladies are developed throughout their four or five years.”

Having the opportunity to help lead a group of young women during a historic time in the world drives her to be better. She’s confident that if the players can overcome the hardships of a pandemic, then they can do anything they put their minds to in life.

Women have also broken barriers in regards to the management apparatus of professional sports.

On Nov. 13, the Miami Marlins hired 52-year-old Kim Ng to be their next general manager, and in turn made her the first woman to hold that post for any organization in the history of the Big Four Leagues, which refers to the NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL. Many felt that the selection of a female for the position of general manager was long overdue. A graduate of the University of Chicago who played softball for the school, Ng’s love of baseball from an early age blossomed into a passion for wanting to work in the game, and according to the New York Times she wrote her college thesis on the significance of Title IX. Ng has been connected to Major League Baseball since 1990 starting out as an intern with the Chicago White Sox before assuming assistant general manager responsibilities for the Yankees and Dodgers across 14 years. She spent the last ten seasons as senior vice president of baseball operations for the MLB before agreeing to make history with the Marlins. 

Ng’s resume speaks for itself and her upward mobility is a shining example to other women who want to break barriers.  

“I was not the kid that was always going to follow the rest of the group,” Ng recently said at her introductory press conference, according to the Times. “That was not me. I was going to do my own thing and I didn’t care what people said. I was just going to do it.”

Nothing is given to those who deserve it most. Hard-working women in sports have proven to be some of the best leaders we have. Their ability to showcase their leadership and professional skills should be celebrated, because after all, they will trailblaze the path for the next generation to come.  

“I want people who care about what they’re doing with young adults,” Reilly said. “What I mean by that is I want someone who is an educator, because when you’re a coach, you’re an educator. When you’re an administrator, you’re an educator and so to have that, I want to be a mentor, to be a teacher, I want to have joy in my job, in my profession. That’s what I’m looking for.”