Of all the comments new Conference USA commissioner Judy MacLeod made Monday, thanking her predecessor, Britton Banowsky, may have been the most telling. You don’t become the first female Football Bowl Subdivision commissioner without someone fighting for you to be promoted.

Banowsky, who left to become executive director of the College Football Playoff Foundation, publicly and privately pushed for the hiring of his No. 2 in the C-USA office. Women don’t just need a mentor to break through college sports barriers; they need someone who fights for them to get a better job.

So in 2015, we finally have a woman commissioner in one of the 10 most prominent college sports conferences. This is progress.

There are now nine female commissioners out of 32 Division I jobs, with MacLeod joining the likes of Amy Huchthausen (America East), Robin Harris (Ivy League), Bernadette McGlade (Atlantic 10), Val Ackerman (Big East), Jennifer Heppel (Patriot League) and Patty Viverito (Missouri Valley Football Conference). But MacLeod becomes the first woman to oversee a conference in which football dollars rule, even in a lower-tiered conference like C-USA.

The sad truth of this story is that it's newsworthy. Women reach a ceiling for so many jobs in college sports. In 2013-14, only 11 percent of Division I athletic directors were female despite women comprising 43.4 percent of college athletes, according to NCAA research. The number has stayed pretty stagnant for years.

The odds are even lower for a female AD in the Power Five conferences. Out of those 65 universities, there are currently only three female ADs: NC State’s Debbie Yow, Penn State’s Sandy Barbour and Rutgers’ Julie Hermann. Since Yow became an AD in 1994, there has never been more than three female ADs simultaneously at major-conference schools.

For that matter, women are underrepresented as coaches. Forty-two percent of all NCAA women’s teams have a female as a head coach. That translates to about 20 percent of all NCAA head coaches being women.

MacLeod knows all of this. She was often asked as Tulsa’s AD whether she felt pressure to succeed because she was setting a new standard. She suspects the same question will be asked now as a commissioner. MacLeod said she needs to do a great job first and foremost for her constituents, the schools in C-USA.

“If I can do a great job and more women are benefitted by having an opportunity to interview for jobs and possibly get these types of jobs, then I’m really happy to do that,” MacLeod said. “But for me, I’ve had some outstanding mentors -- most of them have been males because that’s what the majority of people in the business are. But they have never held me back or not exposed me to different things.

“I need to thank Britton and other people that have put me in roles and exposed me to things that enabled me to be in this position today. That’s what I would encourage as we look across at ADs and other things, to allow females who have potential and ability to be involved in a number of things that might not typically go the way of a typical (senior woman administrator) role on campus.”

Lack of female ADs mirror CEOs

MacLeod worked her way up through the industry, holding graduate assistant, compliance officer, ticket sales and assistant athletic director positions at Tulsa before becoming Tulsa’s AD for 10 years. Since 2006, she has served as C-USA’s associate executive commissioner/chief operating officer and essentially ran the conference office’s daily operations.

In a way, the lack of female CEOs in college sports isn’t much different than in the business world. A recent CNNMoney Analysis showed that only 14 percent of the top five leadership positions in the S&P 500 are held by women and just 5 percent of those companies are led by women CEOs.

(To be fair, diversity in sports media is lacking as well. According to a 2015 report by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, 90 percent of sports editors are men and more than 83 percent of sports editors, assistant sports editors, columnists, reporters and copy editors/designers are white.)

“I think there has been a view of how sport programs’ leaders look like, what they should talk like, how they act, and it’s been a 50- or 60-year process to get people working in the college sport industry to broaden their perspective on who can be successful,” said Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky, who teaches courses on gender issues in sports. “I do think a white, male-dominated leadership structure has had difficulty coming to terms with it.”

We’re not far removed from the backlash against Condoleezza Rice joining the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. You probably remember the comments. Former Auburn coach Pat Dye said all Rice knows about football is what somebody told her. Former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said just because Rice likes to watch football doesn’t mean she knows anything about the game.

These weren’t outlier opinions. My inbox at the time was filled with similar emails from readers. I didn’t get these comments about former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese and former USA Today reporter Steve Wieberg serving on the committee without playing football.

“As I watch (MacLeod’s) hiring unfolding, this may be signaling the reverberation of the effect of Condoleezza Rice being so involved with the playoff selection process,” Staurowsky said. “Any handwringing that went on in terms of whether Rice could handle a job like that has been put to rest pretty quickly.” 

Where are future female sports leaders?

Still, it's pretty telling that the CFP Selection Committee had to go outside its own world to find a female representative. Where is the pipeline for future female leaders in college sports? 

McGlade, commissioner of the Atlantic 10, said the lack of women in AD jobs is “very frustrating” and reflects society given the lack of female business leaders. “But I think everybody’s got to keep drilling down and going for the jobs because the worst thing that would happen is females assume, ‘I won’t get it,’ and they don’t even apply,” McGlade said. “You have to get in the race to have a chance.”

Donna Lopiano, a former University of Texas administrator, said leadership from university presidents is needed to place more women in college sports leadership positions.

"There are really capable women out there who should be Division I athletic directors, who should be Division I commissioners," Lopiano said. "This issue is not one of lack of talent. It's one of a lack of a will on the parts of leaders with college presidents leading the way."

Back in 2008, Yow became the first woman president of the Division 1A Athletic Directors’ Association. She’s still waiting for the second.

Too often, women reach their ceiling as a senior woman administrator on campus. An SWA’s duties can tell you who’s there for the sake of diversity and who’s being groomed to be a potential AD.

“The original idea of having an SWA was so right,” Yow said. “It was the message to all of intercollegiate athletics: ‘You’re going to have at least one female in your senior management team.’ Initially, it was a terrific step. I’m not so sure that title serves women well anymore. What would be better would be to name a woman deputy AD.”

For example, Carla Williams -- a former Georgia women’s basketball player -- is Georgia’s deputy AD and SWA. Not only does she serve as the administrator for women’s basketball, she’s the direct administrative contact for football. Williams’ bio says she has supervisory responsibility for academic support services, compliance, sports medicine, human resources, event management, facilities, student services and strength and conditioning.

Yow’s theory on why there aren’t more women ADs: The committees, university board chairs and presidents who hire them are largely men. When Maryland hired Yow in 1994, the committee chair was a woman and she won over men who led the athletic department booster clubs.

“It’s just people being people,” Yow said. “I don’t even think there’s any malice associated with that. People gravitate toward those they’re very comfortable around and that usually starts with gender and shared experiences. I don’t think women should be given any special treatment or handouts. But leadership isn’t a gender issue.”

Staurowsky finds herself torn on a day like this with MacLeod's hiring. The milestone must be noted, Staurowsky said, but there’s a cautionary flag because so much else within the college sports system hasn’t changed. There are more barriers to be broken. Perhaps one day there will be a female commissioner of a Power Five conference, a female NCAA president, and a female coach of a prominent men's team. 

“I’d love to say it’s a happy day and it’s leaving systemic discrimination behind,” Staurowsky said, “but I think that’s going to have to wait for another day.”

MacLeod has her own set of big issues to tackle. C-USA is in TV negotiations for its next media rights deal that she says should be concluded in the next couple months. She wants C-USA schools to better know each other. She believes C-USA must be a multi-bid league in the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

"To me, it’s a people business,” MacLeod said, “and I really have chosen throughout my career not to focus on the negative aspects -- some of the things you get from being a female in this business -- because the people in this business have not treated me any different from Day 1 when I became AD a long, long time ago.”

MacLeod earned her promotion. That’s all more women want in college sports -- a real chance.

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