"Once you start leading, you're going to take shots."
That's what one major-conference athletic director told me Monday afternoon, just hours after the news of Rutgers AD Julie Hermann's comments splattered across the Internet. Speaking to a journalism class, Hermann recently told students that "it would be great" if New Jersey's largest newspaper, The Star Ledger, died.
You're going to take shots, but Hermann brought this one on herself. This one can't be written off because it happened so long ago, because the facts aren't all there, because she's matured since. The facts are very much here and now, and as much as it pains me to type this in 2014, it matters even more because of her gender.
Hermann is one of three female major-conference ADs. Three. She's the least experienced, too; hired in 2013, she joined Cal's Sandy Barbour and North Carolina State's Deborah Yow. Sure, there a handful of athletic departments in lesser conferences with female leadership -- UNLV, Denver, Northern Arizona, Eastern Michigan, Columbia and Tennessee State, to name a few -- but the list is not nearly long enough, nor do predecessors abound. In fact, the first female athletic director in a major conference wasn't hired until 1991, when Barbara Hedges got the job at Washington. Maryland hired Yow from St. Louis three years later, and since then, there have been just three other female ADs at major conference schools: Arizona State's Lisa Love, Barbour and, of course, Herman.
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According the 2012 paper "Women In Intercollegiate Sport," which looked at progress of women in college athletics over a 35-year period, there's been some improvement. In 2012, females made up 20.3 percent of athletic directors, and there were 215 female athletic directors. The higher-profile and more powerful the position, though, the more the numbers dwindled. Division I schools boasted just 36 female athletic directors in 2012, making up barely more than 10 percent of all Division I ADs. On the positive side, in 2012, 9.2 percent of athletic departments had no females in administrative roles, down from 13.2 percent in 2010.
It's not been an easy road for these women. Just 23 years and five hires after the first major-conference female AD, reaching Hermann's status still involves heavy doses of hard work and luck, and it's no matter that her recent words had little to do with running an athletic department. They hurt.
"This is not hyperbole: there (are) 50 women who are experienced in intercollegiate athletics who could do the job as the AD for the men's and women's programs," one athletic director told me. "They will never have a chance. It's not happening."
With Hermann's words, make that 51, or 52 -- or perhaps even more. No, she wasn't speaking on behalf of her gender to that class, and no, her words don't reflect at all poorly on women like Barbour and Yow, who have established themselves as respected players in their field. Still, what she said hurts. It hurts the twentysomethings fighting their way from the lowest levels of athletic departments, coaching tennis or track in hopes of rising through the ranks. It hurts the women plugging away in small schools' athletic departments, hoping for their breaks. When those women apply for their next jobs, their next steps up the ranks, Hermann's words -- and Rutgers' PR disaster -- will echo.
You see, search committees hire athletic directors, and those companies are composed of boosters, most of whom are male. The problem starts there, with men hiring men because they always have, not out of malice or any overt desire to keep women out. But those boosters are going to remember Hermann. There's no way they won't, because the attention Rutgers has gotten by virtue of her runaway mouth is exactly what every booster wants his beloved school to avoid.
The blame here falls on Rutgers, too. Since the moment the school hired Hermann last May, there's been hardly a moment without tumult. First, an allegation that she told an assistant not to get pregnant while she was the head volleyball coach at Tennessee surfaced. She denied it. A video surfaced. Then, she denied knowledge of players accusing her of being an abusive coach. A short time later, she "remembered." These are all facts that should have been unearthed during the search, that should have been reason to count Hermann out, and yet Rutgers, with the due diligence we've come to expect from the university in recent months, hired her anyway.
No one is perfect, and to demand perfection from every female candidate would be an impossible bar. But, as that one athletic director said, there were 50 women out there qualified for her role, and Rutgers had to pick the one that would bring on a nightmare.
On paper, a third major-conference female athletic director looks great. In practice, it may be hurting more than it's advancing.
On Monday, one athletic director told me that both an AD and his or her staff has to know that everything they say might be splashed above the fold of a major newspaper. Hermann appeared to miss the memo when she spoke to that class.
The problem is, it won't be just Hermann's words printed there for the world to see. It's her gender, too, maybe subtly, maybe just a photo, but people remember, and when there have only been four other women at her level in the history of collegiate athletics, it's even harder to forget.