In the Fight for Women's Equality, Muffet McGraw Finds Her Moment

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw has worked hard to turn her players into leaders as well as champions. Now she's using her platform to bring her message of female empowerment to a wider audience.
By Jack Dickey ,

This story appears in the June 17, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

Muffet McGraw, head coach of the women’s basketball team at Notre Dame, has to her credit 923 career wins, nine Final Fours, four AP Coach of the Year awards, two national championships and a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Few coaches in any first-tier college sport can claim such accolades, the result of 37 seasons of steady excellence on Division I sidelines, the last 32 of them with the Irish.

And yet none of that, really, is what made her distinctive name a household one earlier this year and prompted a tweet from President Obama (“a voice everybody should hear”), a text message from Serena Williams, and a letter from Hillary Clinton (which is now affixed to McGraw’s fridge at her home). 

No, it was something she said at the press availability before the Final Four in Tampa. McGraw was asked about an interview in which she said she would never again hire a male assistant. She channeled decades of frustration into a two-minute answer, which has since been viewed nearly seven million times on Twitter alone: “Did you know that the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in 1967 and still hasn’t passed?” she began. “… We’ve had a record number of women running for office and winning, and still we have 23% of the House and 25% of the Senate. I’m getting tired of the novelty of the first female governor of this state, the first female African-American mayor of this city. When is it going to be the norm instead of the exception? How are these young women looking up and seeing someone that looks like them, preparing them for the future? We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible female leaders. We don’t have enough women in power. Girls are socialized to know that when they come out, gender rules are already set. Men run the world. Men have the power. Men make the decisions. … When you look at men’s basketball, 99% of the jobs go to men. Why shouldn’t 100 or 99% of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women?”

Amidst the currents of #MeToo and a broader political uprising among women, a movement had found a new messenger. Though McGraw’s words had the researched quality of talking points, she was speaking off the cuff, she says now. “I feel like I’ve been fighting this battle for years, and I just kind of got to a breaking point.” 

McGraw has coached long enough (and played before that, as a guard at St. Joe’s) to have seen women’s college basketball transform from a resource-starved institutional afterthought into a major college sport, with salaries and TV attention to match. When she first landed at Notre Dame, the men’s team flew to its road games while the women rode the bus; the men would occupy the gym whenever they wanted to for as long as they wanted to, and the women had to work around their schedule. These days, McGraw supervises a staff of six and the team travels mostly by private plane. In 2016, the last year for which a public tax filing is available, she was better paid than Notre Dame’s men’s coach, Mike Brey.

Improvement for women’s sports, though, had the unintended consequence of making those coaching jobs newly appealing to men. Before Title IX became law in 1972 and compelled high schools and universities to achieve gender equity in athletics, more than 90% of women’s college varsity teams were coached by women. By 2018, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, that figure was down to 40.8%.

“This is the only example in an employment sector where women’s job share is declining rather than increasing over time,” says Marjorie Snyder, the senior director of research and programs at the Women’s Sports Foundation. Four of the eight programs in this year’s Women’s College World Series, for instance, were coached by men. In 2018, McGraw was the only woman head coach in the Final Four. People approached her in Columbus that year and told her they were rooting for the Irish—not because they were Notre Dame fans, but because they wanted the woman-coached team to win.

Over time, McGraw had gotten used to news coverage that dwelled on her outfits, marriage and motherhood, and to being the only woman in whatever athletic setting: on group golf outings, on the playground basketball court. It never really bothered her. “But it bothers me now,” she says. Women struggled for the opportunity that Title IX would afford them, and then it accrued to male coaches. (At the same press conference where she delivered her stirring complaint, she was asked if she and UConn coach/rival Geno Auriemma would have gotten married had the circumstances of their lives been different. She laughed and said no. She says now, “When I got that question, I wanted to scream and unload on him. But I didn’t. Geno unloaded on him, and it was absolutely appropriate.”)

The problem, McGraw says, is that most college athletic directors are men, and men hire men. “Men network better. They have people calling on their behalf for every job. Women, we wait for someone to recognize how good we are. And we’re incredibly loyal—we’re afraid of what happens if we apply for another job and don’t get it.” Women who have never played for a female coach might not see themselves as leadership material, she adds. 

Society at large sometimes has trouble seeing women that way, too. In April, when a reporter mentioned Muffet’s dictum about all-woman staffs to Auriemma (who, like McGraw, employs only woman assistants), he said, “I hope she sends a thank you to all those guys that used to be on her staff that got her all those good players that won a championship.”

“Well, I expected some sort of comment would come out of Connecticut [when I said that]. For the record, they didn’t,” McGraw says. “Carol Owens and Niele Ivey got all those good players. You can have a staff with one man on it, and people assume, oh, he must be doing the recruiting, or he must be doing Xs-and-Os.” McGraw used to employ a male assistant because she thought it was valuable for her players to see a woman supervise a man. These days, though? “We’ve been to five Final Fours with our all-female staffs.”

McGraw’s viral commentary may have been delivered off the cuff, but in many ways it represented a distillation of her longstanding approach and views. In 2014, McGraw stood by her players when they wore “I CAN’T BREATHE” shirts during warm-ups to protest police brutality. Every year she assigns the team a book; last year’s was We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Any time a prominent woman comes to visit Notre Dame, McGraw brings her in to speak to the team. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came by; so did Cathy Engelbert, who played for McGraw at Lehigh. Engelbert was then the U.S. CEO of Deloitte—now she’s the commissioner of the WNBA.

Muffet “hasn’t changed,” Engelbert says, citing her clarity in messaging and her tenacity. “Over the years people said I reminded them of Muffet with my competitiveness, and I take it as a compliment.”

Since Pat Summitt’s passing, McGraw says, no woman in college sports has been the chief evangelist for their cause. McGraw’s new platform may lead her to that role.

For inspiration, she looks to Serena Williams, and outside of sports, to professor-author Brené Brown and to Clinton and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has also become friendly with presidential candidate and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

It’s hard not to notice how many of those figures reside in Washington (or hope to), especially given the clamor, after McGraw’s remarks, that she should run for office. Will she? “I’m too honest,” she says. “Too hard-charging, too here’s-the-plan. So no.” Whoever is recruiting candidates for Indiana’s second congressional district will have to look elsewhere.

McGraw will, though, be joining the boards of some foundations and doing more public speaking, to bring her message of equality and empowerment to new audiences. She doesn’t really have the hang of it yet—“I’d rather talk for five to 10 minutes and then open it up for questions”—but, then again, oratory never was supposed to be her forte. All she ever wanted to do was coach.

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