The Most Powerful Woman In Sports

Since Title IX and the Bobby Riggs match, women have taken a major place on the playing fields. But who wields real clout? No one
September 28, 1986

•In 1984, when she was named athletic director at San Diego State University, Mary Alice Hill, 46, became the first woman to head the athletic department of a Division I school. On that heady occasion Hill said she expected very soon to see other women directing men's sports. A year later Hill was out of a job and suing San Diego State for reinstatement.

•From 1971 to 1985, under three International Olympic Committee presidents, Monique Berlioux, as director, wielded more power over a broader spectrum of sports than any woman ever has. But after Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain was elected president of the IOC in 1980, Berlioux found herself under increasing pressure and was eventually forced out. Today, at 60, she is an adviser to the committee preparing the Paris bid for the 1992 Olympics.

•For three years Donna de Varona had a job that was unique in television sports. She was an on-the-air commentator for ABC while at the same time serving as assistant to Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports. This year, when Capital Cities Communications, ABC's new owner, sent its management team in to "restructure" the network's sports department, de Varona, 39, was restructured out of the executive half of her job.

•In 1972, 90% of the coaches and administrators in women's college sports were women. Ten years later the National Collegiate Athletic Association took control of women's collegiate sports. Now 49.4% of all women's college teams are coached by men, and 90% of the Division I athletic programs for men and women have been merged and placed under the direction of men. Eileen Livingston, 56, of Duquesne is the only female athletic director of both men's and women's programs at a Division I college.

What is going on? The revolution is over, the battle won. Women athletes have long since taken their positions on playing fields across America. The power structure for women's sports is in place, a perfect pyramid, broad at the base, thanks to Title IX, visible from great distances, thanks to the spotlights trained on individual athletes. Yet who sits astride this pyramid? Who has the power to build, to change, to pick up a telephone and say, "Do it now"? Men, that's who.

Men control the IOC, the USOC, the NCAA, the International Tennis Federation, the United States Golf Association and The Jockey Club, just to mention a few of the organizations that determine the athletic destinies of women. And still women are losing ground.

"Once women started getting paid what they deserved, men were going after their jobs," says Donna Lopiano, women's athletic director at the University of Texas and president of the now defunct Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, an organization that sank under the weight of the NCAA.

"Men hold every single seat of power in sport," says Berlioux. "When elections arise they prefer to elect other men. I can think of only one woman who has a high position on a national Olympic committee, a woman in Africa, the Congo, I think. She acts as treasurer."

In the language of the women's movement this passing of power by men to other men, or, when possible, women to other women, is called gender networking. Billie Jean King, the commissioner of Team Tennis, wants to see gender networking replaced by human networking. "In Team Tennis the teams are mixed, two men and two women," she says. "Women have an equal opportunity to contribute to the outcome of the match. As the matches progress you can watch the players and the spectators thinking less and less of gender and more and more of the outcome of the match. That's the way it should be. That's the way I want it to be."

Come to think of it, why is Billie Jean not the czar of at least women's tennis—if not all of women's sport? She was certainly the most influential female athlete of her age, a living symbol who brought women of every economic group and political persuasion to their feet cheering when she beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets in the Astrodome in 1973.

"I'm not in love with power," says King. "I want to make things happen."

Yet if one aspect of power defines the condition better than any other it is the power to make things happen on a large scale. A few women have it, sort of. Georgia Rosenbloom Frontiere, owner of the L.A. Rams, and Joan Kroc, owner of the San Diego Padres, can pick up a phone and alter the destinies of a certain number of people, but Frontiere and Kroc both inherited their power, along with their teams, from their late husbands; neither woman has a voice that counts in the owners' circle of her sport. Frontiere, for instance, was an enthusiastic backer of the idea of staging another summer NFL exhibition game in London. However, when Pete Rozelle passed over the Rams and chose the Cowboys and the Bears to make the trip, Frontiere was powerless to do anything but fume.

The case of Marge Schott of the Cincinnati Reds is a little different. Schott, 57, inherited her husband's businesses when he died 18 years ago, but she bought controlling interest in the Reds on her own in late '84. The Cincinnati press and some of her partners have made her life difficult at times, but the fans like her for her down-home ways and her free spending for players. Whether Schott will eventually have a voice in National League affairs remains to be seen. "The owners have been real nice to me," says Schott. "They gave me roses at the first meeting. When I have something to say, I'll say it."

Of all the women whose power in sport is based on ownership, the most authoritative is Marje Everett, the largest stockholder and CEO of Hollywood Park racetrack in Los Angeles. Since Everett took her place on the track's board of directors in 1972, Hollywood Park has been in the vanguard of every major change that has come to thoroughbred racing, from Exacta betting to the Breeders' Cup.

Everett, 65, was born into the racetrack business in Chicago, where her adoptive father, Ben Lindheimer, owned both the Washington Park and Arlington Park tracks. Everett went to work at Arlington Park at 18, and when Lindheimer died in 1960, she inherited about a quarter of his $8 million fortune. With that and borrowed money she bought out her brother's and sister's interests in the tracks; in '69 she sold both to Gulf & Western for $32 million in cash and stock, including stock in Hollywood Park. Everett signed a 10-year contract with G & W to be non-owning CEO of a company that ran the two Chicago tracks, but she was fired a year later.

After a brief retirement in Arizona, Everett was ready to go back to work. She claimed a seat on the all-male board of Hollywood Park by virtue of her majority holdings, but the board said she would have to have a California racing license first. Not surprisingly the California Racing Board initially refused her the license. The old-boy network of California racing wanted nothing to do with Marje Everett.

After filing a lawsuit that included a charge of sexual discrimination against Mervyn LeRoy, president of the Hollywood Park Turf Club, Everett took her seat in 1972 and appointed herself CEO. Five years later a group of directors tried to take the job away, but again she went to court and again she won.

"I don't like to be called tough," says Everett. "The word has a bad connotation. Women aren't supposed to be tough. At the same time, men are considered better disciplines, which makes it even more difficult to fill that function without being branded tough."

Now that Everett is firmly in the saddle at Hollywood Park she can afford to reflect on the changes she has seen. "Women still have to work harder to prove themselves capable," she says. "Just wanting something and working toward it like a man isn't enough. They have to do it better. What has changed, I think, is the acceptance that a woman can do the work, once she can prove it."

Proving it can be a career all by itself. De Varona was 17 in 1965 when she called ABC's Chuck Howard to ask for a job in television. She was an Olympic swimmer with two gold medals from the '64 Games but without a college scholarship because there were no athletic scholarships for women back then. (Approximately 100,000 such scholarships exist today.) Her good friend Don Schollander, a gold medalist in four events at the '64 Olympics, went to Yale on a swimming scholarship. De Varona went to New Haven, courtesy of ABC, as a guest expert.

"My first assignment was the short-course nationals at Yale," she says. "They got me a work permit, sent me up to New Haven, put me in a booth beside Jim McKay, put a headset on me and said, 'Take it, kid.' "

Ten years later de Varona finally got a contract with ABC. Until then she never knew when or whether she would work, or how much she would be paid, but she got by. In her considerable spare time she went to work on her credentials: She enrolled at UCLA as a political science major; she founded the Women's Sports Foundation with King and served as its president for seven years; she worked on various Olympic committees; she lobbied for, and helped frame, the Amateur Athletic Act of 1974; and she got involved in the Special Olympics.

"I had to go out and create my own image," she says. "I had to have unbelievable credentials and be five miles ahead of everybody else. If I'd done it the normal way, beginning as a [television] production assistant, I'd never have made it."

The almost pathological resistance to qualified women in the world of business is a fact of American life. In sports it has been elevated to an art form. Everybody has a different explanation.

"Progress of women in sports is slow for the same reason that it's so slow in the business world," says a male sports executive who asked not to be identified. "It's a male-dominated society that we live in, and on top of that, most people in the sports world are chauvinists."

"It's do-re-mi," says King. "It's economics. You've got to have the opportunity and you've got to have the exposure. If you're not exposed, people don't know you're there. Two percent of all [product] endorsements go to women athletes."

"We were all raised by strong women, our mothers," says Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. magazine. "To a child, the mother is a strong woman. And men measure their maturity and their masculinity by how far they have distanced themselves from strong women.

"Women excel," Steinem continues, "when success depends on their own talent and their own effort. They excel, one, when money is not a requirement and, two, when authority over other people is not a factor, especially authority over men. Women tend to be writers, not editors; poets, not playwrights; artists, not architects." Steinem might have added, "athletes, not commissioners."

The commissioner of the Ladies' Professional Golf Association is John Laupheimer, 55, a businessman who had five years of experience as administrative director of the USGA. When Laupheimer was named to the LPGA job five years ago, no women were considered for the position.

Laupheimer says he spends 20% to 25% of his time dealing with Japanese businessmen. Japanese corporations sponsor several LPGA tour events. Would that important relationship suffer if a woman were commissioner? "I think the Japanese would view it as just one more thing they have to adjust to in order to be able to deal with the Western world," says Laupheimer.

Tennis has a long history of strong, visible female performers, yet women hold none of the top jobs in the game. The USTA board has not a single woman member. The ITF is run by Frenchman Philippe Chatrier. Even the Women's International Tennis Association, the players' organization, has a male executive director. Merrett Stierheim, 53, was hired last year by the WITA board from candidates submitted by Korn/Ferry International, corporate headhunters. Stierheim's background was nine years as county manager for Dade County, Fla., a big job, no doubt, but hardly the sort that would suggest he could run a women's organization more capably than a woman.

On the other hand, when Korn/Ferry was asked to find someone to head the Women's International Professional Tennis Council, a body created two years ago to provide a neutral meeting ground for the various factions in women's tennis—the ITF, the WITA and the tournament directors—it came up with Jane Brown, a woman of great experience in several areas of tennis administration. The difference, it would seem, was that Brown's job on the council is to coordinate the factions, not to direct them—in other words, a woman's sort of job. "I see myself as a facilitator," she says. "A lubricator to keep the wheels moving."

Once in a while good sense prevails, even in sport. For instance: de Varona has been named a member of the USOC's newly formed long-range planning committee. And Rosa Gatti, a onetime Villanova sports information director, has been promoted to vice-president of communications for ESPN, the all-sports cable network that reaches more than 37 million homes.

And in boxing, a sport that has tolerated the presence of female promoters on more than one occasion, Josephine Abercrombie, a wealthy Houston socialite, is making headway. Abercrombie set up the Houston Boxing Association four years ago with the aim of joining Don King and Bob Arum at the top level of boxing promoters. Currently her HBA has five fighters in training, including Frank Tate.

Sometimes momentous change is signaled by small events. The June issue of Ms. ran a letter to the editors from a woman in Lancaster, Pa. The reader reported having recently found her 10-year-old nephew doing push-ups. Why? Said the boy, "If I do this long enough I'll be as strong as Mary Lou Retton."

Gender blindness is not yet sweeping across America, but if one little boy in Pennsylvania can leap the cultural barrier, perhaps in some rosy, not too distant future, the rest of the country will follow his example.

PHOTOTOBEY SANFORD (LOWY FRAMES/PHOTO) PHOTOGRAHAM FINLAYSONBerlioux was a mover and shaker in the IOC until Samaranch (left) sent her packing. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEEverett, majority stockholder at Hollywood Park, had to go to court to control the track. PHOTOKIMBERLY BUTLER"I'm not in love with power," says King, head of Team Tennis. PHOTOABCDe Varona recently lost her executive position at ABC. PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONStierheim (above) rules women's tennis; Laupheimer leads the women pro golfers. PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGER[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)