I read with interest last week that Kim Ng, a long-time Major League Baseball executive, was in the mix of candidates being considered for the general manager position for the Los Angeles Angels. Having worked in baseball for many years, Ng appeared to have many of the qualifications needed for the job. The news item was noteworthy, though, because no woman has ever served in this role for a big league team.
With Saturday's announcement that Jerry Dipoto was the Angels' choice, Ng's chance to make history was postponed. But the fact that she appeared to be legitimately in the running for the job is good news and marks another step in the progression of women who are striving to assume leadership roles in the sports industry.
What makes Ng's story notable is she has made her mark on the "sport side" of men's sports. While a growing number of women have established themselves on the business side of men's leagues and teams (working in communications, marketing, human resources, finance and the like), it's very rare to see a woman managing any of the core functions of the sports themselves. In the major leagues of men's sports, player- and competition-related jobs like coaches, general managers, heads of player personnel, referees, scouts and trainers have remained a male domain, with the notable exception of the Dodgers' anticipated hiring of Sue Falsone.
For Ng or any other woman, breaking into this rarefied world will require many stars to align. "Ms. Right" will need to have experience, know-how, people skills and enough toughness to deal with strong personalities and, in the case of an aspiring GM, to withstand the relentless pressure to deliver wins. She'll be competing against many other qualified candidates to be hired and will need to prove to her prospective owner why she stands out on the merits and why her appointment won't be seen as tokenism or a public relations ploy. And her owner, who will be very conscious of the scrutiny her hiring will bring, will need to be very confident that Ms. Right is up to the job and fully worthy of the responsibilities entrusted to her before he pulls the trigger.
Unlike Ng, I was never in the running to be the general manager of a men's professional sports team, but I do have some familiarity with being a woman in the men's sports world. My first job in sports back in 1988 was as a staff attorney for the NBA, where my duties included approving NBA player contracts and trades and counseling the team GMs and lawyers on the intricacies of the salary cap and other collective bargaining provisions. The work put me in daily contact with the NBA's most prominent basketball minds at that time, including Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Willis Reed, John Nash, Stan Kasten, Jan Volk, Scott Layden, Ernie Grunfeld and others.
I dealt with no other women in this role, and whenever the NBA competition committee convened, I was always the only woman in the room. But I never really saw my gender as a factor or an impediment. What mattered instead, or so it seemed, was the quality of my counsel and whether my colleagues at the teams respected me and trusted my judgment on important basketball matters. I came to understand quickly that in order to succeed on the "sport side," at least at the league level, I needed to know my stuff inside and out, return calls promptly, be decisive and fair and show an understanding and appreciation for the game of basketball (which was easy for me because of my own background playing the sport). I'll bet Ng has a similar take on what's gotten her to where she is in baseball.
I hope Ng eventually breaks through and gets her shot. More important, if she does, I hope the story lines keep to her draft picks, trades, free-agent signings and win-loss record. Unless, of course, she decides to rappel down the side of a building in an elf hat. Now that would be a story.