Molly Kasper just wanted an explanation. With her team trailing by three, a foul called near the end of a 2016 Class 4A semifinal game against traditional power Hopkins left the Eastview girls’ basketball coach perplexed. Like any coach would, she called to the referees on the court, asking for an explanation.
She yelled again, more forcefully.
Again, no response.
This isn’t right, Kasper thought.
“They ran right by me,” she recalled. “Never said a word to me.”
For much of the game, Kasper had watched her counterpart on the other bench, well-respected Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff, repeatedly have brief discussions and consultations with the officials. Didn’t she deserve the same treatment?
“It was an all-male crew,” Kasper said. “I was uncomfortable. Was it because I was a female?”
Talk to a woman coaching high school basketball in the Twin Cities and chances are she’s had a similar experience to Kasper.
“I’ve had players ask for my Snapchat [social media app] during a game. After giving a pregame talk one time, a coach said, ‘You forgot something. You forgot to ask what I’m doing after the game.'”
Blatant, overt sexism in the coaching ranks has been curbed thanks to Title IX in 1972, other state and federal legislation, and women excelling in roles long held by men. Yet in high school basketball ranks, female coaches assert they still deal with subtle, ingrained sexist attitudes on the part of referees, coaches, parents and fans.
“I’ve faced a lot of it,” said Ellen Wiese, a veteran girls’ basketball coach currently at Eden Prairie. “I think it’s part of society at large. Most people are still programmed with a distinct sexism. It’s not surprising that it comes up in coaching.”
Nicole LaVoi, director of Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, said eliminating such prejudices are difficult because traditional gender roles are deeply woven into the fabric of society. Changing lifetimes of beliefs doesn’t happen simply because of a mandate.
“Gender bias and gender stereotypes are very prevalent in society,” LaVoi said. “There’s an assumption in sports that men are better coaches than women. Many women coaches on the sidelines are treated as second-class citizens by referees, colleagues and parents. Those biases and stereotypes are very hard to change.”
Wiese, a practicing attorney, also has coached at Orono High School, the University of St. Thomas and for the Metro All-Stars AAU club program. She remembers an exchange with an athletic director early in her coaching career that had her shaking her head.
“I was offered a coaching position and we were talking about practice times and facilities,” she said. “And he said, ‘You know, with Title IX, girls get preferential treatment now.’ I was stunned. I found it incredible that a federal statute that mandates equality was looked at as favoring women. If that’s the perspective we’re working from, we’re screwed.”
‘These guys hate you’
For much of her high school coaching career, Minnetonka’s Leah Dasovich couldn’t let those slights go. Little things used to irritate her, such as having opposing coaches come over and introduce themselves to one of her male assistants, assuming he was the head coach.
“A couple of years ago, I was really keying in on treatment from coaches and officials,” she said. “I contacted the MSHSL [Minnesota State High School League] three different times about officials I did not want assigned to our games. I wrote up reports and sent film to the state high school league and they’re very good at listening. I like to believe they’re addressing it.”
Now in her ninth year, with the 2016 Class 4A state championship to her credit, Dasovich doesn’t get as quite as worked up as she once did. With experience, she believes, comes a greater level of respect.
“I feel like I’ve earned it,” she said.
But sexist instances still happen. Dasovich described a sequence in a game at Moorhead in early January in which she was trying to call a timeout.
“Suddenly, an official comes charging at me and gives me the timeout, but then he’s constantly talking to me, trying to goad me, because he wanted to give me a [technical foul].”
Her husband, Tom, was watching the game online. He’s the athletic and activities director at Lakeville South and a former high school basketball coach.
“He texted me, ‘These guys hate you,’ ” Dasovich said. “It was three male officials against me. I know there’s bias when Tom notices it. It was like I stepped back in time.”
Pete Vrieze, director of operations for the Minneapolis Officials Association, said the organization always is looking for ways to improve relationships between coaches and officials.
“Officiating is communication and the biggest issue is the right kind of communication,” Vrieze said. “I don’t think we can ever overemphasize the importance of communicating.”
Getting written off
Gender bias can be worse for younger female coaches.
Tiffany Stubbs, 25, is in her third year as a coach at Concordia Academy, her second as a head coach. She started coaching soon after graduating from Northwestern (Roseville), where she played basketball.
“There have been times when I have problem or ask a question, and I get ignored,” Stubbs said. “It seems like with men, they’re willing to go over and talk, give more justification for a call. Maybe it’s because I’m a young female, they assume I don’t know as much. I get written off a bit more.”
And sometimes, she said, that behavior could be considered sexual harassment.
“They’ll come over and flirt with me or wink at me,” she said. “Maybe they don’t see me as an authority figure. And I do feel like referees make calls based on the power or authority of a coach. I’m not a coach that’s going to fight every call, but I wonder: Would making more of a stink help? Would it get the calls going my way?”
Stubbs comes from a basketball family in Iowa. Her father was a longtime coach who now drives up for her games and often helps out on the Concordia Academy bench.
“It really bugs him when I get ignored,” she said. “He’s gotten a few warnings because a ref has been rude to me.”
One fix, these coaches agree, is the presence of a woman on the officiating crew. It adds a level of comfort and tends to mitigate concerns coaches might have about issues with an all-male crew.
“Female officials aren’t perfect,” Kasper said. “But I feel like it gives me someone I can talk to.”
Needing better communication
After a long and successful coaching stint in North Dakota, Barb Metcalf is in her third season at Park Center. She said the gender diversity among metro area officials is “more positive here than in North Dakota” and one of the things she appreciates most about coaching in Minnesota.
“This year, we had three female officials for our game with Hopkins and that was pretty cool,” she said.
The high school league, which has been pushing for more people to become officials, has been active in bringing together coaches and officials from across the state for in-person meetings and conversations about the changing nature of the game.
“Our goal was to raise awareness and encourage best practices,” MSHSL executive director Erich Martens said. “We recognize one bad experience can be a difference-maker.”
In those meetings, the league directly addressed the issue of communication between coaches and officials.
“We encourage officials to keep conversations with coaches to a minimum and to keep them balanced,” associate director Lisa Lissimore said. “Our message is that no one be treated differently because of gender, skin color or level of play.”
Staying positive amid sexist behavior
It’s not only coaches who feel the burden of sexism on the court. Female officials often face what they regard as demeaning and derogatory comments, mostly from fans but even male coaches and players.
Haley Johnson, 21, has been officiating basketball since she was 13 and high school varsity games since she was 16. She estimates she officiates 10 games a week.
She readily admits her age can cause awkward interactions, but draws the line when they become sexist.
“I’ve had players ask for my Snapchat [social media app] during a game,” she recalled. “After giving a pregame talk one time, a coach said, ‘You forgot something. You forgot to ask what I’m doing after the game.’ I probably should have reported it, but at the time I just looked at the other two officials, which were guys, and laughed it off.”
That response is not unusual, LaVoi said, but can be damaging to gender equity.
“You shouldn’t brush these kinds of statements off,” she said. “When women do that, we’re letting them off the hook.”
Johnson, who has a goal of becoming an NBA referee, prefers to look toward the positive side of her pursuit.
“I’ve gotten a lot of compliments, too,” she said. “The good really outweighs the bad. One time a coach told me I was inspiring his whole bench to become refs. Since I was young, I knew this is what I want to do. I want to show girls they can do stuff like this.”
If change is the goal, LaVoi said, it all comes down to education and influence.
“It will take a change in the culture of sports to one that values and supports women,” she said. “And the way to do that is through education.”