A look back on women in sport in 2020

Maddie Loverich, Sports Editor

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When the San Francisco Giants took the field for their first exhibition game of 2020, fans experienced something they’d never seen before at a professional baseball game: a woman’s braid hanging out of the first base coaches helmet. 

It was a big deal when the MLB’s first female coach Alyssa Nakken walked out on the field. A picture of Nakken standing in the first base coach box, braid and all, circulated on social media quickly as girls finally saw themselves represented in a male-dominated landscape.

This level of female leadership was unprecedented in baseball, all up until the Miami Marlins announced their new general manager Kim Ng in November. 

As a lifelong athlete, sports fan and advocate for increased inclusivity in sport, Linfield sport management professor Natalie Welch couldn’t be more excited for Ng’s historic hiring. “She’s changing that idea of the ‘old boys club’ in sports, which is absolutely still a thing that needs to be tackled,” Welch said. “Representation and being able to see yourself in positions really matters and that’s what drives me in wanting to be a professor in sports management.”

Ng (pronounced Ang) spent her whole life at the ballfield, learning the ropes and commanding respect during her 30 years of experience working for multiple MLB teams. Her career began as an unpaid intern for the Chicago White Sox and prior to moving to Miami, she worked for ten seasons as the New York Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations.

The Marlin’s new leadership set records across more than baseball. Ng became the first female GM in all four major male North American professional sports, including football, basketball and hockey. 

The team held a socially-distanced press conference honoring the new GM, with Ng and Jeter sitting around home plate in Marlins Park. Addressing the press, Ng used the platform to speak to the women and girls in the audience. “There’s an adage,” she said. “‘You can’t be it if you can’t see it. I suggest to them, ‘Now you can see it.’”

A few weeks later, kicker Sarah Fuller took the field for Vanderbilt and made waves as the first woman to play and score in a Power Five conference college football game. Fuller is not the first woman to score in college football (the first was Liz Heaston of Willamette University in 1997), but her presence on the field for such a powerhouse group of schools sparked excitement. 

In an postgame interview, Fuller also addressed young female athletes watching her performance at home. “I just want to tell all the girls out there that you can do anything you set your mind to, you really can,” she said. 

Fuller, regularly a goalie for Vanderbilt’s women soccer team but standing in for a COVID-infected kicking staff, wore a helmet with the phrase “Play Like A Girl” on the back, a reference to a non-profit organization that supports women in sport and STEM. Since then, she has returned to the soccer pitch, but her brief football career made influential history in the sport. 

Through the end of the year, barriers continued to be broken when Becky Hammon became the first woman to serve as the head coach in an NBA game. After Spurs’ head coach Greg Popovich got ejected, Hammon, the team’s assistant, stepped into his role mid-game.

Hammon formerly enjoyed a long, illustrious career in the WNBA and was a six-time All-Star in the league. She also made history with the Spurs’ back in 2014 when she was hired as the NBA’s first full-time female assistant coach. 

Linfield softball first baseman Abi Proffitt felt inspired by the historic developments, for her own athletic career and for the future of females in athletics. “Women are so often steered away from careers in sports because it is a field dominated by mostly white men,” Proffitt said. “It makes me so happy that little girls in the future will have the privilege of seeing women like themselves breaking all of the barriers that we’ve seen in the past for women in sports and other careers.”

Leagues in all levels of sport experienced dramatic change in the turbulence of 2020, but not all the change was bad. 2020 was undoubtedly the year of women in sport gaining opportunity and showing their true capability in leadership and on the field.