She'll make a bigger difference on the bench. Photographer: Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
She'll make a bigger difference on the bench. Photographer: Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

As pro football deals with its woman problem, the National Basketball Association is showing everyone how it’s done.

Less than a week after the National Basketball Players Association elected Michele Roberts as the first woman to head a professional sports union, the San Antonio Spurs have hired the first female as a full-time coach in the NBA.

Becky Hammon will join the bench of the San Antonio Spurs as the defending champions enter the next season. The 37-year-old is a WNBA veteran, having played for the San Antonio Stars for 16 years, retiring with the seventh-most points and sixth-most games played in league history.

The NBA is continuing an encouraging trend investing in its female talent both on and off the court. The NBA is far and away the most successfully diverse league in professional sports, outpacing the NFL and MLB in both race and gender hiring practices. Lakers president Jeanie Buss was already one of the most important women in sports before Roberts and Hammon rose to challenge that title.

What many commentators miss, however, is that Hammon’s promotion continues the line of women rising the ranks of the NBA while reinforcing that women’s basketball should be taken seriously. Hammon’s qualifications to coach in the NBA are largely based on her experience playing professional basketball herself, an acknowledgement and recognition of the skills learned in the WNBA. The WNBA is often maligned for what is considered a lower level of play -- a smaller ball, a shorter three-point line -- but the NBA has embarked on a concerted effort to legitimize its female brethren to basketball fans of all stripes.

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is among those who have praised Hammon's basketball IQ, but her road to the NBA was paved by pioneers such as Nancy Lieberman, who became the head coach of the Texas Legends in the NBA's developmental league in 2009. There was also Lisa Boyer, who worked as a volunteer assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2001-02. The Spurs' latest hire goes a long way to dispel whatever stereotypes still exist around a woman's capacity to comprehend the game, while perhaps putting to rest the question of whether a female coach can earn the respect of her male players. In fact, a 2012 study by Harvard Business Review suggests that women might actually be more effective leaders than men, despite facing tougher expectations to prove themselves.

This isn't some Battle of the Sexes, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do publicity stunt. This is a historic move by the Spurs, a progressive organization with a reputation for turning innovation into success -- their roster of foreign-born players was also controversial until it started winning rings. As Hammon put it, physical differences will likely always separate men and women on the court, "but when it comes to things of the mind, things like coaching, game-planning, coming up with offensive and defensive schemes, there's no reason why a woman couldn't be in the mix." As women continue to break down barriers in business, politics, and culture, the Spurs have signaled that a basketball team with much at stake has something to gain from a woman on the bench.

To contact the writer of this article: Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.