Big East Commissioner is ‘Living Proof’ of Women’s Progress in Professional Sports

Val Ackerman, a former basketball star who served as first president of the WNBA, talks about the changing trajectory of women in athletics.

Val Ackerman

Val Ackerman. Courtesy of Porter Binks

How did your Jersey upbringing mold your career path?
My grandfather was the athletic director at Trenton State College, and my dad played many sports and became the athletic director at my high school. My dad and granddad had very close ties to the New Jersey sports ecosystem. My impression was always that people in the business were very dedicated. They were lifers in high school sports.

val ackerman
How do youth sports for girls today compare with opportunities when you were young?
The difference is enormous. When I was in junior high school, there were no organized sports. The only activity available to girls was cheerleading. There was no basketball, no soccer, nothing. It wasn’t until I got to Hopewell Valley that I had a chance to play sports, and I became one of the first female athletic-scholarship recipients. Thanks to Title IX, the number of opportunities increased exponentially. My daughters had so many opportunities that I didn’t have. I was lucky that my dad and my brother played sports with me in our front lawn.

Should collegiate-level student athletes be paid?
They do get paid, in the form of scholarships. I got my education paid for at the University of  Virginia. The ability to graduate debt free is significant. Coming up are rules changes where student athletes can be paid for their names, images and likenesses, but I don’t believe student athletes should be classified as employees who are paid by the schools, because that would be taxable.

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How viable is a career for women in sports now?
When I got out of college, the only opportunity that existed for me was to play on a team in another country. I was one of those responsible for the foundation of the Women’s National Basketball Association in 1997, and now there’s not just pro basketball, but pro soccer for women. Women can play for their national teams in other sports. There are so many more avenues than there were before. 

How much of a motivation is it for women to be able to play on television more often?
Television has just changed the sports world in bringing sports to visibly higher levels of people. College sports are available on television at all levels. The number of high school sports on television have increased, so you’ve got that platform. That is a nice extra benefit. If you’re in high school, and you want to increase your exposure to college, you want to be seen on TV.

Are women catching up to men in front-office sports positions?
Yes. I’m living proof of that. Just my story, playing sports in college, then going on to have a career in sports. I don’t have the number at my fingertips, but women who play sports in college have an even better chance to succeed at the field that they choose. I don’t think it’s been an even trajectory, but the journey of women and sports in this country has changed. In some ways we’ve seen tremendous progress. A number of women are in positions of leadership in sports. It’s not 50-50, and there’s work to do, but more women have become mentors and guiding lights. We’re moving in a good direction.

Ackerman will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday, Sept. 11, and the New Jersey Hall of Fame in October.

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