How much does gender bias and gender stereotyping affect the work life of college coaches and perceptions of leadership on the part of players? Through the lens of a lawsuit filed by former Boston College women’s soccer coach Alison Foley, who alleged gender discrimination as a basis of her termination, it’s quite a bit. According to the complaint, Foley started her 22-year tenure as head coach of the Eagles women’s soccer team in 1997, becoming the winningest coach in program history, with 280 wins and 15 NCAA tournament appearances.
Foley alleges that in 2018, a month after finishing another season that surpassed expectations, both in terms of wins and fundraising, she was asked to meet with then athletic director Martin Jarmond and vice president of human resources David Trainor. During that meeting she learned that Jarmond and Trainor had determined there were problems with the culture of the team, reaching that conclusion without observing practices or traveling with the team, and without consulting the senior associate athletics administrator, Matt Conway, who had. Further, a recording of a conversation that Foley had with an athlete, following a night class and recorded without Foley’s knowledge, had been used to fuel further concerns about Foley’s fitness, given a perception that the coach slurred her words and might have been drunk. Faced with the ultimatum of resigning or being fired, Foley opted for forced resignation.
Foley argues in her lawsuit that her advocacy to be given a multi-year contract and to be treated equitably, in comparison to her male colleagues, was a source of tension between her and Trainor. She claims her apparent failure to create a positive team culture and alleged mistreatment of her players instead served as pretext for her dismissal. In a statement to The Boston Globe, Boston College defended its decision to, as the school claims, not renew Foley’s contract, denying that gender bias entered the picture.
In support of her position, Foley cites numerous studies that document the gendered dynamics in college athletic departments that leave female coaches vulnerable on two fronts. First, they note that gender stereotypes influence the public expectations—of administrators, athletes and parents—surrounding female coach behavior, setting up an atmosphere wherein assertive or aggressive behavior is viewed less favorably when demonstrated by female coaches. Second, they further argue that a gender-based double standard operates among administrators, who respond more dramatically when complaints are filed about female coaches and also don’t respond drastically enough when complaints about male coaches come up.
Ellen J. Staurowsky, an internationally recognized expert on social justice issues in sport, is a full professor of sports media at Ithaca College.