Fighting for Equality and Equity in Sports: The Women of the NJCAA

Fighting for Equality and Equity in Sports: The Women of the NJCAA

Kevin B. Thomas

Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion / National Junior College Athletic Association

In celebration of Women's History Month, the NJCAA celebrates every woman educator, coach, athletic director, administrator, and all those who are trailblazers in the world of college sports paving the way to ensure the success of student-athletes. This month we look at four inspiring women and how they are making an impact in the world of two-year college athletics.

Making their mark in the NJCAA - Trenia Tillis Hoard, Tyler (TX) Women's Basketball Head Coach, Molly Simons, NJCAA Vice President for Championships, Governance & Membership, Rochelle M. Taylor, Henry Ford (MI) Director of Athletics, and Ryela Rodriguez, NJCAA Compliance Associate.

Through a series of interview questions, each woman discussed what it meant for them to be a woman in sports, touching on the importance of equality and equity, and leaving their mark for future generations.

Q: As a woman, why did you decide to work in the field of sports, and what path led you here?

Trenia Tillis Hoard, Women's Basketball Head Coach at Tyler Junior College: I landed in the field of sports by accident and opportunity. While working on my Master's degree at Stephen F. Austin State University, I was asked to be the volunteer assistant at Tyler Junior College. Less than a month later the University of Arkansas was seeking a minority applicant for the position of assistant coach and asked me to join their staff. Four years later Tyler JC needed to interview a minority applicant for their head coach position, and I needed the interview experience. The person they offered the job to decided not to take it and Tyler offered me the position.

Molly Simons, Vice President for Championships, Governance & Membership at the NJCAA National Office: My core passion has always been equipping students to be productive members of society. At first, I thought I would do that directly in the classroom as a teacher, but when I started working in college athletics during undergrad, I quickly fell in love with how collegiate sports can play such an integral role in shaping young lives. As I've progressed in my career, I've seen how important it is to have women at the table and to continue creating opportunities.

Rochelle M. Taylor, Director of Athletics at Henry Ford College: I took a love of sport (track and field) and chose to coach so those other athletes had a chance for success. I quickly discovered a love for executing events that included making sure athletes, coaches, and spectators all had a great experience, and my career in athletics administration was born.

Ryela Rodriguez, Compliance Associate at the NJCAA National Office: I decided to work in the field of sports because it still allows me to make an impact and be a part of something bigger than myself. My experience as a former student-athlete is what led me into this career and as I stopped playing sports, I realized it was a part of my life that I didn't want to fully give up just yet. Sports has given me so much and it continues to motivate me to do the same within my career.

Question: How do you view women's impact on the world of sports?

Tillis Hoard: We have come a long way, but we have not come far enough.

Simons: Women have such a crucial impact on the world of sports. It's refreshing to see women using their voices and standing up for their opportunities, or cultural issues, to play sports better overall.

Taylor: Women impact at all levels, from the mom supporting their sons and daughters at practices and games, to women owning professional sports franchises. Women lead, women coach, women dominate, women influence, women spend.

Rodriguez: Being a woman in sports teaches self-reliance and resilience as well as developing leadership qualities that are empowering. As times continue to change, we are seeing how women in sports are becoming united across national barriers and cultural differences coming together for a common cause. For these reasons and more, I believe that the impact women have on the world of sports is powerful, educational, and inspiring.

Question: What improvements have you seen over your career in the fight for equality and equity for women in sports?

Tillis Hoard: I have witnessed women being given an opportunity at a higher level than the same resources. Pretty much enough equality to afford institutions the ability to state they are working towards equity.

Simons: I was a postgraduate intern during the 40th anniversary of Title IX and now I get to benchmark where we are for the 50th anniversary. In that time, I've seen great strides made for coverage and interest in women's sports. Whether at the campus, state, or national level, we're seeing additional sports opportunities for women (flag football, women's wrestling, and others, just at the NJCAA level). It's also great to see more female coaches, administrators, and officials in exceedingly prominent roles, but there's still more to be done.

Taylor: I've seen more exposure for women's sports; more women in 'male-dominated' fields (referees, sportscasters, coaches, etc.), and more programs to encourage women to participate in sports. In some ways we have come a long way; in many ways, we have a long way to go.

Rodriguez: Throughout my career as an athlete and a professional I have seen more participation of women in leadership within the profession, an increase in treatment, and more awareness to economic disparities that women face. There is an effort in increasing resource allocation for women's sports that was not happening before. By closing the gap in investments in women's sports and promoting equal economic opportunities for women and girls, major improvements are continuing to be made. With key events like the U.S Women's National Soccer team settling an equal pay lawsuit to the fight for equity between the men's and women's NCAA March Madness tournaments, slowly but surely there have been more tangible victories for women in sports than we've seen before.

Question: What needs to improve in the fight for equality and equity for women in sports?

Tillis Hoard: Equity is one solution for addressing the imbalance within athletic departments. However, it will take justice to take equity one step further by fixing the system in a way that leads to lasting change and equitable access for the next generation.

Simons: We need to continue to create avenues for women to advance in their field within the industry (whether coaching, administration, officiating, athletic training, etc.). For our student-athletes and industry professionals alike, we need to address areas of needed support but also identify the systems or "well that's just the way it's always been" and dismantle those ways of thinking.

Taylor: We need everybody to be included in the fight; it can't just be the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion folks in the ring.

Rodriguez: One of the most important things that need improvement in the fight for equality and equity for women in sports is doing a better job on more media coverage with an emphasis on promoting women's achievements in a positive light. There are still barriers within society that view the successes and achievements of women in sports as "crazy" or "questionable." The disparities with this are evident and as women continue to push past their boundaries and do amazing things, the image portrayed through the media needs to be free of the gender bias that can shadow those achievements.

Question: As a professional woman in sports, what have you done to advance equality and equity for women in sports?

Tillis Hoard: I have educated and prepared myself to be my own best advocate. There are times I have had to address not having the same resources and opportunities. I purposefully share my incite and circumstances so that I can be allocated the exact resources and opportunities to reach equal outcomes as my counterparts.

Simons: In my positions (current and former), I've attempted to use my seat at the table as one to further women's athletics. Whether one-on-one as a mentor or intern supervisor or higher-level with getting better national television coverage for women's sports, every decision must answer the question of if it will have a better impact on women's athletics.

Taylor: I have been directly responsible for developing and implementing programs to advance women of color in administrative and coaching positions in intercollegiate athletics. I've overseen internships and scholarship programs as well as fellowships and administrative academies. I continue to ensure that equality and equity exist in my program at Henry Ford College.

Rodriguez: By embodying the mentality that it "begins with me" I have been able to become more of an advocate for women in sports. As a coach for youth volleyball, I believe it begins by me instilling in my athletes to be strong and confident despite the societal views that women in sports struggle with. In addition to this, through the various leadership positions I've held, I have made a point to never take for granted the opportunity given to me and to make sure to use my voice and skills as a platform for shedding light on the gap in gender equality in sports.

Question: A ten-year-old girl asks you a question, "what do I need to do to be successful as a female in sports?" What is your response to her?

Tillis Hoard: Put on your boxing gloves and go into the ring prepared. Our society will seek to exploit your weaknesses. Leave your emotions at home and walk into each situation with a business mindset. We might not get the same opportunities, but we must make the most of our opportunities for the little girl coming behind us. I have done my part now you need to carry the torch.

Simons: Work hard and do your best for any job or team you're on. Your work ethic and how you treat others will take you far. Speak up and let people know what your interests are. You don't have to be the loudest in the room to be heard. Have fun!

Taylor: Just be your best self. Success looks different for everyone. Decide what you want to do and put your complete effort into it.

Rodriguez: My response to that would to be don't let any existing stigma around women in sports guide you on a path that society has already set for you. You'll have ample opportunity to excel as a woman in sports if you first understand that the only thing standing in the way of you accomplishing your goals is yourself. Setting the bar high and mentally knowing that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to is the first step to success; setting goals for yourself and continuing to raise the bar as you continue to achieve new heights. Secondly, I'd say that regardless of gender, the only way to go far in sports and in life is by working hard. The one thing that sets you apart from everyone else is how much time and effort you put into your craft. The one thing people in sports, or any business, have in common is they dedicate themselves to their work and continue to challenge themselves rather than settling for being just average.

It is evident that these four women are leaving their mark in the world of sports. Their commitment and dedication to ensuring more equality and equity for women are unmistakable.  Sport has the power to change lives. It can drive gender equality by teaching women and girls teamwork, self-reliance, resilience, and confidence. Women in sport defy gender stereotypes and social norms, make inspiring role models, and show men and women as equals.

The NJCAA acknowledges and honors the impact and work that all women representing the association and their invaluable impact on student-athletes.