Jocelyn Benson leading fight for women’s sports in coronavirus age

When Jocelyn Benson pitched Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on developing the state’s Task Force on Women in Sports, she knew first-hand about the uphill battle female athletes face nationwide for support and recognition. A lifelong athlete, Michigan’s Secretary of State aspired to become a big-league umpire, but became resigned to the notion her dream wasn’t possible, given the dearth of female officials in the baseball world.

With those inequities in mind, the mission of the task force was always going to be challenging. Then the coronavirus blew everything up, along with the rest of the world. With state and collegiate budgets slashed, and professional sports faced with returning to play without fans in the stands, women’s athletics are experiencing an existential threat for survival. But as out Rugby legend Phaidra Knight recently said to me, opportunities can be salvaged from times of crisis. Benson agrees, determined to use this moment as a springboard to erase the unjust status quo, and strive towards a more equitable athletic future.

The mission will undoubtedly be difficult, but Benson is used to taking on challenges. Once you run the Boston Marathon when you’re eight months pregnant, few obstacles seem insurmountable.

“It’s this big issue of not letting anyone else but you define what you’re capable of,” Benson says. “The epilogue is, the next Marathon I ran after that, someone came up to around mile five, it was in Detroit, and she said, ‘You’re Jocelyn Benson. I’m five months pregnant, and I didn’t think I could run this marathon, but I saw you ran Boston, so I’m doing this.’ It was just this test of seeing the power of doing and the way in which we can all learn from each other about what’s possible.”

As CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), Benson became even more aware of the power of visibility, and the importance of good allies. She credits RISE board member and former NFL GM Scott Piolo, who played an instrumental role in ex-offensive lineman Ryan O’Callaghan’s coming out story, with persuading her to create the task force. Elected as Michigan’s Secretary of State in 2018, Benson was determined to use her position to advance opportunities for female leaders. Pioli connected Benson to women in leadership positions across an array of industries, where she quickly began to realize one of the best pathways to the C-suite is through sports.

“You have all the data that shows women in executive positions, the vast majority are athletes,” she says. “So you have this irony: this is an industry that generates leaders, the sports industry, and particularly female leaders, as female athletes become leaders in other industries, and at the same time, it’s not really open to women or women of color. I wanted to tackle that issue. That was the dominating factor.”

While Benson started the conversation in Lansing, Mich. about the task force, it couldn’t have been created without support from other leaders in the administration. After Donald Trump narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in Michigan — he won by roughly 10,704 votes — voters in the Wolverine State ushered in one of the most diverse executive offices in the country. Whitmer was elected governor, while Garlin Gilchrist II, a Black man, was elected to serve as her lieutenant governor. Benson won her election for Secretary of State, and Dana Nessel, a gay woman, serves as attorney general, becoming the first openly LGBTQ person elected to statewide office in Michigan.

Nessel played a leading role in crafting the task force as well. (Her office didn’t reply to multiple requests for comment.)

Gov. Whitmer formally appointed the task force last June, selecting Benson to serve as its chair. Prior to the coronavirus, the task force completed its research stage, gathering mode swaths of information on the current status of women’s sports in Michigan. Their findings will influence their next meeting, scheduled for the fall, and hopefully held in person.

“We had found inequities, we had found success stories, but overall we concluded that female athletes routinely face lower levels of investment and resources and safety assurances compared to their male counterparts in Michigan, which we also know is true and accurate in other states as well,” Benson says. “We anticipate those inequities — that lower-level of investment, the lower amount of attention — will only exacerbate in the pressure that local governments and schools and the sports industry are now facing in the midst of Covid-19.”

Jocelyn Benson knows how to overcome an athletic challenge: she ran the Boston Marathon while she was eight months pregnant.
Photo provided

In Division 1 alone, at least 30 athletic teams have been eliminated since the coronavirus halted society in mid-March. Earlier this month, Brown University’s men’s track and field and cross country teams were reinstated, following public outcry, and leadership from LGBTQ members of the team.

Out LGBTQ athletes participate in non-revenue generating sports in large numbers, meaning they will be disproportionally impacted by cuts in athletic spending. Elevating LGBTQ athletes is a priority of the task force, with Benson recognizing they face even deeper inequities than other female athletes.

“We’ve done site visits with a number of colleges, and having conversations with female athletes, or female athletes who are trans or identify with the LGBT community, the lack of support they receive is compounded,” Benson says. “They feel isolated not just by their gender, but also because of their sexual orientation.”

Benson has already taken important measures as secretary of state to combat those inherent inequalities, including altering a rule that makes it far easier for transgender people to change their gender on their licenses. In order for everyone to receive an equal voice, there first must be equal representation.

Due to the catastrophic losses of revenue across nearly all industries — not to mention state revenue — strenuous and gut-wrenching budgetary decisions will unfortunately be made over the next several months, and likely several years. Benson says one of the keys to engineering more equitable decisions at the executive level is putting a more diverse array of voices in those rooms. After all, you can’t be what you can’t see.

“When we’re talking about role models, how we’re talking about you can’t be what you can’t see, we need to recognize that’s not just about getting more women in positions of leadership,” Benson says. “It’s getting more women who represent multiple identities, multiple communities, multiple races, LGBT, trans women and trans individuals, into positions of leadership and power to truly demonstrate that who you are adds value, and inclusion increases the effectiveness of the team as a whole.”


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