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"Beyond the Game" with Sarah Hughes

Hughes blogs from Barnard College panel discussion

Sarah Hughes and Flat Stanley visit Barnard College.
Sarah Hughes and Flat Stanley visit Barnard College. (courtesy of Sarah Hughes)

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By Sarah Hughes, special to icenetwork.com
(11/12/2010) - Sarah Hughes blogs about Barnard College's panel discussion on women in sports.

Wednesday evening's panel discussion at Barnard College, "Beyond the Game: Women, Sports, and Competition" focused on exploring the importance of women participating in sports and how sports have impacted women's lives beyond the playing field into real-life leadership roles.

Four representatives of different professional sports came to the Manhattan campus to discuss the ever-changing role of women in sports and society. Jane Geddes, a U.S. Open winner and currently the Senior Vice President at the LPGA spoke about her career as a professional golfer and the transition of going from 31st on the money list with more than $3.7 million in earnings to life as a law student and then back to working on the other side of golf, as an executive.

Donna Orender, the President of the WNBA since February 2005, was the first to speak up among the panel, and also the first before the panel began. Following President Spar's opening remarks, moderator Juliet Mancur, a staff writer at the New York Times, introduced us as we walked on stage. When Donna took her seat, she immediately made small talk with Jane. In between playing three seasons in the Women's Professional Basketball League and her post as President of the WNBA, Donna spent 17 years with the PGA Tour, most recently as Senior VP of Strategic Development. The bonds of sisterhood were evident and representative of how women are able to connect sports and business.

In fact, President Spar, noting how she had not participated in organized athletics herself, had reaped the benefits of being a strong supporter and fan. She brought her young daughter and daughter's friends to the Ice Theatre show a few weeks ago, explaining how they are "Johnny Weir fanatics." She leaned in and whispered to me, "Don't tell anyone, but I am too!" I had to laugh.

The third panelist, Erinn Smart, a 2001 Barnard graduate, is the first African-American woman to win an Olympic medal, a silver, in fencing. Although I hadn't formally met Donna and Jane before Wednesday, I knew Juliet and Erinn. I had met Erinn in Athens, Greece at the 2004 Summer Games when I was working as a correspondent for WCBS, getting to know many of the NY area athletes as a result. After that I had followed her career more closely and cheered as she won silver in Beijing. What I remembered of Juliet was how she was willing to go above and beyond for a story. Often on the figure skating beat, she had found me at last year's Skate America in Lake Placid in the upper most bowl of the arena, trying to watch some of the competition in quiet. She must have thought my quote would add something different to her story because she spent valuable deadline-sensitive time trying to track me down, which she successfully accomplished.

As we re-acquainted ourselves behind the dais, the nice and easy repore made for a comfortable atmosphere.

It was an intimate audience, mostly filled with young women, presumably students and recent alumni, but also young girls eager to hear their role models speak. Donna, who had the most experience on the panel as a sports executive, was happy to see the Barnard women's basketball team, dressed in their team uniform, happily answering questions she threw at them. Donna led the discussion on the importance of knowing the sports language in the business world and of how her knowledge and experience in sports has been a secret key in enabling her to participate in a way that wouldn't be possible without that expertise.

She attributed her success in the executive branches of the PGA Tour and WNBA to learning how to be a competitor as a basketball player and then applying those same principles as a businesswoman. Although Juliet kept the discussion focused among us by asking specific questions and keeping anyone from going too far off track, she raised a thought-provoking question by asking what we would attribute the results of a study that came out where 80% of women CEOs polled had said they participated in a team sport as a young woman, and if there was something particular about team sports, as opposed to individual sports, that might be attributed to it.

While basketball is most definitely a team sport and fencing has team competitions (Erin's silver is from a team event), golf and figure skating are viewed as individual sports. Jane and I both agreed that, while we are "individual" sports, we rely heavily on the team around us. Golfers rely on caddies, trainers, swing coaches, etc. Skaters rely on coaches, chorographers, dress designers, music editors, etc. So even though golfers and skaters are out there on the field -- or ice -- alone, we have to learn and apply the principles of teamwork in order to be well trained and prepared for our competitions.

Near the end of the moderated portion, before the floor was opened to questions from the audience, Juliet paused right before she was about to speak, then turned to me. She wanted to know what it was like to be part of a sport where women were the main draw. To be honest, I was fortunate to be able to watch the women compete on television as a young girl and have skating idols. While it is a sport where women have a strong voice, it is also true that I was born after two boys, who along with my father, were crazy about hockey.

After skating in some shows, a light went off in my father's head. Where should I skate next? In between periods at a New York Rangers game. Of course! It was one of those ideas where he couldn't believe he didn't think of it sooner. But it was also the first time I didn't know how the thousands of fans at Madison Square Garden, fans there to see a hockey game, would react. I didn't want to be embarrassed, and thankfully, I wasn't terribly so afterwards.

I got a welcoming reception and after that first game, my brothers' respect for figure skating improved tremendously. Because of the fan's reaction, I saw the importance of early influence on how people, like hockey playing boys, views things they don't have much previous experience with.

As I sat thinking about the 80% number and wondering whether the other 20% participated in an "individual" sport or nothing at all -- and why "nothing" and "individual" would be grouped together, I had to question that study on a few accounts. Women today are living in a different society than the one my mother was raised in, and even more different than the one my grandmother was raised in. It is hard for me to fathom that women have only been able to receive a mainstream college education for a few decades, but these are the facts. As women's roles in society progress and expand, it is realistic to think that more than 80% of the younger female CEOs have participated in some kind of team sport as a kid because it is almost impossible to avoid as part of any public school curriculum, many of these programs existing because of Title IX.

So, what that 80% is saying, taking into assumption that the study was taken among my mother's generation, is that women who sought out and participated in sports went on to succeed and take on leadership roles in the business world. By including sports in the everyday lives of young women, we as a society are now enabling young girls with the skills of teamwork, competition and physical fitness that they can successfully parlay into other areas of their lives.

The night came to a close with little doubt that early influence is a vital part of this development. Juliet's mom gave Juliet a question to ask the panel on the role of our mothers in our lives and how they impacted our sporting careers. Juliet didn't ask the question, but as I relayed the story of her daughter's commitment to going beyond the call of duty last year at Skate America after the panel, her mother responded with the greatest compliment a daughter can receive. She didn't praise Juliet's extra effort, but instead congratulated me on having the honor to be part of one of her daughter's stories. It was not what I had expected, but exactly what the evening was about, and what I hope for all young women to have in their lives: the support and influence of a leader who believes in you and your abilities.