This past fall was a historic season for women in sports. Three incredible and inspiring women — Kim Ng, Sarah Fuller and Stéphanie Frappart — all became trailblazers in their respective fields, paving the way for a more inclusive and exciting future for female athletes determined to tear down the patriarchal walls that have excluded women from the sports world.
The glass ceiling of women in the sports world has been slowly chipped away for years. With cracks showing from a promising 2020, the ceiling threatens to shatter in the near future, an exciting prospect as female athletes and executives attempt to level the playing field for generations to come.
For 29 years, Ng has worked as a high-level baseball executive, with 12 years of experience as an assistant general manager and later as the senior vice president of baseball operations for the MLB. Five times throughout her career, Ng was interviewed for a vacant general manager position, but each time she was denied and the job was filled by a man, despite Ng being just as experienced and qualified as her fellow candidates.
Then, on Nov. 13, the Miami Marlins announced Ng would serve as their next general manager, a historic and unprecedented moment for women in baseball and the larger sports world. Ng became the highest-ranking female executive in the history of the MLB, as well as any major North American sports league.
Ng reported feeling a sense of responsibility to succeed, driven by a desire to serve as a strong role model to women and particularly women of color, specifically women hoping to pursue careers in sports.
“There’s an adage, ‘You can’t be it if you can’t see it.’ I suggest to them, ‘Now you can see it,’” Ng said at a news conference in Miami on Nov. 16.
Seeing Ng break a glass ceiling that has been rigid for decades serves as proof that the seemingly improbable can become possible through the determination of incredible individuals.
Just days removed from winning an SEC championship as goalkeeper for the Vanderbilt University women’s soccer team, Fuller became the first woman to play in a college football game for a Power Five conference as she suited up for Vanderbilt as kicker against the University of Missouri. Struck by spikes in COVID-19 cases within the football program, Vanderbilt was left without any available kickers for its Nov. 30 game, but instead of being defeated by the virus, an empowering icon emerged in the wake of disease and gloom.
Donning the phrase “Play Like a Girl” on the back of her helmet, Fuller tore down the historic patriarchy of football with her kickoff to start the second half of the Commodores’ game against the Tigers. Two weeks later, she scored two extra points for Vanderbilt in its Dec. 12 game against the University of Tennessee.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, Frappart similarly made headlines, serving as the first female referee in a men’s UEFA Champions League match as Juventus FC took on FC Dynamo Kiev. Frappart’s past few years have consisted of tearing down various barriers for women in the sports officiating world. Last summer, Frappart served as a referee for the 2019 UEFA Super Cup, becoming the first woman to officiate a major European men’s soccer championship match. She also became the first female referee in Ligue 1 history in the spring. Frappart consistently leads the way for female officials in male-dominated sports, alongside a rising number of female referees in North American sports in the past decade, as women increasingly serve in officiating roles in the NBA and NFL.
As we reflect upon a season that saw numerous firsts, naturally we wonder what might be next. Becky Hammon, assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, seems poised to become the first female head coach in a major North American sport, consistently mentioned among potential candidates as NBA teams look to hire a new coach. In a couple of weeks, Sarah Thomas will become the first female referee to officiate a Super Bowl, as she is set to serve as a down judge in Super Bowl LV. The U.S. women’s national soccer team continues to outperform the country’s men’s team as they dominate competitions and find themselves as role models for a new generation of female athletes.
In a year that has left many of us dejected and distressed, women breaking the glass ceiling in the sports world has provided me, along with many others across the globe, with hope for a brighter future. Just a decade ago, women like Ng, Fuller and Frappart serving in their respective roles may have seemed ludicrous, but now, we admire and recognize their accomplishments. While the next decade is impossible to predict, it is safe to assume we will see more women pave the way for new generations of female leaders in the sports world, an exciting prospect for the future of sports.
Eli Kales is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. Off-Court Voices appears online every other week.