And Those Men Made All The Difference

(Photo: The Fulcrum)

(Photo: The Fulcrum)

Last Tuesday, in the midst of night two of the Danny Green Skills Clinic at the University of Ottawa, I walked up to a player from the women’s team and said, “You’ll never believe the exchange I just had.”

I told her about a suggestion I’d given the lead coach. “That’s a good idea,” he’d said. “I have no ego. We’ll do it that way.” 

 “Woah,” the Gee-Gee player told me. “That gives me hope.” 

I started coaching boys when I was twenty-three years old. It was an under sixteen summer team. It wasn’t an easy start. 

In the beginning, I didn’t have the respect of my players. Only when a kid I’d coached before, a high-level player in the city, joined the team, did things start to change. He respected me as a coach and the boys respected him as a player. They saw how he treated me and in turn, they saw me differently. 

Did it bug me that I needed a sixteen-year-old boy to give my knowledge legitimacy because I’m biologically female? Heck yeah it did. But it taught me something too. 

The minority needs the help of the majority to get things done. 

 I believe this to be true of all social movements. The queer community needs the help of the straight community, visible minorities need the help of white people, and women need the help of men.

To me, that’s the long and the short of it. Without the help of the majority, things won’t change. 

I told almost every female uOtt player in the gym about that lead coach telling me my idea was good, and he was going to implement it. I did that because he’d shown me something that is so rarely given to us. By us, I mean women in male dominated spaces. Spaces where we have to fight to be heard, let alone agreed with. 

He’d given me respect. 

The summer after coaching that first u16 team, I took a u12 and a u14 boys team. They were great. The following fall, I head coached my first regular season team. Under fifteen boys. 


 I was lucky. For the next two seasons, I had a male assistant coach who was a feminist, even if he didn’t know it. I had parents who saw me as a coach, not a female coach, and players who respected my knowledge above seeing my sex. In my final year of coaching before going back to playing pro ball, I had another amazing male assistant. 

 I don’t know how easy or hard it was for these two middle aged white men to watch a young biracial woman yell at their sons. I don’t know what it was like for them when we’d discuss feminism, or racism, or classism. But I never felt like they treated me any differently because I’m female. They gave me hope. They still do. I don’t know how I got so lucky

 That’s not to say I didn’t experience sexism. I have. Of course I have. 

 Once a player saw me out in public. “Does your boyfriend know you’re dressed like that?” he asked me. As if I didn’t have agency over my own body. As if because I had a male partner, my choices were no longer my own. 

 I’ve had a dad tell me I looked sexy. I’ve had male refs walk past me to shake the hand of my male assistant coach, like I didn’t exist.

 “She’s the coach,” my assistant said once after shaking the ref’s hand. That ref turned to me and said, “Hello young lady.” It took every fiber of my being not to respond “Hello old man.” Somehow, I managed to containe myself. 

With refs, the sexism leaked into the game

 “Calm down,” they would say. “You’re past the coaching line,” they’d tell me. Meanwhile, the coach of the other team was at half court losing his mind. 

 Countless parents from other teams, when seeing me at a tournament wearing a coaching shirt would ask, “Where are the girls playing?” Or say, “I didn’t know there was a girl’s tournament here.” 

Once when I was playing with my old men’s league team, I had a ref joke about how you can’t say “nice box” in reference to a box out, when you have a girl on your team. 

 And being ignored? It happens all the time. Even in that Danny Green Clinic a male coach brushed off something I said to him. Not five minutes later when another male coach said the same thing, the guy was all for it. 

But all the while, through all the sexist bullshit, I’ve had phenomenal men supporting me. I’ve had phenomenal men respecting me. And those men made all the difference. 

It’s something I don’t say enough. It’s easy to forget that maybe men don’t know how important they are. Maybe men don’t understand how influential they can be. 

So, this is me remembering to tell them. This is me saying thank you. 

Thanks to my father, who showed me that men, like athletes, are so much more than the box society tries to fit them into. 

Thanks to the kid who made the other kids see me as a coach, not a girl. 

Thanks to my assistant coaches who never once made me feel inferior to anyone, in any gym I was ever in. And to the boys on those teams who looked at me and saw their coach. 

Thanks to my old men’s league team, who treated me like a player and a person. 

And thanks to the men who see women in male dominated spaces, and care more about their actions than their sex. 

Thank you. You are changing the world. 

HannaH Sunley-Paisley