In February, we take the time to celebrate the achievements of Black men and women who have made the world a better place. At Sparkles and Sports, we wanted to take the time to interview some amazing Black women in the sports industry about their career path and their words of wisdom. We were fortunate enough to interview:
Can you talk about your career path and your current position?
AW: I started off my career with the aspirations of wanting to be a sideline reporter. But as I grew older, I decided that I wanted to tell more stories than just 30-second sideline reports at a football or basketball game. When I attended graduate school at Northwestern, I switched to print journalism and digital media. When It was time to look for jobs, I stumbled upon a Sporting News internship opportunity, which landed me in Charlotte, N.C. Through a mutual friend, I met my current manager, who at the time was looking for assistance on the Carolina Panthers social media squad. Here I am!
JPA: I have a personal and professional journey that spans coast to coast. I was born on the west coast, had family in the south, grew up in the midwest, and decided to venture out east for college. As a student-athlete at Temple, I originally had hopes of becoming a speech pathologist. However, it was during my first year in SAAC that I realized I could work in athletics without being a coach. Through SAAC, I was able to find my voice and a place to enter college athletics professionally. I received my masters from the University of California at Berkeley in the Cultural Studies of Sports in Education. As I wrapped up my masters, I worked primarily with 17 teams and helped revamp football's Career Development Program. Additionally, I was able to work on the Department of Athletics' Strategic Plan for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. In 2015, I started at Mississippi State as the Life Skills Coordinator and was tasked with creating a holistic development program for the 16 varsity sports sponsored by the University, and was promoted in 2017 to Assistant Athletic Director, Life Skills & Community Engagement. In 2018, I was presented with an amazing opportunity to join Rice Athletics as the new Assistant Athletic Director, Student-Athlete Development. In this role, I am responsible for creating all programmatic aspects critical to the personal, social, and professional development for varsity student-athletes. Day-in and day-out, I have the pleasure of creating and providing student-athletes with opportunities for their personal and professional advancement, assisting them as they navigate life at Rice and beyond.
RH: I work full time at the University in Southern California as a community organizer and a writing
teacher, but hockey has been an important part of my life for the past few years. In 2018, I
founded the Black Girl Hockey Club as a way to connect people of color to the game of hockey.
As the founder, I am the sole writer of the BGHC website, I run our social media accounts and
work with various NHL clubs to organize game meetups all across the country. This usually
entails reaching out to local hockey fans to create a unique fan experience for the Black women
who attend these events, as well as their families and friends. As a person who works at the
intersection of the higher education system and community service, having the opportunity to use
my “day job” skills to bring hockey to the Black community has been such a treat.
AR: My career path started when I became an athlete myself. I come from a family full of professional athletes. Once my tennis career started to take off, I realized that athletes are more than their sport: they’re a brand. I took that with me and started creating and expanding brands of professional athletes as a publicist.
OW: My love of sports came from my participation in Intercollegiate athletics at Temple University where I was a fencer. Upon graduation, I still wanted to be involved in sports and make it a career if possible. I became a graduate assistant at my alma mater for six months while I figured out my next steps. I then became an academics and compliance GA at Wagner College while getting my masters in Higher Education. After a year there, I got my first full-time job as an Advocacy Assistant at the Women’s Sports Foundation. I worked there for the past few months until I got my current offer to return to my alma mater as an Assistant Director of Compliance and Student-Athlete Affairs.
Who has been an important mentor in your life?
AW: My parents, Maria Taylor and JA Adande have been huge mentors in my life. My parents birthed me. They continue to guide me through life. Maria has the role of being that older sister in the industry to look out for me. Adande was my professor at Northwestern. He has the role of being my enforcer, making sure that I am always at my best.
JPA: I have been blessed to have so many people who have invested in me both personally and professionally. Thinking about my journey in athletics, I have been fortunate to have some really key role models in this space who helped me get to where I am in more ways than one. I'm not sure I could pick just one or even name them all, but from my time as a student-athlete, I had the privilege of learning from Sherryta Freeman and Kristy Bannon Sromovsky. Then the opportunity to learn from and be influenced by Jill Redmond, Bernadette McGlade, Sandy Barbour, Jackie Campbell, Courtney Lovely, Kimberly Ford, Monique "AJ" Smith, and so many others since have been really important and influential in making me the person and professional that I am today. Early on, there were so many women, and key women of color, in positions around me that it made it easier to see working in athletics as an option.
RH: I am lucky to have a number of amazing and strong women in my life. My mother and my sisters
have taught me to follow my dreams and that it is never too late for me to work toward new goals.
In graduate school, I looked up to the women in my department who went to school, as I did,
while married with children. It isn’t easy to balance a family, a job, and find time to fulfill your own
ambitions, whether those include furthering your education, starting your own business or helping
out in your local community. Luckily, women are natural multi-taskers and can do whatever we
put our minds to!
AR: I’d say my now business partner Anje Collins. There are so many things that I used to put up with thinking I had to go through this in order to get to that, and she simply got me to understand my work and my worth.
OW: 100 percent, my collegiate fencing coach Dr. Nikki Franke. She taught us the value of diversity and inclusion subtly simply by committing to recruiting diverse individuals for the team. She also taught us persistence. She created the team in 1972 and has led it to a powerhouse ever since. My second mentor would be my mom. Every day I realize how hard it must have been to raise two kids as a single mother but she did it flawlessly. Whenever I doubt myself or don’t want to work hard, I think of her.
Can you describe any challenges you’ve faced as a Black woman working in sports?
AW: Man…. PHEW. I think learning how to adapt in a predominantly white workspace is hard for any minority. But I think that since I’m in my career at such a young age, it’s doubled for me. I went from school to job without any preparation. I think I’m learning on the go what is acceptable and what’s not. At times I find myself having to make others comfortable around me rather than them doing that for me.
JPA: I think historically, Black women have been among the last to receive any type of recognition or validation, no matter what space they're in. While people may understand certain facets of my identity based on my blackness or while they may empathize with certain challenges I've faced as a woman, there has not been a critical mass of Black women in the positions I aspire to hold or the spaces I aspire to occupy to understand what the journey of a Black woman is. The funny thing, though, is that the ambiguity in my name has afforded me certain privileges to have access to spaces, people, and places that may have traditionally been out of reach. Having that foot in the door, I see that as an opportunity to kick the door open for others.
RH: I think a Black woman working in any industry is going to face very particular challenges when it
comes to gaining and maintaining a seat at the proverbial table. For me, the difficulty comes from
balancing the needs of the sports industry with my own, personal goals. I want to succeed but
also, I have no desire to concede my principles in order to do so. I look at women like Jemele Hill
and how she refuses to compromise her values for her job or the media, and I can only hope to
have that kind of strength when it comes to standing up for what I believe in.
AR: Challenges are neverending but probably the biggest is my appearance and being taken seriously. I’m athletic, I’m curvy. Unless I walk into an assignment wearing baggy oversized sweats, the topic of conversation always goes to my butt/legs, which is a little annoying. I can’t change the way I am built and I work really hard so it can be frustrating that almost always my appearance is being commented on.
What can be done to attract a more diverse workforce in the sports industry?
AW: I think this is a work in progress. The more people see that teams are actively looking for diversity, the more diverse candidates will feel wanted to apply for these positions in sports. If you don’t see the representation, you’re not going to feel wanted in that space.
JPA: I feel like diversity has been used as this buzzword of sorts for the last few years without truly understanding its meaning. There are several types of diversity not limited to one's racial or ethnic identity. While there may be commonalities in the experiences of certain affinity groups, there isn't uniformity. One Black woman's experience is not going to be indicative of all Black women's experiences. Attracting a diverse workforce and including those individuals in the fabric of the department will often require becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. In recruitment, it is not going to be enough to look in the spaces you have always looked. For retention, it is not going to be enough to do the things you have always done.
RH: Hire. More. Black. Women. When the National Hockey League hired Kim Davis in January 2017,
they made a calculated and wise decision to grow the game with a very specific audience. The
Black Girl Hockey Club would not be in the position we are in now without her presence in the
League; I firmly believe that. Black women bring specific knowledge and wisdom to any and all
industries, sports included. I want to see Black women commentators in hockey, Black women
coaches, Black women everywhere!
RH: I ask myself this question every day and I’m honestly not sure. I myself am starting small by creating a space where females in this industry can come to me for help, guidance, and a resource. Sometimes just feeling like you deserve an “at bat” can help get us out here. Let’s take away the competitiveness of the sports industry; we aren’t the ones playing and we don’t need to be pit against each other.
OW: Athletic Director Phillips from Northwestern said it best. We need to be intentional about how we recruit people in our networks. Sometimes recruiting a diverse candidate pool requires digging a little deeper and making some extra calls, but we have to do the extra work to make sure no candidate is being overlooked.
What advice would you give your younger self?
AW: To my younger self, live a little. The sun will still rise in the morning if you mess up.
JPA: Y.O.U. are enough. Yes, you are sassy, you are bold, you are loud, you are extra and there is nothing wrong with any of that. You are smart, you are talented, you are brave, you are persevering, and trust me, little one, you are going to be great!
RH: Keep trying new things. Don’t be scared of failure. Be unabashedly excited about life and all the
cool stuff it has to offer because being a boring adult is definitely overrated.
AR: Listen! My college coaches and professors had so much to instill in me and I didn’t listen and prepare myself. Wish I would have!
OW: I would even give myself this advice now. STOP RUSHING ON TO THE NEXT BEST THING! I definitely need to be patient and learn to bloom where I’m planted. I spent a lot of my years after college running on to the next best opportunity without fully developing in the position I was already in. So I would advise myself to take a minute and smell the roses before looking for a more appealing flower in another garden.