I have many thoughts on the news that the Harvard women's ice hockey team was a space of abuse, intimidation, humiliation, bullying, and general badness. I am having trouble organizing them and figuring out where to begin. There is so very much to say. My organizational strategy is to create multiple posts. This first one is about my interest in this particular case and a little bit on Katey Stone, the Harvard head coach who unapologetically created this toxic culture and women as ice hockey coaches more generally.
There is a lot to say about every revelation of dysfunctional and destructive team cultures. They exist far more widely than most people likely believe--at all levels of sports, and they are all multi-faceted (i.e., emotional and physical abuse, racism, other forms of discrimination and violence). This one for me, though, was especially provoking because I did my master's thesis on coaches in DI women's ice hockey in the early 2000s. I interviewed players from the two east coast conferences (ECAC and Hockey East) which, at that time, were where the powerhouse teams were. The focus of my project was the question of player preferences in the gender of their coaches. (And every time I see a story like this I re-regret not pursuing publishing some piece of that project.)
At the time of my project Stone, a still young/new coach, was building a powerhouse team at Harvard. She was feeding the American and Canadian national teams some of their key players. She was coaching Patty Kazmaier winners.
She was (and remains) a preeminent female coach in women's hockey. She was one of very few women coaches in women's ice hockey, one of the facts that inspired my inquiry. She is still the woman with the highest number of wins in women's intercollegiate ice hockey at #4 on the list. Numbers 1, 2, and 3 are all men. This was another entry point into my project: why all the men in a sport that, in its intercollegiate form, came of age alongside Title IX but was relatively small, with the best teams, and their feeder institutions (several of which Stone coached at) located almost exclusively on the east coast?
Stone grew up in Connecticut and attended the fairly exclusive Taft School, where both her parents worked. Her father was the Athletics Director. She was immersed in sports throughout her life and went to University of New Hampshire where she played both ice hockey and lacrosse. She played for UNH's first women's hockey coach, Russ McCurdy and graduated in 1989, several years before UNH hired its first female women's head coach Karen Kay, whom Stone would end up coaching against in the early part of her career, before Kay's contract was not renewed after the 2001-02 season. This was the other entry point into my project. After Kay's contract was not renewed UNH hired Brian McCloskey, the men's assistant coach at the time, despite having two finalists for the job who were women with extensive experience coaching women's hockey including national team experience. McCloskey had a very good record during his tenure which came to a controversial end (more on that in a subsequent post).
What does all this mean? Ice hockey--whether the men's or women's game--is very male-dominated at the highest levels. I realize this #notarevelation. This is typical of many (most?) sports. In a future post, I will talk about coaching culture and norms, which I think are (maybe?) finally starting to shift. But it is clear that Stone was raised and played in an environment where norms of masculinity as they manifested in coaching were prevalent and seemingly not questioned. When I did my research, it was clear that regardless of gender, coaches were engaging in what I thought was appalling behavior.
McCurdy was before my time as an undergraduate at UNH, but I was there when Kay was head coach, and I knew several of the players. She was not well-loved. She was seen as playing favorites which included having more personal relationships (I am not suggesting sexual ones here) with some players. She ignored players who were injured. This is in addition to the very accepted practice of screaming at players and yelling disparaging remarks; criticism greatly outweighed praise.
This is not excusable behavior. But it was not unusual. In my research just a few years after Kay had been released, no one claimed to like their head coach. They had differing opinions on how effective they were as coaches and their policies. But the players I spoke with saw--and accepted--that head coaches were distant and strict and that assistant coaches were the ones who were there for more personal things like talking about being homesick, romantic and friend relationships, or troubles with school. Head coaches stopped paying attention or nurturing players when they were injured, communicating only through athletic trainers. head coaches got angry and screamed and pulled jerseys and threw trash cans in locker rooms out of frustration.
At the end of my research, none of the women I interviewed expressed a preference for a woman coach, some did not care, and others preferred men as coaches. The reasons given for the latter were: that was what they had always known; they felt men had more experience because their history in the sport was longer (this also extended to referees for one participants who said she preferred male referees because they were better and more accurate). Some believed we would see more women as head coaches in the following generation because there were just more women playing at elite programs who would have what they deemed to be the necessary history and experience.
In addition to these reasons, I discussed two other possibilities in my paper for the preference for men as head coaches of women's hockey. One, it gave the still nascent sport (it only been added to the Olympics in 1998) credibility. Two, and relatedly, it meant avoiding the lesbian stigma. Hockey was a "masculine" sport with no opportunity (because of the uniforms) to add hair bows or visible make-up to connote heterosexuality. And indeed some of the women coaches were/are gay. Shannon Miller, who was also coaching at this time out west and for Team Canada, was fired (technically her contract was not renewed in 2015) for being gay and won a lawsuit because of it.
The lesbian stigma certainly exists in other sports and there has been research on how it has affected hiring and firing practices. I argue that it also affects how players view coaches and who they want coaching them AND how women coaches comport themselves and try to fit in with masculine coaching norms. This is the topic of my next post.