It Will Take Female Coaches to Protect the Next Mary Cain

Track and field’s toxic male-dominated culture not only abuses women, it denies them allies

Mary Cain. Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

LLast week, former high school track phenom Mary Cain published a New York Times op-ed about what she said was abuse at the hands of “the world’s most famous track coach,” Alberto Salazar, at the Nike Oregon Project when she was just out of high school. An all-male coaching staff admonished her to slim down, and she says Salazar ridiculed and shamed her in front of her teammates if her weight topped 114 pounds — a number he’d arbitrarily chosen.

Alone, scared, and trapped, she fought suicidal thoughts and began to cut herself. When she told Salazar about this self-harm, she says he brushed her off. “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys bodies of young girls.”

Cain issued a call to action: “We need more women in power.” But making that a reality won’t be easy, say those who’ve been through the system.

The coaching profession is “very inbred to a degree, and that hurts women, because they’re not in that club,” said Steve Magness, who served as a coach and scientist at the Nike Oregon Program from 2011 to 2012 and is now the head cross-country coach at the University of Houston. When he was a runner at University of Houston, his cross-country coach was a woman, “People would ask, what’s it like being coached by a woman? Can she be tough on you? Honestly, that never crossed my mind, she was a great coach and we had a great relationship,” he says.

“The guy interrupted me and said, “I don’t care about fun.’”

The Nike Oregon Program, by contrast, “was like an old boy’s club,” Magness said. “It was Alberto and his friends and Alberto was the be all and end all.” Magness became disillusioned and left the program after realizing that Salazar was giving his athletes medications that appeared to violate anti-doping rules, and he became a whistleblower in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation that last month resulted in a four-year ban for Salazar and a doctor associated with the team (they are appealing).

Former Nike runner Kara Goucher told me she also felt powerless under Salazar’s program.

“You had to give over complete ownership of yourself,” she said. Rather than making her tough, this coaching style undermined her confidence. On the starting line, “Instead of feeling like, we did this work together and and I’m ready and I believe in myself, it was like — am I allowed to believe in myself?”

Amy Yoder Begley was also undermined. In 2011, after a sixth-place finish at the national championships, she was kicked out of the Nike program and was told she “had the biggest butt on the starting line.” Experiences like these “make me a better coach,” Begley wrote on Twitter, adding that as coach of the Atlanta Track Club, she and her colleagues “do things differently.” Lauren Fleshman, Shalane Flanagan, Rose Monday, Sierra Willis, and Devon Martin are other women who are coaching top runners, and this new generation of female coaches could create a more supportive culture.

As it stands, men occupy most positions of power in sports and they also hold most of the power in hiring decisions. “There aren’t enough visible female role models in leadership positions,” says Megan Kahn, executive director of WeCOACH, an organization that supports female coaches.

But women can find it tough to get hired, and may not want to be, if a program feels like an old boy’s club.

Alison Wade is publisher of the Fast Women newsletter and has coached at five different colleges. “In hiring, they’re looking for a set of characteristics,” she said. “They’re thinking of a stern figure,” most likely a man. Wade remembers a job interview she had at a NCAA Division I school.

“I started talking about how it should be fun for everyone, and the guy interrupted me and said, ‘I don’t care about fun,’” Wade said.

Even as more professional athletes are talking about keeping things fun and tending to mental health issues, “this isn’t the stuff that has traditionally gotten you the job,” Wade said, adding that these are also issues that women coaches might be more likely to address.

Hiring women coaches can help break a toxic cycle of control and body-shaming, but it won’t necessarily eliminate it, according to Wade.

“Plenty of women have learned the same same harmful lessons along the way and will keep that [culture] going,” she said. And male coaches can be sensitive to women’s issues too, especially if they make an effort. At the same time, Wade says that women are more likely to have experienced an abusive culture themselves and be motivated to create a more supportive environment.

Looking back on his experience at Nike, Magness realizes how vulnerable athletes and even other staff are to a team culture.

“No matter where your own personal values lie, you’re susceptible to being pushed and pulled in directions you never thought you would be,” Magness said. The culture set at the top affects every single person on the team.

“You don’t understand until you’re in it,” Magness continued. “The leader at the top sets the tone by showing what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

That’s why Magness says it’s not enough to just have women in the room, “they need to be in positions of power so they can challenge authority.”

Goucher is optimistic that her generation can stand up. “It feels like a bit of a #MeToo movement,” Goucher says. “I’m very hopeful because people are believing us. There’s a genuine desire for change and that will be amazing.”

Author of GOOD TO GO: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery (Norton, 2019). Twitter: @CragCrest christieaschwanden.com

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