Coach Lauren Fleshman (the name is a former NFL standout as a linebacker) is a heavy hitter in the sports world: She’s been an owner and the CEO of a high-powered U.S. marketing company, a hugely visible face on the pitch for the WNBA, and an athlete-turned-new media advocate for reproductive rights — and she knows a thing or two about playing hard to win. She talks to the NYT’s Michelle Hamilton about promoting women’s health and reproductive rights, empowering sportspeople, and giving a little extra to the injured.
Where did you come from? When I was a little girl, my family encouraged me to play sports. I grew up in Ontario, Canada. In sports, there are all kinds of males and all kinds of females, and in general people were very accepting of me playing sports. It was the only reason I knew the word feminism. My mother taught me that discrimination is a bad thing, and you shouldn’t need to “make something up” to find that, so I knew that there should be no gender bounds when it comes to sports. I played rugby, cricket, volleyball, basketball, karate, soccer, and hockey. I played collegiate football for the University of Western Ontario. I’ve been an Olympian and there have been a couple of decades now of wanting to go into coaching and of thinking to myself, Why not have a sport where you can work with anybody from any background and from any background and there’s an equal chance?
What did you learn about leadership, and about your own abilities, as a feminist? The thing that I learned was I’m an older, wiser and very hard-working coach. I think many times in sport there’s a tendency for the male perspective of leadership to be on-field experience versus leadership off-field. The flipside of that is men are very good at training and growing as leaders. Women, when we’re out there, usually come prepared. They often don’t have as much experience as the men, but they often pick up how to do things, in many ways, more quickly than the men. The key is for them to look at that as, you don’t have to play 100 percent of the time. You have to work really hard, but there are peaks and valleys in your season when you’re at your best and when you’re at your lowest. It’s being able to see both sides of the spectrum, and that you can do both.
Tell me about your work with the WNBA. For me, starting up a pro basketball league was a great way to drive home that we have to work together — both inside the gymnasiums and out in the community — to promote women’s health and reproductive rights. We need to ensure that we have the kind of workplace and the policies to take care of the health and well-being of women and girls. It’s not going to be changed over night, but we have to make changes to normalize that conversations, which I think have been happening for a while, but not in a way that we’re really pushing on a consistent basis.
Who are your top female role models? To this day, it’s several female role models — Maya Angelou, Marian Wright Edelman, Angelina Jolie, Donna Brazile, Sheryl Sandberg. I really, really look up to these women.
Do you have a particular philosophy about being a woman in sports? My philosophy is, keep asking yourself, “Why not?” I find it’s so easy to say that it’s impossible. I also think that the more you ask yourself, why not, the more women are going to do it. If you don’t say, “Why not?” then you’re actually leaving the door open for other people to say that, and then things will start to happen more often than they are.
Do you have a favorite way to empower women through sports? I’ve seen so many women shift gears and new careers or fields that they’ve gone into for all kinds of reasons. There’s a huge momentum to that, and it’s really inspiring to me.
Click here to read the full interview at The New York Times.