An exclusive interview with the first African American woman to run a major professional sports league
Richie, the league’s third president and the first Black woman to lead a U.S. pro sport league, joined the WNBA in 2011. During her tenure, the WNBA and the players signed an eight-year Collective Bargaining Agreement, the longest term in league history, and extended an existing television contract with ESPN through 2025.
We reached out to her almost immediately after her November 4 announcement, and last Thursday Richie spoke at length by phone to the MSR. At the outset we asked why, nearly a month after the 2015 WNBA season concluded and a few months before the league’s 20th year celebration begins next spring, she has decided to leave her post and pursue other interests.
“It was the right time,” Richie simply pointed out. “I took a little time after the season to reflect. I am very proud of the work that has been done…over the past five seasons. I think we stabilized the league and built a strong foundation and are poised for growth. I’m very proud of that work.”
Richie pushed diversity as business as usual. “As an African American woman and the first African American woman to run a major professional sports league, the African American community was very much in my sightline during my presidency,” she said.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) annual report card released last month gave the league A+ grades; for 11 consecutive years the league has received A’s for its overall race, gender and combined grades.
Said Richie, “I am very proud of…the report cards Richard Lapchick and his group issue. I’m very proud of our track record and an objective view of how we performed in terms of race and gender. Not just on the court, but in all of our business. I am very proud that we achieved that A-plus during my tenure.
“I think there is a very long track record of diversity that existed before I came, and I like to think that it got even stronger while I was there.”
She also played a vital role in initiating the WNBA partnership with Covergirl and Procter & Gamble’s My Black is Beautiful. It helps “young African American girls discover, see, and celebrate their beauty,” explained Richie. “I can’t think of any role models better than the women of the WNBA…to lead and model the way for that.”
Richie also pushed the WNBA FIT clinics for school-age children to interact with star players. “I just think it was a great experience for them not only to meet the players, to be on a professional-level court, and to really experience the joy of physical activity and team play.” She reiterated that she will continue to be “a voice for young women and young girls.”
She always lauded the WNBA players as role models. When asked about her being one as well, she said, “I will tell you one of the things that really has been humbling since the announcement came out is the number of emails I have received from young African American women just saying thank you for being a role model, for showing them that someone who looks like them can be a leader, can be a president.”
“I have a nine-year-old niece, and she referred to herself as the junior president of the WNBA, and I smile every time she says that because I realize that she is growing up in small part because of my work in the WNBA. For [her niece], believing that when she grows up she could be a president of a league, a corporation, a nonprofit, or a small community-based operation, she believes [she can] because she has seen her aunt [be] a president.
“I hope to get a little bit of down time” after scheduled board meetings and speaking engagements in the remaining weeks of this year, said Richie on her post-WNBA future. “I think come January I’ll take stock and see what comes next.”
Richie’s place in sports history is well deserved. “While I won’t be president, I hope I will be a member of the WNBA family in the 20th-year season.”
Related content: Parting thoughts on Laurel Richie’s departure
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Updated 9:07 pm 11/12/2015
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.