WNBA’s first commissioner could’ve been Black — but she isn’t

Courtesy of WNBA Cathy Engelbert

As I waited for my turn to question the newly-named WNBA commissioner on a media conference call, I couldn’t help but unabashedly wonder out loud why she couldn’t be a Black woman.

An NBA top official once told me in casual conversation why the league president isn’t titled “commissioner.” He said it was because the WNBA is a subsidiary of the men’s league. Apparently, this changed with Cathy Engelbert’s hiring. Former president Lisa Borders resigned last fall, and the May 15 announcement of her successor caught most of us by surprise with the new title: WNBA commissioner.

Since Engelbert didn’t succeed Borders as president, however, this makes the Black woman the league’s last of its four presidents. Now the current CEO of Deloitte, a national professional services firm, is the W’s first commish. She starts her new job in mid-July.

“Great hire,” “right fit” and “right choice” were just three of the associated laurels tossed out upon Engelbert’s hiring. I don’t remember any such comments when Laurel Richie and Borders, the first- and second-ever Black females respectively to lead a U.S. pro sports league, were hired.  But I easily remember how both Black women’s previous backgrounds (marketing for Richie, and business and politics for Borders) were often questioned on their supposed lack of sports experience.

“I think it’s important that I played the game…and I grew up with a basketball court in the backyard,” Engelbert bragged when one reporter asked how her experience helps her lead the W. She worked her way up the Deloitte’s corporate ladder over a three-decade period after she joined the firm right out of college.

Nonetheless, the new W commish stressed how much sports have mattered in her life:  “I am a huge basketball fan since I was four, and I have five brothers who all played basketball” along with her father, a former NBA draftee.

“I played at Lehigh University,” Engelbert continued. “So many of my skills that helped me not only at the beginning of my career but through today as a CEO really took root on the basketball court.”

Both Richie and Borders said that they were sports fans as well, but when a White woman says it, it seems to mean more. Former WNBA star Lisa Leslie earlier this year said she’d might be interested in the job, but we don’t know if she was ever considered.    

I won’t say that both Black women were perfect in their respective presidencies. Richie often got squeamish whenever asked about transparency on attendance figures and other financials. Borders often came off more like a cheerleader than the league’s top executive. 

But during their tenures, Richie pushed a Black girls’ initiative that emphasized the importance of self-esteem, and Borders, after an administrative misstep, publicly supported her players’ protests against police brutality and shootings of Blacks by police.

Furthermore, we still don’t really know why both Richie and Borders suddenly resigned. It is ironic that both stepped down shortly after untimely criticism from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver during public appearances.

Engelbert, asked about pushing the W’s diversity efforts, told the MSR, “I’ve done a lot of different things around [diversity and inclusion]. I was actually one of the founding sponsors of the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion that now we have over 500 CEOs of major corporations pledged to do real, actionable items around diversity and inclusion. So I hopefully will bring that lens” to the WNBA.

“I’m honored and humbled to have that title,” the new W commissioner concluded. Yet we have to wonder why another Black woman couldn’t have been trusted with the commissioner title and all the power it endows.