Black women in volleyball concentrated in HBCUs

Eysha Ambler
Photo by Charles Hallman

A consistent argument that still exists is that there aren’t more Black females in volleyball because the sport is too expensive or too technical. The former is valid, because traveling or elite volleyball can be costly, and the latter is valid because you can’t play volleyball alone like you can dribbling or shooting a basketball or training for track.

ESPN.com’s MV Voepel wrote in a 2020 article, “Black women have long excelled [in volleyball] but often haven’t been represented or felt embraced… Many black women have felt marginalized or overlooked in the sport.”

The NCAA Demographics Database says the number of Black female college volleyball players has dropped slightly from 1,921 (2019) to 1,894 (2021). It remains that most Black volleyball players can be found at HBCUs.

This season all but one Big Ten school (Indiana) has at least one Black player. Penn State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Maryland lead with four each; Minnesota has three Blacks on this season’s roster. But there are zero Black head coaches in the conference.

“When I played, I was the only Black player on my team, sometimes the only Black player in the gym,” said Florida Assistant Coach Eysha Ambler. She was a three-sport letterwinner at Jacksonville State in the mid-1980s. She finished as JSU’s all-time single season leader in blocks per game.

Ambler stated that despite the slight recent decline, she sees a possible reason for the overall increase in Blacks playing Division I volleyball in recent years, specifically Florida having four Blacks on their squad: “Now you see more because I think a lot more athletes are going from basketball to volleyball.” 

What about Black volleyball coaches like herself? The NCAA database indicates virtually no change in Black HCs in the last two years—from 19 males and 51 females in 2019 to 15 males and 59 females in 2021. Black assistants also show little change—20 males and 91 females in 2019, and 17 males and 97 females in 2021.

Ambler admitted that she got into coaching as a two-year graduate assistant coach at her alma mater so she could stay in the game. She also worked at Tennessee State, Pitt and Auburn, where she spent nine seasons before Florida hired her in 2021. “If I couldn’t play, then coaching was the next best thing,” said Ambler.

The coach also added that the American Volleyball Coaching Association (AVCA) has been involved in pushing for more Black coaches to be hired. “I think they’re doing a good job with Black coaches, getting more Black coaches into it,” said Ambler.

Obstacles to change

Black head college football coaches in the Power Five conferences this season remain stagnant: Big Ten and Pac-12 each have three Black HCs. The ACC has two and zero HCs in both the SEC and the Big 12.

Former Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, the school’s first Black head coach when he was hired in 2003, told ESPN recently that the poor diversity numbers can be attributed to the person or persons who are doing the hiring—university presidents, athletic directors, and even prominent boosters who are largely White.

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