Fighting for equality: Fredonia’s Linda Hill-MacDonald on her decades-long struggle for justice in women’s sports

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Linda Hill-MacDonald, Fredonia’s women’s basketball coach, grew up in a vastly different environment than young women find themselves in today.

A high school athlete in Philadelphia in the 1960’s, Hill-MacDonald describes the division between men’s and women’s sports: “We got the boys hand-me-downs. We played in the small, cracker-box gym. There was no equity in any shape or form.”

Moving into a coaching position at her alma mater, Ridley High School, her pay as the coach of the women’s team was much less than her male counterpart: “The boys’ coach was paid more than double than me. We practiced the same amount each day, played the same number of games, the season was the same length.”

These first experiences of gender inequality provided the impetus for Hill-MacDonald to become a life-long advocate for equality in women’s sports. Her advocacy has led her to coaching positions in the WNBA, at Temple University and the University at Buffalo. Following seven years as the head coach at the University of Minnesota, she lost her job over a gender equity battle.

After a lifetime spent working for equality, Hill-MacDonald becomes impassioned, leaning forward in her seat, when she talks about this lost perspective among young players and coaches. Women need to support women, she says, and coaches need to develop an appreciation for the history of their sports.


Ryan Maloney: Here’s a statement you made in 1995: “I think the greatest challenge we face is the public perception of our sport, or the lack of it by the media, especially the electronic media. After 15 years as a coach I still can’t turn on the TV and watch a women’s game. I really think we have to work on marketing the game and getting more visibility. I’ve worked for 15 years on this, and hopefully it won’t take 15 more to see change.” How much have we changed in those 15 years?

Linda Hill-MacDonald: It’s changed some.

RM: As much as you hoped?


Hill-MacDonald: No, not even close. Women’s games don’t get on the major networks. They get on cable. I was trying to find women’s games to watch last weekend that were listed in the paper. When I turned them on they’d been preempted with a men’s sport! So there are still places that don’t get it! Part of it is that women have to support women. I’m on my athletes all the time about this. They will sit and watch a men’s game, but when I ask who watched a major women’s game, not a hand goes up.

RM: Is part of it that they don’t have that same perspective you had?

Hill-MacDonald: They don’t. They take a lot for granted because they have a lot more now. Here, we travel with our men, so everything is the same. We travel the same, eat at the same places. They have no idea what they don’t have. No idea.

RM: How do you create that sort of engagement that you had throughout your career? Do you see progress in your players in caring about that?

Hill-MacDonald: It’s a matter of education. First of all, we can never lose the history. I think a lot of the male coaches don’t know the history of the women’s game. They don’t care to know. Most of the men in the game have no idea. Some who have been in it as long as I have, they know. A lot of younger female coaches have always had everything. They take the history for granted, and they don’t have a sense of the importance of preserving and restoring the history. We’ve been through a lot and they don’t even know. They don’t know that women’s teams use travel in vans while the men were on a bus, or the women were on a bus while the men flew. They don’t know that stuff. They don’t know about the growth of the game, or how hard it was to get the WNBA. There were 13 women’s leagues that started and failed before that.

RM: So these younger coaches have an obligation to carry this history forward.

Hill-MacDonald: They do. Coaches need to carry it forward. Coaches need to remind their players of the history of the game, and coaches don’t do it because they don’t know it, and they haven’t lived it.

RM: So you’d recommend that every coach know the history of her sport?

Hill-MacDonald: Absolutely. If you don’t know why you are where you are and how you got to be where you are, that’s pretty sad.

RM: Title IX was just being passed (1972) as you were graduating college (1970). Can you describe the difference in what women’s sports is like between then and now?

Hill-MacDonald: Then, when I played before Title IX, there was no gender equity. We got the boys hand-me-downs. We played in the small, cracker-box gym. There was no equity in any shape or form. My first gender-equity battle was back at Ridley High School (1970’s). The boys’ coach was paid more than double than me. We practiced the same amount each day, played the same number of games, the season was the same length.

RM: What did they say when you challenged this?

Hill-MacDonald: Oh, they were upset, because nobody ever challenged the equity piece before. But they did make changes. They absolutely were not going to make it equal, but I did end up with a significant pay raise. So it was a battle, and in a way I won that battle.

RM: I know you’ve had lots of these battles since then.

Hill-MacDonald: The biggest equity battle I had was at the University of Minnesota.

RM: I read a good article about it that’s still online from 1995.

Hill-MacDonald: That was rough, because we had separate athletic departments. It was equal across the board on the women’s side, but when you looked at the men’s side there was absolutely no equity whatsoever. The men’s coach made three times as much money as I did doing the same job. That wasn’t fair. The volleyball coach and I fought a hard gender-equity battle at the University of Minnesota.

RM: Did this go on for a long time?

Hill-MacDonald: It went on for two years. We both lost our jobs over it. Was it worth it? Yes.

RM: Was it worth it in that moment?

Hill-MacDonald: Not when I lost my job. Not when things became so tough that I couldn’t do my job. I’ll never forget one of the things the athletic director at the time said: “You know, I’ve never had to fire anybody, but I know how to make it tough enough to make them go.” I never thought that statement would impact me as much as it has. The women’s volleyball coach was fired after a 20-win season, and the next year I was gone. But things got better for everyone. There wasn’t a coach on that staff that wanted to jump in the fight with us, but they all benefited. And we were glad to do it, because it was the right thing to do.

RM: Were your co-workers supporting you in any way?

Hill-MacDonald: Oh, they didn’t say anything. They didn’t want to get on the bad side of the person making the decisions. They didn’t even want to be associated with us.

RM: That had to be terrifying.

Hill-MacDonald: Well, it was tough. We visited the Minnesota state legislators and they were appalled at the difference in pay. Since a substantial part of our pay came from the state, we had to go visit with them. Well, the athletic director didn’t like that very well. I lost my job at Minnesota and one of my players was very close to a consultant the Cleveland Cavaliers were using to hire a women’s coach for a new league (the WNBA). She put my name in the hat, and I was fortunate to get hired.

Hill-MacDonald, pictured here with the Cleveland Rockers,
was one of the first eight head coaches in the WNBA


RM: So you weren’t seeking to go to the WNBA?

Hill-MacDonald: No, I really wasn’t. It just kind of fell in my lap. I was really lucky. I was there for the first three years of the league, then a new general manager wanted his own people, and I was without a job again. But I feel so fortunate to have had that opportunity, because there were only eight teams that first year. To have the opportunity to come in and build it from the ground floor, to embrace the philosophy of the league.

RM: Which is what?

Hill-MacDonald: Which was to provide an opportunity for women to play basketball after college. There had been many attempts to create a professional league for women’s basketball, but they never lasted. The NBA got behind the WNBA and sponsored the first eight teams. The philosophy is that women deserve the same opportunities. The owner of the Cavaliers at the time, Gordon Gund, felt the women should be treated exactly as the men. We traveled like the men, had per-diems like the men, everything except salaries.

RM: Even if your players don’t aspire to play in the WNBA, they may aspire to be a teacher, or a doctor. And these same battles have been fought in those fields. The history is important to know there, too.

Hill-MacDonald: Yes. Sometimes players get tired of hearing the stories. “Oh boy, here comes another one of her stories.” But you’re trying to interject a little bit of the past into the present, because without the past we wouldn’t have a present. We’d still be stuck back there.

RM: I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but men and women aren’t equal today either. How much further do we have to go?

Hill-MacDonald: I think we’re maybe 25% of the way there.

RM: That’s a lot less than I would have thought.

Hill-MacDonald: And I’m talking about all levels. High school up through collegiate, it’s not equal. It just isn’t.

RM: At this point in your career, you probably didn’t need to take this job (at Fredonia). Did you just not feel ready to get out of it?

Hill-MacDonald, coaching at Fredonia

Hill-MacDonald: I felt like the program here really needed somebody. Here it was the day before practice started, and the coach left, and that had to be very difficult for them (the players). I was available, and I felt like I could probably teach them something. My intention was to try it for a year and see how I liked it. It went well. When the interim position ended, I thought “Okay, I’ll try this again.” And so here I am, still here.

RM: Someone told me that you had a conversation with your team about the tragedy in Geneseo (On Jan. 17, 2016, a former student at SUNY Geneseo fatally stabbed his ex-girlfriend, a co-captain of the women’s basketball team).  What sort of perspective did you bring to that conversation?

Hill-MacDonald: We talked about the importance of relationships, and recognizing when a relationship is abusive; recognizing abuse for what it is, and valuing yourself enough to say, “I don’t deserve this.” We don’t know for sure what the situation was at Geneseo, but it was a teachable moment. I talked about situations in my coaching career where I had players who were in abusive relationships. When confronted they sometimes denied it, even when they were covered in bruises. We also talked about the responsibility you have as a teammate when you know of someone in an abusive relationship. Either confronting that teammate, or telling somebody so there’s some intervention.

RM: It sounds like in a lot of ways what we’ve been talking about: standing up and speaking out for yourself. Advocating for yourself.

Hill-MacDonald: Kids don’t know how to do that. They don’t know where to go, who to go to, or who to trust.

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