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Take notice of Latinas as leaders in the sports world

9/27/2007

When we talk about diversity in America, too often the conversation is limited to African-Americans and whites. The dimensions of diversity have expanded to include different racial and ethnic groups, disabilities, sexual orientations and other distinctions, but too often, when we think about diversity, it is only in that two-dimensional field. The celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month is important because it gives us the opportunity to reflect on how much we can learn about Hispanic or Latino athletes.

At the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, we have 60 of the brightest sports management students in the country. I recently asked them to name 20 current athletes in America who are white, 20 who are African-American and 20 who are Latino. Most could name 20 white and African-American athletes, but the average number of Latinos was five. The one Latino student among the group was able to name 20 Latino athletes. Virtually all of the Latinos named were in Major League Baseball. If we know little about Latino athletes in the United States outside of baseball, we know even less about Latina athletes.

Of the non-Latino students surveyed, only one named a female athlete: Lisa Fernandez, considered one of the greatest softball players in history. She led Team USA to three consecutive Olympic gold medals with an average pitch speed of 68 to 69 mph. In 1999, Fernandez was named the Amateur Softball Association/USA Softball Female Athlete of the Year. She also played third base and wielded a hefty bat. Fernandez played softball and basketball at UCLA, where she earned a degree in psychology. In 1993, she became the first softball player to win the prestigious Honda-Broderick Cup as the most outstanding collegiate female athlete.

A four-time All-American, Fernandez led the Bruins to two national championships and two runner-up finishes. She returned to UCLA as an assistant coach. None of the sports management students knew Fernandez's 2004 gold-medal teammate, Jessica Mendoza, a four-time first-team All-American at Stanford (1998-2002). Mendoza was named softball player of the year in 2006.

When asked to name the top female golfer in the world, two of the DeVos students, including Horacio Ruiz, the Latino student, mentioned Lorena Ochoa. In April, Ochoa became the world's No. 1-ranked golfer, following Annika Sorenstam, who held that title for so many years.

Ochoa, 25, hails from Mexico, where she won Mexico's National Sports Award from President Vicente Fox. On Aug. 6, Ochoa won her first major championship, the Women's British Open, which was held for the first time at the Old Course at St. Andrews -- a place associated with the likes of Sam Sneed, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. In 2006, she was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, and when this summer ended, she held 15 career LPGA titles. She plays a great game and gives back to children in need through the Lorena Ochoa Foundation.

She is so good that when she played for Arizona in the Pac-10 championships in 2002, the players who had finished the round came back to walk the final five holes to watch her. She played at Arizona in 2001 and 2002 and twice was named the college player of the year. Four years into her pro career, her first-round 62 in the 2006 Kraft Nabisco Championship tied the record for best score by a male or female golfer in any major tournament. She never won a major before 2007 but came on strong. In her fifth professional season, she won six tournaments, topped the money list and was named the LPGA Tour player of the year. Yet she plays on the brink of obscurity sometimes shared by women in general, but certainly by too many women of Latina origin.

I knew the students were too young to remember Nancy Lopez, who won 48 golf championships, was a four-time LPGA player of the year (1978-79, 1985 and 1988) and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1987 at age 30.

And since Mary Jo Fernandez is more known to the students as an announcer, they did not know she won two Olympic gold medals in tennis and was a pro who won seven singles and 17 doubles titles in her 14-year pro career.

It is amazing that in 2007, the only Latina athletic director in Division I (more than 300 schools) is Irma Garcia, who just took over at St. Francis College in New York, after being a student-athlete in its women's basketball program, a coach and an associate athletic director and senior women's administrator. She is the only Latina athletic director ever in Division I.

Division I-A has 120 major schools. There are 367 people in leadership positions (presidents, athletic directors and faculty athletics representatives). Of those 367, only France Cordova, the president of Purdue University, is Latina.

In the NBA, NFL, MLB and Major League Soccer combined, Diane Aguilar, senior vice president for ticket operations and special services with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Rosi Hernandez, vice president for market development for the Houston Astros, are the only Latinas at the vice president level. There have been no Latina team presidents, general managers or owners. The Mets' Omar Minaya is sports' only Latino general manager, and the Angels' Arturo Morena is the only Latino owner.

The good news is that when I used to do surveys like the one with the students in the early 1990s, few could name more than 10 African-American sports figures and hardly any of them were women. In the survey this week, almost all named 20 African-Americans, and there were at least seven women out of the 20 on each list.

There is hope that celebrations during Hispanic American Heritage Month will inform us so the students' "lists" will be filled in the years ahead and the great Latino and Latina athletes and sports leaders will receive the accolades they have earned.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.