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Analysis

Muffet McGraw was ready for the moment

"Time's up. It is our turn."

While the women’s Final Four doesn’t officially start until Friday night, Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach Muffet McGraw has already demonstrated that she’s more than prepared for anything the tournament has to throw at her.

Last week, ThinkProgress exclusively reported that McGraw, who has had an all-female coaching staff for the last seven years, would never hire a male assistant coach again. On Thursday in Tampa Bay, reporters at a press conference asked her about that statement, and why she felt that now was the time to be speaking up about it.

“Enough. I think women across the country in the last few years have just said enough,” McGraw said. “Time’s up. Time’s up. It is our turn.”

McGraw had a lot to say about the importance of hiring women and noted numerous ways in which others have fallen short. Among other things, McGraw made note of the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment, which was introduced in 1967, still hasn’t passed. She also pointed to startling statistics which reveal that women only make up 23% of the U.S. House of Representatives, 25% of the Senate, and less than 5% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Her remarks have been covered everywhere from The New York Times to Today, ESPN to CNN. She has, as The Wall Street Journal put it, gone viral with her attack on gender inequality.

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None of this is an accident, nor is it new. Last year, when McGraw’s Fighting Irish won the national championship, she regularly brought up in interviews how proud she was that all three of her assistant coaches were women. In February, when ThinkProgress visited McGraw to profile her and her all-female staff, she didn’t skip a beat when asked if she would ever hire a man again. “No,” she said. “Women need the opportunity. They deserve the opportunity.”

Those comments angered her rival, University of Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma, as well as inflaming the passions of multiple male sports columnists. It wouldn’t be nearly enough to get McGraw to back down. “You have to hire more women,” McGraw told IndyStar earlier this week.

But Thursday, the day before her team faces UConn in the Final Four, McGraw pushed the conversation forward, in a masterful monologue that tied together sports, politics, business, racial diversity, and the power of representation.

“When you look at men’s basketball, 99% of the jobs go to men, why shouldn’t 100 or 99% of the jobs in women’s basketball go to women? Maybe it’s because we only have 10% women athletic directors in Division I. People hire people who look like them. That’s the problem,” she said.

“I’m getting tired of the novelty of the first female governor of this state, the first female African American mayor of this city. When is it going to become the norm instead of the exception? How are these young women looking up and seeing someone that looks like them, preparing them for the future? We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power,” McGraw added.

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“When these girls are coming out, who are they looking up to to tell them that’s not the way it has to be. Where better to do that than in sports? All these millions of girls that play sports across the country, we’re teaching them great things about life skills, but wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to watch how women lead?”

McGraw is not a newcomer to this stage. She’s been the head coach at Notre Dame for 32 years. Her teams have made it to nine Final Fours, including seven of the last nine, and won two national championships. She knows how the media works. She knew that her declaration to never hire another male assistant coach would be controversial, that people would complain about “reverse sexism,” that men who have never once been bothered by the fact that there is only one female assistant coach in all of men’s college basketball would accuse her of discrimination. That didn’t scare her, though.

She wanted to make a statement. She wanted to speak her truth. She wanted to make everyone think — not just about what she was doing, but about the intentional steps that they personally could take to help end inequality.

Why now? Well, she admits she feels a responsibility to help fill the leadership void left in the women’s basketball community by the early death of legendary University of Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt. She’s been outraged by the current state of politics, and inspired by the women’s marches and the influx of female politicians over the past couple of years. Moreover, she knows that as defending national champion, her voice carries farther than it ever has before. So, if not now, when?

“I’ve never watched CNN as much in the past two years as I am now. We have the Equal Pay Act. Women are making 77 cents on the dollar. That’s just white women,” she said. “Women of color are lagging way further behind. I’m not talking about white women being coaches. We need more diversity in our game, as well.”

McGraw’s speech has been applauded by her colleagues, such as Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve and University of South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley; it’s caused Today to question its own lack of coverage of women’s basketball; it’s sparked conversations in local newspapers across the country and on ESPN debate shows. And, it’s even been shared by President Barack Obama, who called McGraw, “A voice everybody should hear.”

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She could have just focused on basketball this weekend. But, of course, that notion implies that it’s possible for McGraw to separate basketball and women’s empowerment. To her, they are one in the same.

The women’s Final Four doesn’t tip off in Tampa for another few hours. There’s no telling if Notre Dame, UConn, Oregon, or Baylor will take home the national championship trophy on Sunday night. But one thing is certain: Muffet McGraw has already won.