Her name is Nicole Lynn. If you don’t already know about her, it’s likely you will soon.
Lynn is an agent and attorney and in 2019 she became only the third woman, and the first Black woman, to represent a top-three NFL draft pick when University of Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams was picked third by the New York Jets. Lynn represents NFL players, football coaches, professional softball players, broadcasters and entertainers.
“I wanted to do this but I never knew it was called a sports agent,” Lynn told USA TODAY Sports. “I wanted to work with athletes, I wanted to help them retain their wealth but I didn’t know that that was the name of a sports agent. I feel like this job is meant for the boy’s club, specifically white males, and it is mostly because we didn’t know about it.
“The boundaries to entry are huge. I wanted to make sure everybody knew this is what I do, this is how I do it, and give them the steps to do it…my biggest goal is that when I look back in 20 years on my career people can say, ‘I became a sports agent because of you, because I saw it was possible.’”
In 2020, across all of sports, women broke barriers.
Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score in a major college football game. Becky Hammon became the first woman to serve as head coach during an NBA game. The WNBA and its players’ union announced a groundbreaking eight-year labor deal that raised salaries and guaranteed benefits to players on maternity leave. Kim Ng became MLB’s first woman general manager.
What’s become clear is that last year was a launching point for a significant movement. In 2021, and perhaps for the next ten years, and beyond, women will likely continue what they began.
In some ways that’s already started. The NFL announced this month that Maia Chaka was added to the roster of game officials for the upcoming season, making her the first Black woman in league history named to the NFL’s officiating staff.
“I am honored to be selected as an NFL official,” Chaka said in a statement. “But this moment is bigger than a personal accomplishment. It is an accomplishment for all women, my community, and my culture.”
The list was narrowed to ten and of course there are other worthy candidates, like South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who turned the Gamecocks into a national power, reaching nine NCAA tournaments, and winning a national title. She’s only the second Black woman coach to win a title after Purdue’s Carolyn Peck.
Yes, there are other key women, but these are our best ten.
Early in her career Lynn admired Kelli Masters, an agent and a practicing attorney, and wants to positively impact them the way Masters did her.
“There might not be a seat at the table for them yet,” Lynn said, “but they can bring their own chair and they can make room. And hopefully one day, the whole table is ours.”
During Women’s History Month we look at what could be the Decade of the Woman. Here are some of the women who will make that happen:
Her story: Hill is a veteran of ESPN where she co-hosted SportsCenter. She was targeted by President Donald Trump and his administration after calling Trump a white supremacist. She’s since moved to Vice TV where she co-hosts a television show with Cari Champion, another former ESPN anchor.
Why she’s key: Hill recently signed a deal to host a podcast network to elevate Black women. There are few people in the sports media who will have a greater influence than Hill. It’s likely she won’t just have an impact on the coming decade in sports, her voice will help shape it.
Her story: Michele Roberts is the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. In 2014, she became the first woman to lead a major professional sports union in North America. In March of 2020, Roberts announced that she was stepping down from her role, but when the NBA season came to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, she put her retirement plans on hold to better assist the players she represents.
Why she’s key: Roberts played a significant role in not just the NBA successfully playing during the pandemic in a secure bubble, but helping to shape protocols that kept players safe. She also facilitated financial negotiations and aided the league’s effort with social justice messaging.
Her story: Sarah Thomas, 47, finished her sixth season in the NFL by becoming the first woman to officiate the Super Bowl in league history as a down judge.
“Sarah Thomas has made history again as the first female Super Bowl official,” said NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent Sr. “Her elite performance and commitment to excellence has earned her the right to officiate the Super Bowl. Congratulations to Sarah on this well-deserved honor.”
Why she’s key: Thomas’s journey to Super Bowl 55 serves as an example of how impactful and inclusive officiating crews can be. She paved the way for girls to see themselves as an NFL game official. That’s no small feat.
Her story: Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall, the first Black woman CEO in the NBA, was hired by the Dallas Mavericks in 2018. One of the main reasons owner Mark Cuban hired Marshall, 61, was for her to help repair a toxic workplace culture.
Why she’s key: As the first Black woman to lead an NBA team, Marshall has guided the Mavericks to become the standard for diverse and inclusive practices in the league. Just several weeks after joining the team she implemented a 100-day plan to create a non-hostile work environment. When named CEO, none of the existing employees on the executive leadership team were women or people of color. Today the leadership team is 50 percent women and 76 percent people of color.
“I want to make sure I do a good job, be a good role model and show that it shouldn’t be unusual for a Black woman to be in a job like this,” she said. “I want to make sure I’m working and others are working to cultivate the second, third, fourth and fifth one that’s coming. I want to make sure I’m not the last. I can’t be the last, and I won’t be the last. I know I won’t be.”
Her story: Kim Ng, the general manager of the Miami Marlins, is the first woman general manager in the four major North American professional sports leagues, and baseball’s first East Asian American GM. She began her baseball career as a Chicago White Sox intern and ascended to assistant director of baseball operations for the franchise. Ng next worked for the American League before joining the New York Yankees where she became the youngest assistant general manager in the major leagues at age 29.
“This challenge is one I don’t take lightly,” she said. “When I got into this business, it seemed unlikely a woman would lead a major league team, but I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals.”
Why she’s key: Ng possessed one of the greatest resumes of any first-time general manager in league history. She’s important not solely because she’s proven to be a talented baseball executive, but she also serves as something almost as important: a role model for girls and women. Ng led MLB’s initiatives to improve the quality of play and rate of participation for amateur baseball around the world, while also supervising player initiatives for women and girls, and serving on the league’s Diversity Pipeline Advisory Committee.
Her story: Lesa France Kennedy is the CEO and vice chairwoman of International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and vice chairwoman and board member of NASCAR. Kennedy notably oversaw a $400 million project of the redevelopment of the Daytona International Speedway, the ISC’s largest development project thus far.
Why she’s key: Kennedy’s work in the motorsports industry has landed her on Forbes’ “Most Powerful Woman in Sports” twice and in 2014 received a “Women Making History” award from the National Women’s History Museum.
Kennedy’s influence and power reach beyond NASCAR. She’s established herself as one of the most powerful people across all of sports.
Her story: When Becky Hammon was hired by the San Antonio Spurs in August 2014, she became the first woman to be a full-time assistant coach in any of the four North American major men’s professional sports leagues. She was the first woman to be the head coach during a regular-season NBA game when she stepped in for head coach Greg Popovich after he was ejected in the first half of the Spur-Lakers game last season.
Why she is key: It seems only a matter of time before Hammon becomes a head coach in the NBA. That’s something that could easily happen in this coming decade.
Her story: Amber Nichols is the general manager for the Capital City Go-Go, the G League affiliate of the Washington Wizards. Nichols played college basketball at Richmond and has worked for the Go-Go since the team’s inception in 2018. Nichols managed the team’s logistics and worked with the Wizards’ front office during NBA and G League drafts and scouting events prior to becoming general manager.
Nichols was excited but also introspective when she was announced as general manager in January.
“Finally. All my hard work paid off,” Nichols told USA TODAY Sports. “Then there was a little bit of, ‘Now the pressure is on. What can I do to ensure that I am my most successful in this role?’ The pressure is a mix of a couple of things. First and foremost, I am 28 years old and a lot of people in this position are older than me. So what can I do to stand out? What type of leader do I want to be? Will the guys respect me?”
“I am a female. I have the pressure of succeeding in this role so that it can open up other opportunities for other young women one day.”
Why she’s key: Nichols joins Tori Miller of the College Park Skyhawks as the second woman to hold a general manager position in the G League. Nichols hopes that position will give a visual representation of what young girls can become.
“Don’t let a no or a closed-door detour you,” Nichols said. “Just keep chipping away at what you want and keep your head down and keep working. You will be surprised how your hard work and dedication to something will manifest into an opportunity for you out of nowhere.”
Her story: As the highest-earning female athlete in the world, 22-year-old Naomi Osaka uses her platform to bring awareness to racial inequality.
Why she’s key: From bearing the names of victims of racial profiling, or police violence, on her mask during the U.S. Open in 2020, to using her social media platforms as a vehicle for advocacy for communities of color, Osaka’s influence on younger generations of athletes (and others) will grow for years to come.
Her story: It was the 2016 Rio Olympics when the world watched Simone Manuel make history. Manuel became the first Black swimmer to win gold in an individual event. Manuel is also the first woman to win seven medals at a single world championship, and the first Black woman to sweep the 50- and 100- meter freestyle titles at worlds.
Why she’s key: At 24, Manuel is positioned to dominate the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and sees the moment as a chance to use her platform to advocate for diversity in the predominantly white sport of swimming.
“When I’m in a press conference and I’m asked, ‘Simone, you champion diversity, inclusion and equality. Why is that important?’ I genuinely believe that every other swimmer that is next to me, whether they’re white, Black, Asian, they need to answer that question,” Manuel said on USA TODAY Sports’ “Changing the Game” podcast. “Because shouldn’t diversity, equality and inclusion be important to all of us? It can’t just be important to Black people.”
Her story: Christina Hovestadt is a community relations manager in the NFL. Hovestadt founded A Seat At The Table (ASAT), a community of women in sports and entertainment who are “dedicated to equipping and empowering the next generation of female game-changers through mentorship.” As a former collegiate volleyball player and former high school coach and educator, Hovestadt knows about the impact teachers and coaches can have on young lives.
Why she’s key: In addition to her work in the NFL, Hovestadt is aware that women need mentors like her.
“I have a great support system, but when it came to my career, I never really had people that were willing to reach back and help me,” Hovestadt told USA TODAY Sports. “I really just want to be the mentor and gather a bunch of other women in the industry to be the mentors that we wish we had. At the end of the day, if you are going to pass the baton or if you are going to empower the next generation, you have to be intentional with the position that you have been given.”
One of the ASAT mentors, MJ Acosta-Ruiz is the first and only Afro-Latina to host a show on NFL Network.
“A Seat At The Table was actually birthed from a dinner that MJ and I hosted,” said Hovestadt, who credits Acosta-Ruiz with sparking the idea to make ASAT a more influential organization.
Her story: The U.S. women’s national team midfielder is at the forefront of the fight for equal pay for the national women’s soccer team, and throughout 2020, Rapinoe used her platform to advocate for voting rights and racial equality. She’s become one of the leading voices for equality in all of sports.
Why she’s key: Rapinoe has never shied away from speaking out against systemic injustices and speaking up for LGBTQIA+ rights and as long as she has a voice, she will use it to advocate for the underrepresented communities.
Their story: In 2020 few professional sports teams, if any, were more vocal, and effective, in using their platform to fight systemic racism, and fight for voter rights, than the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.
One of their most fearless acts was opposing the candidacy of former Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was co-owner of the Dream. Loeffler was an opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement and made a number of statements that were in direct contradiction to the WNBA’s anti-racism message.
So the Dream worked to get Loeffler’s opponent in the run-off election, Raphael Warnock, elected instead of her. That’s exactly what happened and it can be easily argued it wouldn’t have without the Dream.
Why they’re key: The Dream organization and its players serve as an example to teams across the nation on how to effectively mobilize and organize efforts for lasting change. Whether it is championing the Black Lives Matter movement, empowering women and women of color, or supporting the LGBTQIA+ community, the Dream show no signs of slowing down their support for progressive social change.