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Muffet McGraw’s Notre Dame team is playing for more than a W

“I’m glad she really backed up her words, and that we helped her back them up.”

“That’s the best one, that’s big time.”

After her back-to-back buzzer beaters in last year’s women’s Final Four (and numerous SportsCenter-ready highlights since), Notre Dame star guard Arike Ogunbowale knows big time — and she can confirm that President Barack Obama quote-tweeting a video of her coach, Muffet McGraw, talking about the importance of women coaches in a Final Four press conference, is big time.

“Girls are socialized to know when they come out, gender rules are already set,” said McGraw. “We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power.”

Her words traveled substantially further than most rote pregame press conference quotes.

“A voice everybody should hear,” wrote Obama, echoing the sentiments of countless others on social media and at non-sports outlets like the TODAY Show who might not have otherwise known her name. Or, for that matter, paid even the most superficial attention to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

“We’re like, ‘You went viral.’ She’s like, ‘What’s that?’” Ogunbowale adds, laughing. “I’ve been seeing it everywhere. That’s really big, and good for women in general.”

In her 32nd season as the head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a team that she’s led to nine Final Fours, six title games and two championships, all of a sudden Muffet McGraw is in the spotlight. The fact that she’s getting so much attention now has less to do with her success on the court, and more what that success has enabled her to say off it: that she’s tired of seeing the number of women coaches of women’s sports decline, and she’s decided to do something about it by no longer hiring men.

She elucidated that sentiment for the first time explicitly in a ThinkProgress feature published last week. The rigidity of McGraw’s mandate sparked some controversy, including a quick rebuttal from her longtime rival, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. “I hope she sends a thank you to all those guys that used to be on her staff that got her all those good players that won a championship,” Auriemma told reporters at the Albany Regional. “I look at some of the top programs in America, and they seem to have pretty good coaches who happen to be men.”

It was poetic that the two were then slated to meet in the Final Four for the eighth time days later, and even more poetic when McGraw’s Irish prevailed for the second year in a row, affirming her status as the winningest coach against Auriemma’s Huskies (she’s won 13 of their matchups). The Fighting Irish have a winning record against Connecticut in the NCAA tournament — a rare feat against one of the most dominant dynasties in sports.

But before the game tipped, McGraw used the literal platform that the Final Four appearance — and the increased scrutiny that came from it being a rivalry game — gave her to speak up about systemic sexism, pulling out stats about the lack of women in positions of power and lamenting the persistence of outmoded ideas. “I’ve never watched CNN as much as I am now,” she said in a part of her press conference that didn’t go viral. “We have the Equal Pay Act. Women are making 77 cents on the dollar, and that’s just white women. Women of color are lagging way further behind. I’m not just talking about white women being coaches. We need more diversity in our game as well.”

To McGraw’s players current and past, the fact that the Final Four win came in the wake of her speaking out publicly against sexism gave it extra significance. “They’re playing for a lot more now just because there are more eyes on them,” says former Notre Dame forward and WNBA free agent Devereaux Peters. “People may be paying attention now that normally wouldn’t have, just because [McGraw] has been put on this global stage.”

“The trolls would have probably been saying stuff if we lost after she’d given that speech,” Ogunbowale adds. “I’m glad she really backed up her words, and that we helped her back them up.”

It’s an idea that’s percolated down to McGraw’s players, who’ve drawn attention for their outspoken attitudes and on-the-court swagger: say what you want, as long as you can prove it. “I don’t talk like that unless I know I can validate it,” says Irish guard Marina Mabrey, who earned a reputation among reporters for vocal locker room confidence at last year’s tournament (which, it should be noted, Notre Dame won). “Obviously…I was about to say what I said last year, but let me not say that. I said, ‘They’re a great team but we’re better.’ It’s still true.”

“McGraw is the person who’s going to put something behind those words and not just say them,” Peters says. “Having an all-woman staff shows that she’s not just talking about these things — that it’s something she actually believes in, and puts into action. She had been waiting for this moment for somebody to ask her. Somebody’s not going to pull those stats out of their back pocket if this isn’t something that they’d really thought about.”

In that context, McGraw’s speech — as surprising as it might have been to those outside the team — was anything but a distraction for her team. “I feel like [McGraw’s comments] gave us a little extra push tonight,” says Mabrey. “We wanted to say, ‘We’re gonna take control and win this game with our all-female staff.’”

“Anytime you have a coach like that who stands up for you, who stands up for women, it’s special,” says Notre Dame forward Jessica Shepard. “She empowers us everyday just to make sure that we know we’re free to be who we are and do whatever we dream of.”

“I mean, so many people hate her because she speaks her mind and doesn’t let people walk all over her or let men run the world — whatever she says,” Mabrey adds. “What she said was powerful, and if it wasn’t powerful people wouldn’t be hating on it.”

McGraw’s advocacy for women might be new to the public, but to former players like Peters it’s entirely expected. “If you know Coach McGraw, you know she doesn’t hold her tongue on anything,” Peters says. “I think she’s become more vocal about it, but also that it’s become more of an issue. It’s more of a gaping hole where you don’t see these women in these coaching positions.”

Though the viral clip’s lacks explicit inclusivity regarding race and sexuality, in Peters’ experience, McGraw has been vocal and thoughtful about those issues as well.

“With any type of white feminism, usually it excludes women of color when you just generalize like that — if you’re going to talk about inequality and women, you have to talk about black women too,” she says. “That’s especially important given the NCAA’s issue with black women coaches, which is a big problem in itself. Even though Coach McGraw may not have specifically talked about it in this instance, she’s definitely talked about it regularly. She’s well-aware and someone who tries to promote black women — I mean, look at her staff. It’s right there.” Two of McGraw’s assistants, Carol Owens and Niele Ivey, are Black.

As they head into the tournament, the Irish are relishing the national attention that they’re getting for their play, and for their coach’s activism. “She gives us that spiel probably once a week, so we know everything about it,” says Ogunbowale, laughing. “But I’m glad it’s finally getting out there, and she’s definitely representing women’s basketball well. She inspires all of us — especially the seniors when we leave — to try to follow in the same footsteps, and be advocates as well.”

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