‘My voice matters’: Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey, Duke’s Kara Lawson use new roles to speak out

It’s happened so many times, Kara Lawson has already lost count. 

The former WNBA and Olympic champion, and new head coach of the Duke women’s basketball program, will be running errands at a local Target or Costco when a North Carolina fan approaches. 

“They’ll walk up to me and say, ‘Coach, I’m a Carolina fan’ — and it’s like no kidding, you have a Carolina shirt on — ‘but I really want to see you succeed,’” Lawson says. 

Each encounter has humbled her.

“The response from the African-American community, just how much pride people have in the success of obtaining the position (of head coach at Duke), that has blown me away,” she says. “I’m not expecting them to switch allegiances or anything. But I thank them and tell them how much it means to me for them to say something. 

“I understand I’m representing every African-American in this position; it doesn’t matter what color they wear or which team they root for, my success can help every African-American.” 

In this 2019 photo, then-Boston Celtics assistant coach Kara Lawson passes the ball at the team's training facility in Boston. Duke hired Lawson as its women's basketball coach in July. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) (Photo: Charles Krupa, AP)

This offseason two of the most prominent programs in women’s college basketball hired their first-ever Black head coaches, with Lawson landing at Duke, and Niele Ivey returning to Notre Dame. Their hirings were significant because in a sport made up predominantly of young Black women — the NCAA estimates 45% of Division I  women’s basketball players are Black — only 17% of coaches are Black women. In the Power Five conferences, just 12% of coaches are Black women. 

What’s more, Lawson and Ivey step into their roles during a time of major civil unrest, as the country reels from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and numerous other Black men and women killed at the hands of police officers. And in this moment of racial reckoning, when athletes and coaches are speaking out and refusing to be defined solely by their sport, Lawson and Ivey know it’s crucial their voices be heard, too. 

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At an Aug. 27 Black Lives Matter peaceful protest organized by the Duke men’s basketball team, Lawson spoke powerfully and passionately about the reality of being Black in America. 

“Equality, in theory, is a basic principal. But in practice, for our country, it’s been very complicated,” Lawson said, adding that Black men and women experience a daily anxiety as they wake up “knowing that on your drive to school or your drive to work, going to a restaurant, sitting in your house, or hanging out with your friends at the park, that could be your last moment on earth.” She spoke of the anger and loneliness Black Americans regularly feel as they watch “week after week, month after month, our brothers and sisters being shot in broad daylight and nothing being done.”

It will take patience, a competitive spirit and endurance, she said — endurance that “being born African American, is built into us” — to create a better future. 

Lawson, a self-described introvert, says now there was no question that she would speak that day on campus. The men’s program invited her, but she’s used to it, too: Her career has been defined by a series of firsts, and as someone who’s broken barriers for women and women of color in spaces typically dominated by white men, she “very much understands the gravity” of not only her situation and the position she holds, but how her voice can carry into other arenas. 

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“My dad used to always tell me, as a Black woman, you have to have every box checked and then you have to succeed when you get an opportunity,” recalls Lawson, who spent the last year as an assistant with the Boston Celtics, one of only a handful of Black women to ever hold that distinction in the NBA. “That’s just the way it is, because you likely won’t get another one.”

But Lawson refuses to look at any opportunity “through a prism of failure,” she says, and plans to use her platform to speak whenever she feels necessary.

For Ivey, who returned to Notre Dame after a year with the Memphis Grizzlies, the conversations around police brutality land a little harder, because she has an 18-year-old son. Jaden Ivey is a freshman basketball player at Purdue. 

“I don’t think a lot of people realize, when you’re a working single parent, it’s hard because you’re gone a lot,” she says. “I’ve always felt that fear and worry about him, and it was especially heightened during his teenage years, when he became more independent and was out in the world on his own.”

Niele Ivey, a longtime Notre Dame assistant who spent the 2019-2020 season as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies, returned to South Bend in April to take over for a retiring Muffet McGraw. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond, File) ORG XMIT: NYHK102 (Photo: Joe Raymond, AP)

The shift in the racial climate, plus her moving from longtime assistant to Woman In Charge, has encouraged Ivey to speak out and speak up. She feels empowered and supported by her bosses at Notre Dame and points to NBA and WNBA players for “giving us the blueprint” on how to balance sports with social justice and understanding how far their voice can reach. 

“I think we’re in a time where it’s not only acceptable, it’s necessary,” Ivey says. “As an assistant I wouldn’t have said as much but we cannot be silent anymore. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it pushed all this dialogue to the forefront … and I think speaking out about what’s right and what’s wrong, that should not be a divisive opinion.” 

Asked if she’s worried about alienating fans by refusing to stick to sports, Ivey laughed. 

“We don’t have fans this year,” she cracked before turning serious again. “I hope I attract the right crowd, people who believe in Notre Dame and support our players on the court but also their passions off the court, who understand our team message. If we lose fans, I’ll have to live with that — because it’s important to be authentic for my players.” 

Niele Ivey is the right choice for Notre Dame women's basketball coach

Both Ivey and Lawson know that it can’t just be them speaking either. They’re “inspired every day,” Ivey says, by players’ desire to be part of tough conversations. Lawson says that young people particularly are “more perceptive and nuanced than people think,” and can see through someone who is merely spouting words but refusing to act. Both know they need to encourage players to find their voice, in the same way Black female coaches before Lawson and Ivey paved the way for them. 

At South Carolina, Dawn Staley, just the second Black female coach to lead her team to a national title (Carolyn Peck was the first, leading Purdue to the 1999 championship) has been vocal on social media about the importance of voting, lifting up the Black Lives Matter movement. In June, Mississippi State coach Nikki McCray-Penson spoke at the state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi, urging lawmakers to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag, describing it as racist, oppressive and violent. At Buffalo, 10th-year coach Felisha Legette-Jack recorded a video with her team calling for the end of violence against Black people. 

Two years ago, after her team bowed out in the NCAA Tournament after a Cinderella-style run to the Sweet 16, Legette-Jack was asked about the lack of Black female coaches in college basketball. Her passionate, emotional answer went viral. 

“I’m saddened by it,” she said. “I understand the problem. I know that the majority of women basketball players look like me. I think that these young women, if we really care about them as people, that they will have role models that look like them …

“I hope that if these coaches that see me who resurged themselves or herself into another opportunity and try to make the most of it, I hope they get encouraged and understand: The fight isn't going to easy. It's necessary. It's necessary not just for you and your sadness and you and your fire and you and your woe-is-me.

“The fight is for the next young lady that needs a person who looks like her to rise above and to be coached up and create a foundation so that she can become the COO, the CFO of something very big. It's important that they stay in the race and keep fighting. We see them. You're out there. Keep fighting.”

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At Buffalo, Legette-Jack has a rule for players: the first three times you need to speak with her, you can text her. The next time has to be a call because “they need to know that their voice matters.” 

Watching so many Black coaches speak up this offseason has resonated with Legette-Jack. 

“We’ve all gotta join in when we’re being uplifted like this,” she says. “What I hear right now is so many wonderful voices speaking my language — but you’ve gotta speak because you have something to say, not just because you hear other people talking.”

Lawson and Ivey want to create that same type of environment, and Legette-Jack is confident they will. For her, watching two Black women ascend to two of the most powerful positions in college athletics wasn’t emotional, “because it just makes sense.” 

And in this time of racial reckoning, it also makes sense to Legette-Jack that they’ll use those positions, coupled with their voices, as much as possible. 

As Ivey says, “I know my voice matters. And I know that right now, my voice needs to be heard.” 

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