By Etienne Thomas, Director of Athletics, Winston-Salem State University (WSSU)
January 2020 was a challenging time for anyone to start a new job, with Covid looming and hitting hard in March of that year. But that did not stop Etienne Thomas from making a noticeable impact at WSSU as the new Athletic Director (AD) in January 2020. Director Thomas represents a small percentage of female ADs at Division II schools, in which only 21% are female, despite the growing percentage of female athletes (47% nationwide). That percentage of female ADs drops to 15% in Division I schools, as reported in a 2020 article by USA Today. The percentage of Black female ADs is even smaller. Director Thomas may be in a small percentage of females in athletic department leadership roles, but she has already helped to strengthen the athlete experience at WSSU, and she is grateful for the dedicated coaches and staff, many of whom also teach in the classroom as well as on the court, field, or track. She is especially proud of the 3.0 overall GPA for the entire group of student athletes as well as for the 3.0 football team GPA. She brags on the community engagement of WSSU athletes in the local K-12 education system and in the campus partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield.
What attracted Director Thomas to the WSSU was the rich academic and Championship legacy of the university and its motto, “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.” “I am an adopted member of the “Ramily” and love the school environment,” she says. WSSU was not the first North Carolina university that caught her attention. Born in Iowa and raised in New York, Thomas wanted to come south and try her hand at being a “Southern Belle” at North Carolina Central University. She completed her political science degree in 3 years, studied law at the University of Iowa, and was on her way to becoming a sports entertainment attorney when she gained experience in compliance and athletic operations and started climbing the leadership ladder in athletic departments. Thomas gained experience at The University of Iowa, North Carolina Central University, Saint Paul’s College, Howard University, San Jose State University, The University of Kansas, and Kentucky State University. Applying for leadership roles at many of these institutions meant she was sometimes the only candidate of color interviewing. Traditionally, athletic directors have been white men. This reality continues to this day, influencing pay for female ADs and perpetuating the racial and gender bias that prevents credentials from speaking for themselves. “Stepping into a board room can mean being recognized first as a woman, then as a Black woman, then as an experienced, credentialed Black woman,” she notes.
Thomas recommends that young women interested in a career in leadership in athletic departments to first get experience through internships, volunteering in high school or college, youth sports or even work at sports complexes or coliseums. Explore schools with sports management degrees, but almost every college has some level of sports program to tap into to gain the necessary experience. She feels that a degree in a sports related major is not as essential as finding a mentor or faculty member who can provide guidance along their journey.
Thomas appreciates her leadership role at WSSU and acknowledges that Chancellor Robinson has created an environment where women leaders can thrive and feel supported. She encourages anyone who wants to support the university and its students and sport programs to volunteer mentorships, internships, or post-graduate employment to students and graduates seeking experience. WSSU has a limited athletic budget and can benefit from annual donations of funds, time, talent, land, or other resources for scholarships, endowments, or planned giving. Thomas and her staff take an equitable approach to making the funds spread as far as possible for every sport and every student need, medical as well as academic. She urges the community to come to campus and support a sports event, see the Red Sea of Sound Marching Band, attend the October 1st homecoming game and parade, or support the cheerleaders. No degree of support is not too small. Etienne Thomas’s impact at WSSU is big! Events can be found at www.wssurams.com.