From penny pinching to championships: field hockey overcomes barriers
Karen Shelton, head coach of UNC's field hockey program, has led the team to six NCAA Championships since becoming head coach in 1981. She has been named National Coach of the Year five times and was inducted into the USA Field Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989.
As women's teams like field hockey grab spectators’ attention and rise to the top, they are still fighting to be recognized for their athletic ability rather than their gender.
For Shelton, it all began in 1981 when she was 23 and had no desire to be a head coach. All she had was a part-time salary and a dream that aligned with the growing movement for women’s equality.
‘A girl’s game’
Field hockey didn’t make it over to America until 1901 whenConstance Applebee started teaching it at a private all-girls school. The sport, which spread across the East Coast, was deemed acceptable for women to play, like croquet and golf.
“It just stayed a girl’s game,” Shelton said. “But all over around the rest of the world, men play.”
UNC founded its field hockey program in the 1940s, but it didn’t become a varsity sport until 1971. The team was a charter member of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, winning several championships and finishing second twice in the AIAW Southern Region II tournament. The team joined the NCAA in 1982 during Shelton’s second season as coach.
When Shelton started, she earned $7,700 — about $22,000 in 2018. Even with a small sum of money and scarce resources, she built an empire that won championships, and eventually, her salary increased. However, as a nonrevenue, female-dominated sport, it was an uphill battle.
“We didn’t get a whole lot of attention back then,” Shelton said. “... I worked with what we had.”
All the program had was a grass field, three scholarships and a head coach without any head-coaching experience. But Shelton didn't let that get in the way of success.
Once football and the band finished their practices, field hockey took over the space. The players kept their equipment in their dorm rooms because all the team had was a shed filled with balls, cones and sticks.
Now, Karen Shelton Stadium is home just for them — a rarity in the sport.
“Back in the day, we had a room about this size with little cubbies, and we had little bleachers that were like this,” Shelton said, gesturing to the sofas beside her in the ‘Deal Closing Room’ nestled in the new facility. “We’ve come an awful long way."
If it weren’t for Shelton's four brothers and an off-the-whim decision in junior high school, UNC could’ve missed out on one of the greatest coaches of all time.
“My friend asked, 'Do you want to go out for this sport?' and I said, 'Okay!”’ Shelton said. “We stayed after school and got the physical. I was just good at it.”
The rest was history.
The self-described tomboy played every sport she could, but field hockey was her favorite. Shelton went on to play for the National Team from 1977-84, was U.S. Field Hockey’s Athlete of the Year in 1983 and brought home an Olympic bronze with her teammates in 1984.
Shelton also doubled as an assistant coach at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. But a phone call from former UNC field hockey coach Dolly Hunter caused Shelton to rethink her career.
Hunter asked Shelton to take her position.
Shelton was still playing for the national team when she accepted the full-time post.
She was skeptical of the step she was about to take. That is until she arrived on UNC’s campus.
“I just knew I could build a program here," she said.
Over the next 37 years, Shelton, the second winningest field hockey coach in NCAA history, built one of the strongest programs in the country, picking up six NCAA national championships, 18 ACC titles and 35 winning seasons along the way. While she had the trophies to show her hard-earned recognition, the compensation was lacking.
"I was still part-time when we won our first national championship," Shelton said.
After that championship, Shelton was paid full-time, but it wasn't until recently that she earned more than the median female head coach salary. In the 2017 fiscal year, the median female salary was $143,643, while Shelton earned $181,936 as the second-highest paid UNC female head coach. The non-revenue male coaches earn a median salary of $153,358.
However, according to UNC Exercise and Sport Science professor and sports lawyer Barbara Osborne, the $10,000 difference between male and female coach salaries might not be statistically significant. But she said seniority, skill, the team's record and coach and salary compression are factors that matter.
“A lot of our women’s coaches have been here for a very long time, but if a male coach is hired more recently, salaries in the marketplace have gone up a lot faster than salaries if you’re just getting raises and staying in your own job,” Osborne said.
The way the money is divided can play into the stigma surrounding female athletics too.
“We see revenue sports — they get so much for Final Four tournaments," senior UNC field hockey player Ashley Hoffman said. "They’ll get TVs and we’ll get t-shirts. I think that’s a thing that we always say, ‘What in the world is going on here?’”
'I'm also a girl’
Female athletics first gained traction and moved toward equality 46 years ago.
After Title IX was introduced in 1972, schools started forming female athletic teams to comply with regulations. Osborne joined track and cross country at her high school after the law was passed, but she had to compete on the male cross country team during her first year.
“I ran with the boys, and they couldn’t tell me no because Title IX didn’t allow it," Osborne said.
Even though Osborne gained a scholarship to compete at the collegiate level, the stigma surrounding female athletes persisted. The same rang true for Shelton.
“I know for my own self that it was embarrassing to be a really good athlete at my school,” Shelton said. "That’s why I gravitated toward defense because I didn’t want to be the one scoring all of the goals.”
Years later, the stigma remains, but the focus has shifted.
“I guess how we’re treated sometimes, field hockey players or any women’s sport, it’s stigmatized that we’re lesbians or manly," Hoffman said. "So maybe, sometimes, we’re reaching to be more girly because of that and to be like, ‘This is not who I am.’”
While fewer women are embarrassed about being good at their sport, the focus on looks detracts from their athletic ability.
“Even in a sport that would be considered a feminine sport, there’s this pressure with the makeup and the glitter and the bows and the rest of it to hide the muscles and focus on the pretty,” Osborne said.
“It’s those tiny little feminine things to say, ‘I’m an athlete, but remember I’m also a girl.’"
Osborne said media coverage, and lack of coverage, is part of the problem.
“When women’s sport is covered, sexual stereotypes are often accentuated,” Osborne said. “If you look at the Serena Williams incident that just happened and how that was covered through social media, I think the narrative changed, but the immediate response was this female athlete having a tantrum.”
Despite the progress female athletes have made through Title IX, there is still a long way to go.
“Until we live in a culture where we really look at men and women as equals,” Osborne said, “things that we identify as masculine, like sports, will always have fewer girls.”