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'Not just for the boys': Female athletic managers make strides in male-dominated field

Kiersten Steinbacher, a Senior Exercise and Sport Science Major and Head Student Manager for Carolina Basketball, poses with her basketball and manager clipboard at the courts outside of Ram Village on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.

Team managers know their job is done right when all things run smoothly, and they go unnoticed.

Even working from behind the scenes, UNC seniors Mariah Vargas and Kiersten Steinbacher deserve a little bit of the spotlight. The strides they've made as female managers on male-based teams have made a distinguishable impact on the UNC baseball and basketball programs.

“Even if it’s a male-dominated sport, that shouldn’t deter women away from getting involved,” Vargas said. “The environment that I’ve been in and the men that I’ve had the opportunity to work with have been so supportive, and even though you might have challenges as a woman, it’s a great opportunity.”

As UNC baseball’s first female manager, Vargas’ love for baseball and past experience in management made her a perfect fit for the job.

On her first day of a history class as a first-year, Vargas happened to sit next to a group of men decked out in North Carolina baseball gear. After talking with the team in class, Vargas was put into contact with her current boss, head equipment manager Tyler Puryear, who she emailed to express interest in a volunteer position with the team. After sending in her cover letter and resume and going through the interview process, she landed the position. 

"As long as you’re qualified, willing to make the time commitment and want to be here, then we want you here," Puryear said regarding the hiring process.

Steinbacher began her management journey working for the junior varsity men's basketball team. She rose up the ranks to head manager of the varsity team her junior year, a role has kept through her senior year. Though it’s unprecedented for a woman to hold this position for two years in a row, Steinbacher didn’t feel that her gender affected coach Roy Williams’ choice.

Her fellow manager, Cole Chapman, said UNC is one of the few programs that consistently hire women to be managers for their basketball teams.

“I know coach Williams and coach (Dean) Smith have been very progressive in terms of females in the workplace, which is something that is very ingrained in the culture of Carolina basketball,” Chapman said.

In contrast to UNC men's basketball’s system, Duke’s men's basketball team has been in the news in recent years due to allegations of Title IX violations regarding the exclusivity of women from their management team. As reported by the Duke Chronicle, the Blue Devils hired a female manager for the 2019-20 season, their first since the 2014-15 season

Duke Athletics did not respond by the time of publication when asked for comment about its hiring practices for its men's basketball team. 

When it comes to managing a D1 athletics team, the responsibilities make it almost like a second job. 

Baseball managers generally organize the locker rooms and dugout, inventory and number the gear, run the scoreboard, keep stats, pack for road trips, handle the laundry and help catch fly balls in the outfield. 

Unlike male managers, Vargas can’t have full-time access to the men’s locker room, but she found workarounds by showing up early to practice to do her part by preparing the locker room before the team arrives.

Although Vargas hasn’t played baseball, she’s an avid fan — her brother was on a travel team, and she never missed any of his games, which she started attending at 10 years old. She got involved in keeping stats at 12 years old when the coach taught her how to keep a play-by-play book.

“I think that the boys have an advantage in the sense that they can help more in the batting cages, pre-games and practices,” Vargas said. “On the back hand of that, I’m more on the operations side of things and get to see how things work upstairs in the office or the press box with the marketing team.”

For basketball managers, their duties include setting up for practices and games, doing statistics, picking up meals, rebounding and wiping the floors, doing laundry and helping with equipment. 

As head manager, Steinbacher is present at every home and away game. She takes on more responsibility by coordinating with the coaches and making sure the players are where they need to be.

“I feel very lucky to be at UNC, and I think coach Williams has made Carolina basketball a family,” Steinbacher said. “I know not every work environment makes every woman feel equal to the men they work with.”

Although managing one of UNC’s prestigious teams is a tough time commitment, it opens up numerous opportunities for networking and internships for careers in sports administration.

Working 30-50 hours a week without pay can be difficult, but Vargas said that managing the baseball team has been well worth it. Working with male athletes on a day-to-day basis has given her valuable real-world experience to fulfill her dream job of working in marketing or game day operations for an MLB team. 

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“It’s taught me how difficult it can be to work in a male-dominated field and how difficult it can be maneuvering some of those things when I’m the only female,” Vargas said.

Team managers work behind the scenes to ensure practice and game-day operations run seamlessly and make a difference no matter the gender of the team they represent.

But going unnoticed while paving the way for female involvement in male sports is not an option for Vargas and Steinbacher.

“One of the challenges of being in a male-dominated field is being able to stand my ground and prove that I deserve to be there and that I have the capabilities and skillset," Vargas said. "Even though I might not be able to go out on the field and catch fly balls, I am still an asset to the team. I remind the boys every day that baseball is a place for everybody, not just for the boys.”

@dthsports |