Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/12/2020 (321 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Major League Baseball's Miami Marlins named Kim Ng as their general manager last month, it made headlines around the world.
Many news outlets claimed it was the first time a woman has been hired as the GM of a men's professional sports team, but longtime Canadian Football Legaue fans know that's not the case.
In 1989, the Ottawa Rough Riders made history by hiring 29-year-old Jo-Anne Polak to be the team's GM. There was no time to sit back and think about what she had accomplished, as Polak was being handed the keys to a club that was coming off a 2-16 season and $1.2 million in debt. When Polak left after three seasons, the Rough Riders were in much better shape, winning seven games in both 1990 and 1991 in addition to seeing a drastic increase in attendance at home games.
Polak was thrilled to see Ng, who made her first trade as Marlins GM on Tuesday, get the job, but she never imagined it would take three decades years for a woman to get the same opportunity she did.
Polak, now vice-president of communications for Canada Post and a proud Ottawa Redblacks season ticket holder, chatted with the Free Press on Wednesday about her time in the GM chair, why there aren't more women in men's pro sports, and what Ng's hiring meant to her.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation:
What did you think when you heard about Ng's hire?
I actually saw it on Twitter and thought 'Wow, that's a great move. Well done.' Then I started to read about her and thought she's extremely qualified as she's been (working in baseball) for 30 years. Then, it was only then, that I realized she was the first in 30 years. That didn't jump out at me right away. I thought 'No, that can't be true. There had to have been someone else.' I just assumed over the past 30 years there were other people and I just didn't know about it.
Why do you think it's taken so long for another woman to land a GM job?
I, personally, attribute a lot of it to what is a deeply rooted culture of insecurity in professional sports that makes it very different than traditional business. So, it's a very different dynamic... (The pro sports industry) is extremely unstable. It's not the kind of industry for anyone, whether it's a man or a woman, where you can get in and you understand where you're going to be next year or whatever. So, as a result, they make decisions that are safer and that are more on the path of least resistance. There isn't a lot of reward in professional sports for sticking your neck out and going out on a limb to make a bold move like this.
Speaking of bold moves, it was pretty bold of the Rough Riders to offer you the GM job as you didn't have a football background. You were working for an agency that was doing communications support for the team when a group of 27 community partners purchased the club from Allan Waters. Head coach Steve Goldman handled the football decisions, but what gave them the idea to offer you such a prominent role?
It's actually a really long story and probably one you don't even have enough ink to write. But I was very involved with the 1988 Grey Cup committee in Ottawa as well. So, a lot of the things that I had been involved in for the years prior to my hiring, had a big impact. I was involved in raising money in the community to be able to demonstrate to the CFL that we had community support and we raised huge money really quick, so it had a big impact. I was also involved in the Grey Cup committee in an area, again, I won't get too into it, that had big impact. So, a lot of the things I got invovled with on the team had big impact. I remember the owner saying to me 'You can do this with such little to work with. Imagine what you could do if you had the whole team?' They said they needed something completely different.
You took over for Paul Robson. He's a pretty popular guy in this town. Robson was Ottawa's GM for a pair of seasons (1987-88) when you were on the communications side of things.
I worked very, very closely with Paul and I loved working with him. When he was fired, it was right before Grey Cup, and I remember thinking 'I hope whoever the new GM is lets me stay involved.' I was so disappointed when he was fired. As a matter of fact, he was doing me a favour and was going to speak at a conference with me. We were both going to speak at, I think, it was a university or something like that. He had promised he would come and speak with me and both of us were doing this panel. He walked in and said to me 'Well, I guess we can talk about the fact I was just fired, too.' And I was like 'What?' I had no idea he had been fired. I said 'Paul, you don't have to do this conference,' but he has so much class and basically said 'No, I've committed to it and I'm going to do it.' I learned a lot from Paul Robson.
You've told stories about a coach that refused to work for you because you're a woman. What was the biggest challenge of being a trailblazer?
Honestly, I got used to it, but there were some things that would never be put up with now. But back in the late '80s and early '90s you could say these things out loud. There was one coach-of-the-year dinner and I had already moved on from being the first woman and I was all in on making my franchise strong. So, I was at this dinner and they were kind of making jokes at my expense. They were more like locker-room jokes. I was fine. I couldn't care less. But when I got back to my hotel room that night, the light was on my phone and it was my mother. She had watched the whole thing and she was in tears. My mom was from Fogo Island, Newfoundland, and she had never heard people talk about that in her life, let alone on national television about her daughter. She wanted me to quit... It really caused her a lot of pain. It got better. There wasn't a lot of that. Honestly, most people were in my corner, but that was the hardest part of it, the pain it caused her.
What would you like to see pro sports teams do to include more women in higher-up positions?
I think what people are realizing right now in society in general is that organizations are stronger and better off when they have a more diverse workforce. There are some areas of the teams that women would be the best people you can hire. Like communications, I'm in the communications industry right now, and that's an industry where women have been leaders for a long time. There's no reason why so many of the VPs or whatever shouldn't be women because they can do just as good of a job. They got to do a better job of making a conscious decision to see if they could fill the pipleine with more women.
If you could talk to Ng, what advice would you give her?
She doesn't need advice. She is, to me, exactly what a sports person is. She's been working in the industry for 30 years. I've paid a lot of attention to her. She basically said she's had decades of determination and that's what it takes now. I was in a very different circumstance. But now, when you get into that sport, you got to just love that sport. You got to be a student of the sport and she is all of that and more.
Let me rephrase that: If you could talk to Ng, what would you say to her?
Thank you. I'd thank her because I think a lot of girls have watched that story over the last few weeks and she has inspired a lot of people. I think she's opened a lot of people's eyes. I'd thank her for what she's doing.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.