Alumnae athletes praise transformative power of sports

Left to right: Yale Athletics Director Vicky Chun, Virginia Gilder ’80 B.A., Lisa Brummel ’81 B.A. (Photo credit: Tony Fiorini)

Yale Athletics Director Vicky Chun said leading a panel with Lisa Brummel ’81 B.A. and Virginia “Ginny” Gilder ’80 B.A. — co-owners of the WNBA team the Seattle Storm — was like “being a chocolate lover and getting to meet Willy Wonka,” she told the audience at Sprague Hall gathered for the Alumni Assembly on Nov. 21. The discussion was part of the weekend-long Yale Alumni Association Assembly and Yale Alumni Fund Convocation.

Though the conversation would take the alumnae on a journey from their experiences as Yale athletes to their subsequent careers and unexpected ownership of a women’s professional basketball team, the assembly-wide theme of leadership was ever-present.

In keeping with the assembly’s call for university and alumni leaders to create five-word leadership stories, Brummel chose “Luck equals preparation plus opportunity.” She used to believe, she said, that with enough persistence, she could control her future success, but later learned that “luck plays such an important role.” Brummel was a stand-out athlete in an impressive number of sports at Yale, including basketball (where one of her career records is still in Yale’s top 10), softball, track, field hockey, and volleyball. She later served as an executive at Microsoft for 25 years before purchasing the Storm with Gilder and Dawn Trudeau to prevent the team leaving its home city.

Gilder was part of the Yale women’s crew team who demanded equal facilities in 1976 by marching into the Yale Athletics director’s office and stripping to reveal “Title IX” on their chests and backs, a moment immortalized by the New York Times. She was part of the women’s quadruple sculls team that won the silver medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Her five-word leadership story was “openhearted, resolute, pursue meaningful impact.” Gilder said that she views leadership as “a consequence, not a goal,” adding, “Leadership is a consequence of investing yourself fully.”   

Gilder learned resilience during her years on the Yale women’s crew team, where team captain Chris Ernst ’76 B.A, inspired her not only in that public protest, but by her everyday demeanor and confidence.  “Everything I learned, I learned at the boathouse or the Payne Whitney Gym,” said Gilder, who called Ernst “the first badass I ever met.” She related a story where male athletes tried to kick them out of the weight training room only to be told off by Ernst. “This woman was paving the way,” Gilder said, “forcing the doors open so I could follow through.”

Brummel said she grew up playing sports with boys and tended not to think about being a woman in a male-dominated world, even at Microsoft, where she was often the only woman in the room. A sports-honed attitude has guided her in every endeavor, said Brummel. “In the end, we all wanted to win,” she said. 

The crowd during the panel
(Photo credit: Tony Fiorini)

But both women highlighted the fact that women’s sports lack the public and media support of their male counterparts, and it’s a problem, they said, that requires a cultural shift to solve. The WNBA, celebrating its 23rd season, is still in its infancy as sports leagues go. Major League Baseball has been around for nearly 130 years, and the National Football League for nearly 100. Brummel and Gilder acknowledged that they have superstar athletes like 39-year-old Sue Bird and 25-year-old Breanna Stewart, as well as deeply invested fans, but there’s a long culture of ignoring women athletes to overcome.

The WNBA’s status is a function of where we are as a society,” Gilder said.

Still, she and Brummel said sports are a formative training ground for women leaders. “Sports are a microwave for transformation,” Gilder said. “Human beings have a chance to learn about themselves in real time and use it to improve themselves.” She noted, too, the power of athletes to make a difference. “Athletes are recognizing that they have a huge platform to advocate for the change they want to see in the world,” Gilder said.  

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Media Contact

Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643