There cannot be many fans in the UK that could answer the question, who was the first female GM to lead a North American sports team? I’m betting too that very few would know that this actually happened in the CFL.
I got to thinking about this because of a recent article from the #WomenInNFL series written by our managing Editor Liz Bhandari.
That article was all about the remarkable Amy Trask, the first female front-office executive in the NFL. She was appointed in 1997. Which brings me to the CFL and an appointment made 8 years earlier.
Jo-Anne leads the Rough Riders
Jo-Anne Polak made history in 1989 when she was appointed by the Ottawa Rough Riders who she would lead until 1991.
Whilst they were only 18-36 over this period, this was actually a step up. Especially because over the previous 3 years they were 8-45-1. Polak led the team through a challenging time off the field too.
The Rough Riders were in a financial hole. In 1987 the Rough Rider Rooters, the team’s fan club held a rally to save the team. Polak was working for a communications firm hired to promote the campaign.
Something must have stood out because it wasn’t long after that Rider partners Hap Nicholds and Sol Shabinsky hired her to be the first female GM in North American professional sport.
The Rough Riders had hosted the 1988 Grey Cup. That windfall should have helped the coffers. It did help, but only to service the teams debts. Now they reduced from $2.4-million to $1.2 million.
The Montreal Alouettes had folded on June 24, 1987, just a day before the 1987 season started. The league really couldn’t afford to lose another team.
Some of the things aroud the Rough Riders were pretty chaotic at this time but what really stands out here though is Polak’s determination. Not to mention the ethos “The first principle of business is kind service.”
We can see too in this from Ken Evraire that former players were experiencing the financial difficulties of the team. What really stand out though is Polak’s humanity.
“She wasn’t just about the bottom line and football. Jo was about the relationships.” You can tell she made can impression on those around her.
Doubtless at the time Polak would often have been the only woman in the CFL boardroom. She could be an inspiration showing that women could succeed in sports management.
However, she has said that ‘the history she was making the furthest thing from her mind.’
In fact rather than being focused on being the first woman she was more concerned with the responsibility of running a weak franchise. At 29 she has said she felt like a rookie trying to prove herself.
Not because she was a woman in the role, but because of the experience of her peers in the profession.
Whatever the approach however she paved the way for women who are now working in front offices and football operations across the league.
Her key advice? “The thing about professional sports, you have to bring something to the table…. You have to come to the table with a skill that they need and then you have to be better than other people at it.”
So now you know. Who are we to question the first female GM?!?
Banner image from ottawaredblacks.com
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