HBS student and four-time Olympic medalist Angela Ruggiero just got back from the Russian town of Sochi, where she carried the Olympic torch on opening day. A former defenseman for the US women’s ice hockey team, Ruggiero is now a member of the International Olympic Committee and president of the Women’s Sports Foundation. We talked to her about Title IX, the transformative power of athletics, and the future of women’s sports.
Music: Bugler's Dream by Leo Arnaud (NBC Olympics theme song)
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Brian Kenny: When Title IX became law more than 40 years ago, no one knew how it would play out. Since then the amendment, which mandated gender equity in federally funded education programs has dramatically transformed women’s sports. Which, in turn, has transformed the life experience of generations of women. Four-time Olympic medalist and Harvard Business School MBA candidate Angela Ruggiero is a case in point. A former defensemen on the U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey Team, Ruggiero started her Olympic and collegiate careers in 1998, the same year women’s hockey debuted at the games and was officially recognized by the NCAA. Now a member of the International Olympic Committee, and President of the Women’s Sports Foundation, Ruggiero is again at the forefront. Advocating for gender equity, not only on the field, but also in sports leadership and management positions.
BK: You’re just back from Sochi and you were able to carry the torch!
Angela Ruggiero: I was able to carry the torch, actually, opening ceremony day, which was really meaningful for me. I was in Sochi, running alongside a lot of Russians. They weren’t speaking English, but it didn’t matter. There’s the universal language of a big smile, and you could just see how proud everyone was to have the games in Russia.
BK: You’ve been to the previous five?
AR: Four. I competed in the last four.
BK: What’s it like not competing, like all of a sudden? That must be kind of strange to be back in a very different kind of role. I want to talk about what your role is now with the Olympic Committee.
AR: I went to the first game of the Olympics, U.S. versus Finland, and I was sitting with a bunch of people, and I just kind of wanted to be by myself in that moment.
BK: Yeah, or jump out on the ice.
AR: It was so weird. I did want to be a part of the team. Yeah, I definitely wanted to be out on the ice, but, you know, I kind of have to sit back and recognize what I’m doing now. So, the Athletes Commission—I was elected in Vancouver.We really try to draw on what’s important to the athletes and then make sure that’s known within the IOC.
BK: In 2004 you were named the top female college hockey player. You were one of the best student athletes in the NCAA. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how women’s hockey has changed your life?
AR: When I was seven, my dad gave me a hockey stick, with my brother who was six; my sister was eight. California, of all places and that day changed my life. Through hockey I was able to—I think it helped me, gave me a lot of confidence, I think translated into my academics, then translated into the opportunity to go to Harvard as an undergrad, and now here at HBS. This sport, just this fun thing, has given me so much in life.
BK: So last year marked the 40th anniversary of Title IX in the U.S., which in some ways leveled the playing field for women in sports. How do you think that’s effected generations of women that have come since then?
AR: Sports—I think for boys and girls—I mean you talk to any guy that plays sports, and they’re like when I played sports—and they right away, I think, can connect to different lessons they learned. It’s the same exact thing for women. It’s just we haven’t had the same opportunities until Title IX came around in ’72, which, by the way, was an educational act. The act itself wasn’t a sports act. It was we want equal opportunity to education, and sports is one means of education. You learn about yourself. You learn about teamwork. You learn about setting goals. I mean I could go down the laundry list of the benefits of playing sports. In ’72 there were 1 in 27 girls playing sports. After the 40th anniversary, we have 2 in 5 playing at the high school level. And college participation has gone up over 500 percent since then.
BK: That’s amazing.
AR: So those women, myself included, that benefited that get the opportunity to play and get a scholarship and compete at that high level—I think there’s a direct correlation with their success in life after.
BK: You took it beyond college. You actually played at the professional level. What was your time like with the Tulsa Oilers?
AR: That was amazing. My brother was playing in net, actually, and sort of started—
AR: Yeah, he goes, Ang, you’re better than our D; you should come out and skate with us. He had to play on Christmas Day, so I flew down to Tulsa to be with him because he didn’t have Christmas with the family. And I skated with his team, and his coach invited me back, and that’s sort of how it started. I grew up playing with the boys. I loved it. It was challenging. I think it pushed me. To be able to do that in my adult life and have my brother on the ice in net—he’s a goalie—just like the good old days. It was a special moment for me.
BK: In addition to sports you’ve accomplished some other things. You graduated cum laude from Harvard, founded a girls’ hockey school. You wrote a book, which we talked about. You’ve directed non-profits. You appeared on The Apprentice and was offered a job by Donald Trump, which I think is a pretty distinctive thing that not many people can say. You did almost all of this while you were playing competitive hockey. Do you take supplements? How does this work? How do you get the energy to do all those kinds of things?
AR: One interesting thing I do when I speak—I speak to a lot of university athletes. I say, “Who has better grades in the off season?” No one raises their hand. “Who has better grades in the in-season, when they’re competing?” Everyone raises their hand. For me, when you have a lot on your plate, you get more done. You’re more efficient with your time. You’re more calculated. You really have to take advantage of every minute you have and I always drew strength from the things outside of sports. I always drew strength when I was coaching kids in the evenings, or when I was getting my—I was getting a Masters in the afternoon when I was training for Vancouver. Whenever I was doing something outside of sports, it allowed me to get away and sort of park sports when I left the rink. And when I came back to it, I was revitalized and really excited, and then I could give 100 percent as opposed to being all in all the time. It’s too much. I’m a huge advocate for balance in life, and balance to me is just doing a lot of things.
BK: What does the future look like for women’s sports?
AR: I’m the President of the Women’s Sports Foundation, so I’ve been looking at this a lot in the last year. It’s excitement at how far we’ve come, especially since Title IX. If we’re talking about domestically in the U.S., Title IX is the single best thing that’s ever happened. The success of the women in the London games, and I’m sure in the Sochi games, will be directly reflective of the support they get, not just from the U.S. Olympic Committee, but I think really from the NCAA. If you’re talking globally, however, I think we still have a long way to go. We don’t have a lot of pro leagues in the U.S. or abroad. I think that’s one area we can continue to grow. If you’re just talking basic human right to participate in sports—which it is a human right; the UN has declared it in the last year—there’s a lot of countries still that don’t afford that opportunity to girls and women. It isn’t just about making it onto boards and being a CEO; it’s about having self-confidence and having—learning about yourself and others through sports. I do think I’m happy with how far we’ve come, but I also recognize there is a really long way to go, especially in certain countries.
BK: Sports here is connected in a very visceral way to the educational experience. Talk about how it might be different in places like China.
AR: Our model is very different from the rest of the world, to be quite honest. Boys and girls here grow up playing grassroots. Their parents are supporting them. Sport isn’t directly part of our government either, whereas in the rest of the world sports and government go hand in hand. The government supports programs at the grassroots level, and all the way up through the Olympic level. We tie sports and education, as you said. If you’re a great athlete and your sport is an NCAA sport, you’re going to get a great education. You’re going to get a scholarship. I don’t know how many parents come to me. It isn’t the Olympics; it’s how do I get my kid a scholarship. So, that’s one huge benefit that we have here in the U.S. People say how did you do both, and I said well, I got to play sports and develop as an athlete, but I also got to develop my brain and be a student. That student-athlete combo is very different from the rest of the world where if you’re exposed to be a really good athlete at a young age, they almost assist you in becoming a better athlete, but at the expense of your education. They’re very separate. That’s one thing I’ve seen in—if you say China or Korea or other parts of the world that have great athletes. Those athletes, most of the time, aren’t able to be in a system that they can also get a good education. At the IOC, that’s one thing the Athletes Commission is really trying to do, is figure out how do we create an athlete career program so that these athletes that don’t get an education—maybe they’re able to get through high school—what kinds of jobs can they look for after they’re done competing at the elite level of the sport?
BK: Angela Ruggiero, thank you for joining us today.
AR: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.