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Lansing — Jocelyn Benson is an athlete. The Michigan secretary of state runs a couple of marathons each year, and the 25 she has finished in her life included the 2016 Boston Marathon, when she was eight months pregnant.

But her first love in sports is baseball. When she was a little girl, she thought she wanted to be a big-league umpire.

“And I never — I just assumed that was not a possibility for me because I’d never known a woman to be an umpire,” Benson said.

“It wasn’t until many years later when I started to make connections in sports that I remembered the little girl in me and how I aspired to that role and I ruled it out because I’d never seen anyone who looked like me.”

Benson and other women at the top of state government hope their actions contribute to making those sorts of realizations come earlier in the lives of girls and women in Michigan.

Last month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed the Task Force on Women in Sports, housed within the Department of State and chaired by Benson, to support and promote opportunities in Michigan for girls and women in sports.

Like Benson, Angela Ruggiero recalls growing up without a lot of women in athletics to emulate. 

“I looked up to the L.A. Kings when I was a kid,” said Ruggiero, a former Harper Woods resident who won an Olympic gold medal in ice hockey. “I looked up to boys, to men. I didn’t have a female role model."

“It’s a different landscape now,” she said.

Ruggiero, who isn't a member of the task force, played professionally and has been a member of the International Olympic Committee and the board of directors of the United States Olympic Committee. She's also the co-founder and managing partner of the Sports Innovation Lab, a market research and advisory firm focused on the intersection of sports and innovation.

She points to the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team's World Cup win as an example of progress for female athletes. 

“As you can clearly see, with what’s going on with the ticker-tape parade in New York and the soccer team with what they did this weekend, once you’re the best, no one sees gender," she said. “They see successful athletes, inspirational athletes, role models.

“Soccer is one of the sports you can point to and say, well, with time, with the right investment, with the right infrastructure, with the right support, it’s a success.”

Whitmer and Benson have invited the squad to visit Michigan to meet with the task force.

The executive order forming the women’s sports task force, which the Whitmer administration says is the first of its kind at a state government level, will gather local and national leaders to develop strategies for expanding female participation in athletics.

It is but one action by Whitmer, Benson and state Attorney General Dana Nessel intended to affect women specifically, as Michigan for the first time has women as governor, secretary of state, attorney general and chief justice of the Supreme Court.

“Gov. Whitmer assembled the most diverse cabinet (department directors) in Michigan history, comprised of more than 50% women,” said Whitmer’s press secretary, Tiffany Brown.

Of 229 appointments announced by Whitmer’s office, so far, 81 are women.

Whitmer stressed bipartisanship, roads and education in her inaugural speech in January, with little mention of women’s issues. But her State of the State address the following month, she noted the historic confluence of women in high, elective office in Michigan and sounded the trumpet on some women’s causes and issues, especially equal pay.

“Today, women in Michigan’s workforce make 78 cents for every dollar that men make for doing the same job,” she said. “Women of color make even less. It is time for that to change.”

Nessel’s spokeswoman, Kelly Rossman-McKinney, said the attorney general is “working hard to ensure and protect our reproductive rights, and listening to and believing victims.”

Nessel has appointed several women to her executive team, including as solicitor general and the chiefs of the hate crimes, auto insurance front and conviction integrity units, Rossman-McKinney said.

On women’s issues, Whitmer and Benson seem particularly enthused about a new role for the state's government in promoting athletic opportunities for girls and women.

“This is a chance for Michigan to become a national model for advancing opportunities for all women to lead in every arena,” the secretary of state said. “Sports is a great equalizer in our society, and research shows that women who play sports are more likely to seek and fill leadership positions in other sectors.”

Whitmer talked about the impact on sport in her life.

“Playing basketball in high school allowed me to develop leadership skills while learning about the importance of teamwork,” the governor said. “When women participate in a variety of sports, it allows them to explore these meaningful opportunities."

The federal Title IX law passed in 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.

It created a wealth of opportunity for girls and women to participate in sports, but in announcing the task force, Whitmer’s office said women athletes routinely face less investment, training resources and safety assurances than their male counterparts. 

“When you have one dollar for participation, and will it go to the boy or the girl, it inevitably goes to the boy first, over the girl,” Ruggiero said.

Both the women’s national teams in soccer and ice hockey have asserted those grievances in recent job and legal actions, including one that nearly canceled the 2018 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship, at USA Hockey Arena, in Plymouth.

Whitmer noted that just one Division 1 collegiate athletic program in Michigan is led by a woman: Western Michigan University, whose athletic director, Kathy Beauregard, was named to the 15-member task force.

Benson said the task force gives Michigan a chance to become “a national model.”

Title IX is an example of what the federal government can do.

“One piece of for us is the question of: What does the next 50 years look like for the role of government in partnership with sports industry, in promoting equal access for all?” she said.

As the task force begins to meet, Benson said, the plan is to gather information for about a year before developing tactics and strategies and pressing for action.

The universities and colleges in the state, and the high schools, along with professional sports franchises will be approached to lend a hand, knowledge and advice, she said. Few states rival Michigan, which has two women owners among the four major professional sports teams, Marian Ilitch of the Red Wings and Martha Firestone Ford of the Lions.

Benson said her work and contacts with RISE, the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, will help the task force.

The nonprofit — started and financed, in part, by Stephen Ross, the real estate developer and native of Detroit who owns the NFL's Miami Dolphins — educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate discrimination, champion social justice and improve race and gender relations.

Benson served as chief executive officer from 2016-18, and worked with people like Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner of the NFL and groups like Women Leaders in College Sports, which is already working with the task force.

“One of the things is unconscious bias, and that is something we all work on, male, female, every race, everything,” said Patti Phillips, the chief executive officer of the Kansas City-based group, which "develops, connects and advances" women in intercollegiate athletics. 

“And the issue has been that currently the people in power in sports ... are men," she said. “So just trying to break through that and make sure we are removing that unconscious bias is a big part of things."

For Ruggiero, the goals are for the whole society, not just girls and women.

“I think it actually starts with why do we care, in the first place?” she said. “Sports is about creating better versions of ourselves, better versions of society.

“You learn about yourself, and teamwork. Learning how to fail. Learning how to win with grace. Learning how to work together. All, again, traits in business that if you are going to go on to get a job and learn how to work in a big group, I think if you played sports you have a clear advantage.”

gkrupa@detroitnews.com

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