Female sports pioneers carry message to Vatican conference

VATICAN CITY (AP) " One in four IOC members are women, but only three are on the 14-member IOC executive board.

Two out of 211 soccer federation presidents are female, and women are allotted only six quota seats on the 37-member FIFA council.

A mere one of 17 are on UEFA's executive committee.

When female sports pioneer Val Ackerman looks at the numbers of women in leadership roles in world sports organizations, she cringes.

"Having been in the business now nearly three decades, I can see some movement, but it's slow," said the founding president of the Women's National Basketball Association and current commissioner of the Big East collegiate athletics conference.

"To me anything less than 30 is not good, and 50-50 is the ideal. So the hope is that over the next 15 years we can get closer to equality," Ackerman said at this week's first global conference on faith and sport at the Vatican, called Sport at the Service of Humanity. "That's the endgame and how we get there requires the input of many and that's part of what this conference is about, figuring out action steps."

The paradox, of course, is that the Catholic Church in general " and the Vatican in particular " have few if any women in leadership positions.

Pope Francis has strongly upheld the ban on women's ordination but has said women should be more involved in church decision-making, including heading a Vatican office.

Still, Francis named an archbishop to head the new Vatican secretariat for family and laity " a job that some thought should have gone to a woman.

As of 2014, only 18 percent of Holy See employees were women " most in low-ranking positions.

By contrast, women's sports have exploded at the high school and collegiate levels in the United States since Title IX was introduced in 1972. The federal statute bans discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

At the recently concluded Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the U.S. team included more female than male athletes " 294-264 " for only the second time in history. Meanwhile, about 45 percent of all athletes in Rio were female.

"The force of federal law doesn't exist in other places and without that I'm sure we wouldn't be as far along in the U.S. as we are," Ackerman told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the conference, which concluded Friday.

Nine of the 10 schools in the Big East " such as defending NCAA men's basketball champion Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's and Seton Hall " are Catholic institutions.

"So for them the fact that I'm here is important," Ackerman said. "Our hope is that we can carry forward some of the principles (discussed) here within the conference."

The Vatican conference has provided Ackerman with an audience full of world sports leaders to listen to her message " from IOC president Thomas Bach to Arsenal soccer club CEO Ivan Gazidis to New York Giants co-owner John Mara.

Mel Young, the co-founder of the Homeless World Cup; Loretta Claiborne of the Special Olympics and International Paralympic Committee president Philip Craven were also in attendance.

"The inspiration came from Pope Francis," explained Monsignor Melchor Sanchez De Toca Y Alameda of the Pontifical Council for Culture. "While he's not an athlete himself, he understands perfectly that sports provide a venue for people to grow up in " a world in which diverse people find a common element to understand each other and do something together. It has an enormous educational potential."

Kirsty Coventry, the recently retired swimmer from Zimbabwe and the most decorated African Olympian with seven medals, is working to promote women in her continent.

"We are one of those regions where girls and women are not encouraged to take leadership roles or play sport," said Coventry, who is a member of the IOC's athletes' commission.

"So one of my biggest goals is to figure out how we can talk to people and tell good stories of amazing women who have broken through and achieved those things and broken through those glass ceilings," Coventry added. "How do we figure out how to best get that message across?"

A variety of religions were represented at the conference, including Judaism and Islam.

"At the elite football level, if you're excluding any group of people you can't be elite because you will give an advantage to your competitors," said Gazidis, the Arsenal CEO. "So it's actually a marvelous test tube where you have to challenge your own prejudices and make sure that you break them down. It becomes setting an example out of the values of the club. But it's also a competitive imperative."

Gazidis described it as "an incredibly powerful moment" when Muslim players Mesut Ozil and Shkodran Mustafi pray before each Arsenal match.

"These are people, human beings that our fans know. They know their characters, they know their skills and abilities and they know them as people," Gazidis said. "So seeing them in prayer like that breaks down the mythologies and the ignorance about Islam and says, 'There are good people here. These are people just like us.'

"It's a very powerful and very visible tool for breaking down prejudice," Gazidis added. "Football, while it has its own problems and we need to continue to work on them, its overall influence has been good in terms of unifying people and making us understand that we can all work together toward a common goal."

For the Vatican, the goals are just beginning.

"I'm pleased by this participation but I'll be even happier if at the end of this conference a movement begins," Monsignor Sanchez said. "That's the aim of the conference. I'm hoping this is only the first of many meetings, perhaps in other places, too, like Africa."

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Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome and AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed.

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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