Longtime women’s sports advocate Dr. Kimberly Clay applauds the release of The House That Rob Built, a documentary about Montana’s champion college basketball team, called the Lady Griz, and the coach who helped them break barriers.
Founder of nonprofit group Play Like a Girl, which empowers girls through sports, Clay sees the film’s themes reflected in current headlines.
“The timing of this release is beautiful,” said Clay. “Similar to the Australian Open, the biggest news in sports lately, this film elevates how critical camaraderie is to women in sports.”
In late February, 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka bested Grand Slam legend Serena Williams. Though Osaka went on to win the Australian Open, she first acknowledged her opponent: “I was a little kid watching her play. Just to be on the court playing against her, for me, is a dream.”
Clay said it demonstrates what her group teaches girls, to let failure fuel your future work. “We as women can celebrate each other even in loss, as Naomi Osaka did,” she said. “Athletes in this new film echo that principle powerfully.” She spoke in a phone interview from Nashville, Tennessee, about her work and why THE HOUSE THAT ROB BUILT matters. It has been edited lightly for length.
Sports and Success
Why do you believe the mission of Play Like a Girl is so important?
Dr. Kimberly Clay: As an African-American raised in rural Mississippi in the 1980s, I lived in a small town that had separate black and white parks. There were no real sports options for girls who look like me. As I continued in life, I saw huge disparities around gender and also race, both scientifically and anecdotally across many domains.
Yet women who are athletes tend to be natural leaders, with a propensity to be able to make significant differences on teams. It’s a missed opportunity in particular for our national workforce.
Girls gain natural benefits from ongoing sports participation. Play Like a Girl was founded to focus on leveraging those benefits to help propel women beyond the playing field and into careers. It’s important to help girls begin to see themselves in those places where they aren't represented—both in sports and in other fields.
How specifically does sports factor into girls achieving success in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers?
Clay: Play Like a Girl began with a focus on leveraging sports for health benefits, which aligns with my background in public health. Then we saw this 2014 study from espnW and Ernst & Young. It stated that 94 percent of women executives in companies played sports, and 52 percent of them through college. Those figures from this global study stood out to us.
It helped us reimagine that we could be doing so much more with sports. Skills learned on the playing field help to build women’s business acumen and leadership muscle. They are confident in their abilities to lead teams at many different types and sizes of organizations across the globe. The natural connection between sports and STEM is about building confidence skills and teamwork, critical in today’s world.
New Film Illustrates The Mission of Play Like a Girl
What themes in the documentary The House That Rob Built resonate with your mission?
Clay: This entire story resonates. Like so many other women and girls in sports, these athletes were often counted out too early in the game. Core messages speak to that place within the female athlete, where she may lack confidence or even see the track to pursue.
But we have to dig deep, sometimes literally in the game. Failure is a critical part of learning how to get back up, go back out, and ultimately win. It’s critical to reflect on the game we played. Part of the declaration our girls recite posits that we live to play and play to live — win, lose or draw. We’re unstoppable.
This film shows the importance of developing that skill of rebound. We have to find the heart and confidence to pursue our dreams, whether on or off the playing field. Persist at that which you love. Let failure drive you towards knowing that you went back and did that which was difficult. Ultimately, that’s winning. The film even focuses on paying it forward to the next generation, which is what our work is all about.
The film presents Coach Rob Selvig as a trailblazer when it comes to advocating for inclusion of women in sports. What do you think of that theme?
Clay: What Rob Selvig did to advance women’s basketball in a tiny Montana town will inspire change for years to come. In order for us to advance as women, it’s critical for us to have male allies. Men also have to know how to align their interests and support women. Coach Selvig is one of the best male allies to ever champion women in sport.
This year, we’re the national charity partner with the NFL Players Association. About 25 NFL players will be speaking out about the work we do at Play Like a Girl, leveraging their platform to elevate the message of women in sports. My hope is that the film will resonate for all audiences, and particularly men who will be watching.
Rebounding Through Faith in 2021
How does your faith motivate your work on behalf of students?
Clay: Just like a sailor, every leader needs a north star. They need something of value and purpose to believe in and trust, something that inspires and guides them. For me, my faith is my north star—the place where I start when I am uncertain or need to reorient.
My faith gives me purpose and stability. It's my foundation. Without my belief in God, I would be adrift without any direction for my life and work. This is the place from which I draw to make a meaningful impact in the lives of girls and women at Play Like a Girl. A belief in something greater than himself is clearly what drove Coach Selvig too.
With the pandemic, 2020 was a tough year for organized sports. Do you see things turning a corner, to be able to get back out on the fields and courts?
Clay: Oh, absolutely. We are very weary, because our girls would ordinarily be participating in several sports that they’re not able to. For us, we are leveraging those sports that have fewer opportunities for contact and transmission of the virus.
We’re based in a city with ice hockey and partner with the Nashville Predators. Two weeks ago, we just took our girls back out on the ice to celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day. We launched a 12-week program for girls who’ve never been on the ice so that they have the opportunity to learn the game.
We’ve tried to create virtual opportunities through Play Like a Girl, where girls can continue to practice and be coached. Our hope is that this summer, at the latest, we’ll be able to get our girls back on fields and courts all over the city and throughout the country.
Watch the trailer below for the documentary The House That Rob Built, now available for rental and purchase via digital on-demand; and on DVD/Blu-Ray.
Image: Courtesy Nathan Zucker, for Play Like a Girl
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.