After years as a pioneer for women’s sports, Val Ackerman becomes the first commissioner of reborn Big East conference.
When Val Ackerman matriculated at the University of Virginia, the record-setting high school basketball player had to be content to share the lone women’s sports scholarship with another athlete.
Thirty-five years later, she is one of the most powerful people in college sports, overseeing a major conference in which thousands of women receive scholarships each year based on their athletic prowess. She’s been president of the WNBA and USA Basketball. And her remarkable journey began in Pennington, where she grew up and where she was an all-around star athlete from one of the county’s storied sports families.
The 1977 salutatorian of Hopewell Valley Central High School was named commissioner of the newly reformed Big East Conference on June 26—just days before the conference was reborn out of the rubble of the old Big East, on July 1. Upon taking the job Ackerman had no staff, no office, and no schedules for scholastic seasons that were set to start less than two months from the day she took the job.
She has an office in Manhattan now, and some staff, although most of the people who are helping her get the new conference up and running were working from remote locations as of the end of July. But Ackerman is no stranger to such situations. In fact, one could say the Big East couldn’t have chosen a better leader for its disarrayed venture. The schools in the conference today are all known best for their basketball programs, and Ackerman, who played four years of varsity basketball at UVA, has worked in the sport at the pro and international levels for 25 years.
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Val Ackerman was born in Lakewood in 1959, when her father G. Randle “Randy” Ackerman was a physical education teacher and coach in Manahawkin. The family moved to Pennington before she started Kindergarten, and she attended Pennington Primary School, Toll Gate Grammar School and Timberlane Junior School before going to HVCHS. The Ackermans lived on Hale Street until Val was in 10th grade, when they moved to Birch Street. Mother Barbara still lives there. Randy Ackerman died in 1988, at the age of 54.
Her brother George, a year and a half younger and two years behind in school, also still lives in Hopewell. Both Val (Emily and Sally) and George (Brooke and Paige) have two daughters in their late teens and early twenties: Val with husband Charlie Rappaport, and George with wife Lorri.
George says it was always clear that Val was a superb athlete, and the first place he remembers her distinguishing herself was in the pool. In summers, the family swam at the Penn Brook Club, where Val competed on the club team.
“She was a very accomplished swimmer, but that was really the only opportunity she had at the time. There were no youth sports at all for girls at the time,” he recalled.
He marvels at the fact that the first game of organized basketball Val ever played was as a high school freshman, for the varsity.
“As I recall, they wore the same ridiculous looking skirts they wore for field hockey,” he said. “It didn’t occur to us at the time how tragic it was that women didn’t have the opportunities in sports that they have now, but as we think about it now in retrospect, it’s truly astonishing.”
She finished her high school basketball career with 1,755 points, which was a school record for boys or girls, and she also set the school record for goals in field hockey — a career stellar enough to get her inducted into the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 1997. But collegiate athletic scholarships in 1977 were still given almost exclusively to men.
Still, in a sense, Val was lucky. The Education Amendments of 1972 included a portion famously known as Title IX, which prohibited discrimination in educational programs on the basis of sex. The effects of that legislation are still being felt today. If it had not been passed, who knows where women’s sports would be today. Certainly if Val had been just a few years older, she might not have had the chance to go to UVA.
“I feel like I’ve had a front-row seat on this tremendous transformation over the course of these post-Title IX years,” she said. “When I went off to Virginia, it was in the early stages of enforcement. By time I graduated, most of the team was getting either full or partial scholarships. When I started out, our locker rooms weren’t as nice as the men’s. We took buses every year. The men at the time had a competitive team, they were treated quite well; we were up and coming. That’s all changed now at UVA, women have first-class treatment all the way.”
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Val Ackerman went to UCLA law school after UVA with the intention of becoming a lawyer.
“Eventually I came to the idea about combining sports and the law,” she said. “I tried to get a job with sports league right out of law school, but that was impossible. The advice I got was, if you want to be a lawyer in sports, get good legal experience first.”
So she went to work on Wall Street, where she not only gained essential experience and contacts, she also met her husband. All the while she maintained her desire to get her foot in the door of the pro sports world.
“I wasn’t like knocking at the door every day,” she said. “But people at my law firm had some ties to (NBA commissioner) David Stern, and after a couple years those folks were able to put in a good word.”
The NBA was also vastly expanding and diversifying its staff at the time, which helped, she said. Within a year and a half of joining the NBA as a staff attorney, she had moved into the commissioner’s office.
Eight years later, in 1996, interest in women’s basketball was peaking after a dominant gold-medal performance by Team USA in the Atlanta Olympics. The National Basketball Association decided to take advantage of the surge in popularity and green-lighted the first major women’s sports league to have the backing of a professional men’s league.
Ackerman, who had been instrumental in organizing the women’s team for USA Basketball, was named the first president of the WNBA in August of that year, when she was just 36. Looking back, she says it was a little daunting to have so much responsibility at a young age, but she said she grew into the job.
“I knew the business. I had some advantages in that I was very close to some people in women’s (USA) basketball,” she said. “I had been at the NBA eight years at that point, so I understood how our company worked, how best to manage relationships. We were staffed with NBA staff, we had teams in NBA cities, sharing resources with NBA teams. I had the relationships already. That was the easiest part for me, but it was a lot of work of course.”
Led by stars like Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo and Dawn Staley, the new league was a comparative success. Ackerman led the WNBA until 2005 when, citing fatigue and a desire to spend more time with her family, she stepped down.
Although the WNBA hasn’t reached parity with the major men’s sports in terms of popularity, it is still going strong, up to 12 teams from the original 8. A new trio of young stars in Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggars and Elena Delle Donne remind some of the early stars of the NBA, and have had people talking renaissance for the league.
Though Ackerman left the WNBA, she continued to be involved at the top levels of the women’s game. From 2005–08, she served as president of USA Basketball, and in 2011, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
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Even given how different things were in the 1970’s, it’s difficult to imagine Val not becoming a sports star. Sports are in the Ackerman family blood. Randy Ackerman earned 12 varsity letters at Trenton State College, a feat that would be all but impossible today. After graduating from Trenton State and after his stint in Manahawkin, he became athletic director at Northern Burlington Regional High School, before finally settling in as the AD at HVCHS. His brother Steve played football at Yale, and brother John was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles.
As impressive as that sports résumé is, Randy’s father, George L. Ackerman, was just as accomplished. After a collegiate athletic career that included participation on the football, basketball, track, lacrosse and gymnastics teams, he went on to coach sports at Trenton State, even at one point coaching football, basketball and baseball for more than a decade — all at the same time. The baseball field at what is now The College of New Jersey bears his name.
George, who played soccer and golf for HoVal and soccer for James Madison University, said his dad gave up AD duties in the early 1980’s so he could travel to support them as they played sports in college. He also cites the positive influence their mother had on them growing up. Barbara Ackerman worked in the state house in various capacities when they were growing up, and went to night school at Trenton State, eventually earning her degree.
Today, George is a principal and co-founder of Benbrooke Realty Investment Company. He said he and Val remain very close. “I probably speak with Val on a daily basis,” he said. “I probably see more of Charlie (her husband) because he and I get together and play golf.”
He also said nothing Val does ever surprises him, and that he wasn’t surprised that she took the Big East job in June.
“She said at some point a few years ago she would be back. She said it would be a ‘modest second act,’” he laughed. “I said in Val’s vernacular, a modest second act is probably like the United States Senate.”
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In some ways, serving as commissioner of the Big East may be a tougher job. Over the course of the past year, competition for places in the elite NCAA football conferences had led the former Big East Conference to split in two: some schools will henceforth play in the American Athletic Conference (where top-division football will be played); the rest of the schools, none of which have top-level NCAA football, retained the Big East name.
She said the Big East job came along at just the right time. Her elder daughter is going to be a senior at Yale, and her younger daughter is about to start her freshman year at Wesleyan College.
For now, Ackerman is focused on getting the new conference going. But once things are running smoothly she may just have another chance to put her stamp on women’s athletics. In June, she published a white paper outlining ways the NCAA might spark growth in its women’s programs. Perhaps Ackerman, as commissioner of the Big East, will get the chance to try to implement some new ideas and lead the way toward the next level for women and sports.
“To see what’s happened over the last 30 years has been tremendous,” she said. “When I graduated, the WNBA wasn’t even a possibility. Just to see generally how society has embraced women in athletics has been very exciting for me.”