Vice President Kamala Harris likes to repeat a phrase her mother told her as she was climbing the ranks in California politics: “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.”
It’s certainly words barrier-breakers should aspire to — that once we make it to a certain rung on the ladder, it’s part of our duty to reach behind us and bring others along.
But Shyamala Gopalan Harris’ mantra left out one important reality, one fear that so many Black women carry: if we don’t excel, we won’t even get the chance to reach behind us and bring others to our level and beyond.
It’s a weight Candice Storey Lee is well aware of.
The humble trailblazer
Named athletic director at Vanderbilt University last May after serving as interim AD for the previous three months, she became just the second Black woman to lead a power five athletic department and the first in the history of the SEC.
“It’s really humbling. For me, it feels humbling to hear people refer to me as a ‘trailblazer,’ or whatever word you use. That’s humbling,” Lee told Yahoo Sports. “But I think more so it makes me think about the responsibility that comes along with it.
“I think about all the people that came before me that created this opportunity. Some of them I know, some of them I’ve met, and probably most of them I don’t, right, that sacrificed and paved the way so that I could have the opportunity that I have. And so I just think when I think about it, the focus on me is doing a good job.
“And so that by virtue of the hard work, that it creates opportunities for other people.”
As NCAA Division I schools go, Vanderbilt is an outlier. Lee is the third consecutive Black athletic director the Commodores have had, following her mentor, David Williams II, and Malcolm Turner. Lee was associate athletic director for both men.
But while Williams and Turner likely faced their own challenges, Lee’s gender differentiates her. If she attends a conference with ADs from the 64 other Power 5 schools, she would be one of just five women on the call or in the room. Only one of them, Virginia’s Carla Williams, would have any idea what it’s truly like for Lee as a Black woman navigating the space.
Deputy AD Tommy McClelland, hired last September after several years as athletic director at Louisiana Tech, understands just a little bit of what his boss goes through — and he’s very careful to stress that he knows they’re not the same situation.
At just 25, McClelland was named AD at McNeese State, and as he visited local Rotary clubs they’d mock him to his face, asking if he brought his coloring books with him. But if his age was the only complaint, McClelland would tell detractors, give him a few years; he’d mature soon enough.
McClelland knew there were those who were waiting for him to make an immature mistake and fail, just as there are those who are waiting for Lee to fail. But McClelland got older every day he was in the job at McNeese, literally growing out of the concern that he was too young.
Lee will always be a Black woman.
“I wore a suit and tie to work every day for two-and-a-half, three years, because a suit is more professional than blue jeans and a polo, and they were expecting blue jeans and a polo shirt,” McClelland said. “I felt like everyone was waiting for me to fail. What’s different is that that prejudice is one that went away with age.
“Candice, her ethnicity and her gender are going to be with her until the day she dies. It’s not like Candice isn’t old enough or she’s too old, it’s about race and gender, and those are never going to change. She’s never expressed that to me, but you want to make sure you never let your guard down. I know she feels, ‘I want to do this right, with excellence.’”
Lee grew up at Vanderbilt. She arrived in Nashville in 1996, a 6-foot-3 forward with a scholarship to join the basketball team. Basketball didn’t go the way she’d hoped: she had two major injuries, which led to two knee replacements as an adult, but she made the most of her six years of eligibility, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She would later earn a Ph.D. in higher education administration.
Initially she thought she’d go into counseling, but an internship at a shelter that worked with homeless teenagers as she pursued her master’s showed Lee that wasn’t the path for her. She cared too much, and it took a toll on her emotionally. It was too hard to detach.
She returned to Vanderbilt, and an internship with David Williams. Being in the athletic department allowed her to be of service to others, the life and problems of student-athletes more familiar to her.
Stepping up at a pivotal moment in sports
Lee became interim head of Vanderbilt Athletics at this time last year, after Turner’s unexpected resignation. Within weeks, COVID-19 wiped out the remainder of the winter sports season and the spring season. The fall brought more adjustments, and Vanderbilt found itself in the national spotlight after the football team needed to pull all-conference women’s soccer goaltender Sarah Fuller into duty as a placekicker when the team’s usual kickers were quarantined due to the virus.
A narrow-minded segment of the sports-viewing population cried at the sight of a woman kicking, some of them convinced it was an attention ploy, when it was just one of many things sports teams had to do to get through an unusual season.
There’s also been the continuing epidemic of American racism, brought into sharp relief with the killing of George Floyd. Black student-athletes at Vanderbilt asked to form a campus organization, and received support from Lee and the athletics department; one of the group’s first events was a voter-registration drive.
Boosters of the program have by and large been supportive of Lee, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t gotten her share of race-based vitriol. She’s open to conversations, and they are largely positive.
Not long after the killing of Floyd, she shared a story with her staff of when she was pulled over by Vanderbilt campus police — the Vandy lifer, the woman who has spent her adult life at the Nashville school — and had to prove that she did indeed belong there and wasn’t trespassing; or of when her husband and adult stepson were stopped by police and kept for 40 minutes with not a single reason given for why they’d been stopped in the first place.
These are the things she carries into her job each day, on top of doing her best to field an athletics program that is successful.
“I’ve been so remarkably impressed with her. The word I would use with her is ‘poise’,” McClelland said, who called this time with Vanderbilt a learning opportunity for him if he can go on to become a Power-5 AD himself. “How do you make your deputy ADs feel, do you create accountability, do you inspire, all of those things, and I’m learning so much from her perspective. …
“I want her to be successful. I want Candice to achieve the things she wants to achieve. I can’t say enough positive things about her.”
Lee remembers feeling emotional when Carla Williams was announced as AD at Virginia; Williams had recruited her when she was a coach at Georgia, and they crossed paths again as administrators.
And now she has a seat at the table at the most celebrated college athletics conference in the country.
“The reality is that you want to be known for your work. You want to be known for your reputation,” Lee said. “You want to be known for how you treat people, and the difference that you made, and how you go about your work. So I want to be known for that, but I understand that I’m also doing it in the framework of being the first of, fill-in-the-blank.
“I’m so grateful. But I’m also highly motivated so that we don’t stop with me being the first.”