Sports Brands Bolster Diversity Efforts With New D&I Roles

    • Now more than ever, sports brands are recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion.
    • Colleges, leagues and teams are increasingly hiring people for new D&I-focused positions.

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During the 2014 NBA season, the Atlanta Hawks’ most notable hire wasn’t a coach or a player. That December, the organization hired Nzinga Shaw as its chief diversity and inclusion officer, making her the first person in league history to hold such a title.

Shaw’s appointment brought further attention of D&I to the sports world and the benefits it could provide to a company’s culture and performance. A 2018 study from Boston Consulting Group found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation. Many companies are recognizing that D&I is more than a metric — it’s an integral part of their operations that can lead to a more creative and innovative workplace.

Since Shaw left the Hawks to become Starbucks’ global chief inclusion and diversity officer last December, former MGM Resorts International executive Camye Mackey has taken over the role. Under Mackey’s leadership, the organization has implemented a S.M.I.L.E. service philosophy, which is rooted in southern hospitality and employee empowerment. 

Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, the Hawks have turned State Farm Arena into a voting precinct, and it will remain one throughout the presidential campaign. They have also partnered with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights to come in and educate their employees on diversity and inclusion. 

Now at the forefront of the Hawks’ diversity and inclusion movement, Mackey knows that she can’t have a narrow-minded approach to this subject. 

“It’s important that organizations take it seriously and truly embed this work throughout the fabric of the organization,” Mackey said. “It is not a one-and-done topic, and it is not something that just touches one department. It’s something that should touch every aspect of the business.”

Since the Hawks, numerous sports franchises and leagues have followed suit by creating a leading diversity position.

In mid-July, the New York Mets moved Donovan Mitchell Sr. — father of Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell — to the newly created position of director of diversity, opportunity, inclusion and training. Mitchell previously served as the team’s director of player relations and community engagement.

Mitchell says that the Mets are looking to others within sports for insight into building out a diversity position. One such organization is the Brooklyn Nets, which in July 2018 made Maurice Stinnett the first Black man to be appointed as vice president of diversity and inclusion at an NBA team. Another is MLB itself, which in early-August hired former KPMG executive Michele Meyer-Shipp as its chief people and culture officer. 

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With more leadership positions in sports being established for diversity and inclusion, numerous hires don’t always have sports experience — but that might actually be more beneficial, says Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sports Institute at Arizona State University. 

“Like I tell my students, if you want to work in sports, you gotta be the best,” Shropshire said. “You don’t necessarily have to get a sports marketing degree, but you have to be the best marketer possible, be the best accountant possible, and then figure out what’s different and unique about sports and bring it in. Most of the people in this [D&I] space have not been in sports. You kind of rotate around the same people, so you almost have to go outside of sports to get it.”

In his new role, Mitchell is currently in the information gathering process. On a daily basis, he is looking over areas of the Mets’ hiring and promotion practices and how senior members mentor their subordinates. Mitchell has noticed success in promoting female employees into director-level positions, but also acknowledges that the organization can do better with promoting other minority staffers. He declined to comment on the level of diversity within the Mets, stating that he does not have enough data to give an accurate breakdown.

Since he transitioned into his new role, Mitchell wants to accomplish two goals before 2021. He wants to continue building out the Mets’ business resource groups, which support employees with an intergenerational connection and provide a forum for discussion and professional development. He also wants to focus on the club’s mentorship program and work with colleges to recruit students as future employees.

Mitchell continues to look at his son for inspiration, who has been vocal about the ongoing racial and social issues in the United States. Donovan Mitchell wore a bulletproof vest containing the names of numerous people who were killed at the hands of police brutality before a game. He has also used his media interviews as a platform to seek justice and urge people to remember the police killing of Breonna Taylor. He even recently created a short film, “Ready for Sport,” that highlights his work at bringing these issues to the masses.

“I know what he’s standing up for, so I want to be solid in my job as well,” Mitchell said about his son. “It makes me focus a little bit more. It makes me wake up early in the morning and start making these phone calls and staying up late at night doing them. There’s a bigger picture out there, so if my son is taking the lead right there, maybe we can start making changes not within just baseball and basketball, but maybe throughout the board.”

Professional teams and leagues aren’t the only ones looking to improve their diversity and inclusion leadership. On the collegiate level, Brown, Maryland, Michigan State and UC Berkeley are some of the schools currently creating D&I roles.

While UC Berkeley’s job posting for its associate athletics director — diversity, equity inclusion and belonging role went live in late-July, Jenny Simon, chief of staff, says that this particular opening has been in the works for several years. It’s something that appeared in the university’s 2018 Strategic Plan, which was designed to help Berkeley leadership identify current and future opportunities for vulnerabilities and how to capitalize on or mitigate them.

If it weren’t for the coronavirus pandemic, Simon believes that the athletics department would have hired someone by the end of the spring semester. Following the murder of George Floyd, she realized that it was one position that needed to be filled — regardless of the current job market.

“We just knew that even with the hiring freeze, we needed to ask for an exception,” Simon said. “We needed to be able to have this type of leader as a part of our community and to help us move things forward, both on our campus and, really, across the country.”

This is the first time that UC Berkeley will be hiring for a leadership position in D&I. It has, however, acknowledged its importance on a smaller scale, with the hires of Takiyah Jackson — a former Pac-10 champion for UCLA’s women’s basketball team — as its director of African American Student Development and Lasana Hotep, who in June became UC Berkeley’s first-ever director for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

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“This is a unique hire because it doesn’t require that someone has had experience in athletics or at a Power Five athletics department,” Simon said. “What we need is someone who’s an expert in fostering in an environment of inclusion and belonging that we’re looking to create and further develop. That person may have had experience in athletics. They may have had some sort of connection with athletics, but they may also be a student-affairs professional or an academic support person. Whatever that looks like, we just want to make sure we find the right leader for our department.”

The big four sports leagues took their first step in recognizing the significance of D&I when the NBA made Oris Stuart its chief diversity and inclusion officer in 2015. Stuart was recently promoted to the league’s chief people and inclusion officer in late-July. 

Since Stuart’s initial appointment, the NHL hired Kim Davis as its executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs in November 2018. On Aug. 21, 2020, the NFL named Jonathan Beane its senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer.

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When Beane officially joins the NFL on Sept. 8, he will be the latest example of the NFL’s focus on amplifying its diverse leadership. Days before his hire, the Washington Football Team made Jason Wright the league’s first Black team president. Weeks before that, Washington hired Julie Donaldson to serve as its senior vice president of media, making her the first woman to have a full-time role in an NFL team’s game-day radio booth as well as the team’s highest-ranking female employee.

“What gives me the most joy is they happen to be diverse candidates that got the position, but they were also the most qualified,” Beane said. “It goes to the point that the pipeline that’s out there is very diverse. There’s lots of great people out there, and not only are they very good at what they do, but obviously in many cases, they’re the best at what they do. It’s an acknowledgement that the league is absolutely committed to this and to ensuring that the hiring process is as inclusive, fair, and equitable as possible.”

While sports companies are catching up to corporate America in seeing the value of D&I, Diana Busino, managing director and chief operating officer at talent recruitment firm Turnkey Search, hopes that their commitment to it doesn’t stop at hiring people. 

“We have to build the foundation, but this person needs to be able to have the access and influence and the resources to really drive organizational and culture change,” Busino said. “People are resistant to change, but it doesn’t have to be done in a bad way. All it has to be is in a thoughtful way, and then having the self-awareness, self-reflection of how we operate and is there a way that we can do it better? These can be very, very impactful positions and we are really, really thrilled that people are putting the power behind it.”