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Athlete Activism Seen As Boost For Sports’ Diversity Efforts

  • Every year, Dr. Richard Lapchick produces an annual report on racial and gender diversity in sports by asking one question: “Are we playing fair when it comes to sports? Does everyone, regardless of race or gender, have a chance to make and run the team?”
  • Despite some startling declines in 2019, Lapchick believes that sports leagues and teams nationwide are committed to diversity and inclusion.
Photo Credit: Wilfredo Lee/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network

Entering 2020, the sports industry knew that society was prioritizing diversity and inclusion. But for the most part, its efforts were lagging – especially in the NFL. 

In 2019, the NFL received its lowest overall score in racial and gender hiring practices in 15 years, according to a report from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. Its B- mark was tied for the second-lowest grade among the participating leagues, surpassing only college sports. 

Even with the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview minorities for head coaching and senior football operations jobs, the NFL received a B mark for its racial-hiring practices – snapping a streak of nine consecutive years that it earned at least an A- in the category. Currently, there are only four head coaches of color. Andrew Berry of the Cleveland Browns and Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins are the league’s only black general managers, down from four in 2018 and six in 2017.

While it is difficult to overlook the NFL and its peer leagues’ recent diversity woes, Richard Lapchick sees the recent focus on the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion from athletes themselves trickling down to make a bigger impact in professional sports as a whole. 

“The NFL had its biggest drop in the history of the report card last year,” Lapchick, director of UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, said. “We need to take a look at how that’s going to change, and I think that the way… it’s going to change is that we have an element that we haven’t had before: athlete activism. If the athletes who are speaking up about racial injustice also turn their focus to the hiring practices of the team that they’re affiliated with and the league that they’re affiliated with, I think that’ll be a pressure point that will move the needle significantly.”

Midway through 2020, the sports industry has refused to be silent about once taboo topics like diversity and racism. The protests led by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police epitomize the unequal treatment and lack of prosperity for both people of color and women in the United States. It has since provided a platform for athletes like NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace and U.S. Women’s National Team star Megan Rapinoe to voice their displeasure culminating in conversations that society as a whole has largely tiptoed around. 

The NFL, which has long been criticized for its perceived indifference towards these social issues, had one of its most meaningful move yet sparked by Manager of Social Video Bryndon Minter, who reached out to NFL player Michael Thomas to help him recruit other stars like Saquon Barkley and Patrick Mahomes to appear in a video urging the league to speak out in support of Black Lives Matter.

It not only led to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell releasing a video condemning racism and stating that the league believes that “Black Lives Matter,” it made Lapchick believe that progress is on the horizon.

READ MORE: NFL Fumbles In Latest Diversity Hiring Grades

The NFL did not respond to a request for comment.

“With the NFL’s reaction to their players overnight, it seemed that videotape was a dramatic change,” Lapchick said. “The discussions that are going on at the league offices… among other things, it’s obviously starting the season, but this is definitely a topic. Those people have their responsibility for diversity inclusion and they’re concerned about their athletes.”

While Kenneth Shropshire, CEO of the Global Sports Institute at Arizona State University, acknowledges that the recent protests have helped raise the focus, what remains to be seen is if the increased dialogue will help move the needle forward. For him, change is not necessarily reflective in the data, but in always wanting to learn. He points out that MLB scores high for diversity at the vice president and above positions at the central office, but it is not consistent with what it shows. 

“I don’t doubt that those numbers are accurate, but if you [look] further, there is no one on their website shown to be ‘executives,’” Shropshire wrote in an email. “I want to know more on who is in the room for the most important of decisions. Like banks and money management firms, I’m not sure that titles directly correlate with power. I’d like a closer look into that before awarding the highest grades.”

Nicole Melton, associate professor at UMass Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management, echoes Shropshire, pointing out that sports leagues need to display better consistency between their gender and racial hiring practices.

“They should look for reasons why they were able to improve in terms of racial diversity and why they aren’t doing better with women,” she said. “I’d imagine there are some cultural issues, or organizational signals, that are not welcoming for women. At some point, leagues need to go beyond counting heads, and move toward listening to the heads [women and racial minorities] to understand how they can create environments where diverse employees want to work.”

Lapchick’s pursuit of a more diverse sports world dates back to 1984. His book, Broken Promises: Racism In American Sports, helped inspire the creation of a report that tackled the important issue of diversity in professional sports. 

Thirty-six years later, the report has evolved into the Racial and Gender Report Card, which analyzes the hiring practices of the United States’ big five sports leagues and also college athletics. 

Every year since, Lapchick bases his evaluation of sports properties’ hiring trends off of two simple questions: “Are we playing fair when it comes to sports? Does everyone, regardless of race or gender, have a chance to make and run the team?”

In looking back at 2019, Lapchick said he sees a year in which some sports leagues started embracing diversity in their workforce, while others are far behind. 

Of the major sports leagues featured in the 2019 report card, only the NBA and WNBA received an overall grade of A or better. MLS’s overall score dipped from B+ in 2018 to B in 2019, while MLB’s B- grade in 2019 more or else aligned with its C+/B- showing in 2018. The NFL’s B- grade in 2019 was also a decline from its B score the previous year, while college sports’ C+ mark was again the lowest compared to its peers. Four of the six reports showed slight decreases between 0.1 and 2.8 points. 

READ MORE: WNBA Remains Leader In Gender And Racial Hirings Across Sports

The NHL does not take part in the report card, the only major U.S. men’s league not to do so. The league made history recently when business executive and investor Xavier A. Gutierrez became CEO and president of the Arizona Coyotes, becoming the first Latino to hold those positions. The Coyotes also made headlines in June 2019 when Alex Meruelo purchased the team, making him the league’s first Latino majority owner. 

MLB, MLS, the NBA, NHL, and WNBA all did not respond to a request for comment. 

Although every league has ways to improve its business, incremental change is occurring. With the NBA and WNBA establishing themselves as leaders in racial hiring with their A+ marks, MLS and MLB were the other properties to boast marks of A and A-, respectively. 

Similar to the Rooney Rule, MLS requires all 26 clubs to interview at least one minority candidate who is “non-Caucasian” for several specified positions. Along with MLB’s Selig Rule, which requires all 30 clubs to consider minority candidates for positions ranging from general manager to director of scouting, these are three examples of how other sports properties are improving their racial hiring practices. 

That is not the case in college sports, which without any similar mandate is tied with the NFL for lowest racial hiring score with a B. In the 2019 season alone, the percentage of white male coaches ranged from 85% in Division I to 91.1% in Division III; on the other side, white women’s coaches ranged from 83.2% in Division I to a high of 91.2% in Division III.

“The primary impediment to universal success at the collegiate level is the lack of the ability to mandate a blanket rule to improve diversity,” Shropshire wrote. “Essentially in the collegiate system any effort will be made school by school. There is no ‘Rooney’ or ‘Selig’ rule to compel hiring methodologies to be more successful.”

Perhaps the most glaring part of where sports’ diversity efforts are falling short are on the gender side. Both college sports and the NFL received a C+ for gender-hiring practices in 2019. Each performed slightly better than the C marks earned by MLB and MLS.

Even the NBA and WNBA’s industry-leading success saw slippage in its gender diversity. The former’s overall gender grade of B meant a fourth consecutive season of declines, with women occupying only 12.5% of teams’ CEO and president positions. 

“We need more women CEOs in general,” Kathy Behrens, NBA president of social responsibility and player programs, told Front Office Sports last September. “More women CEOs is a good thing, would be a good thing and will be a great thing. I think we’ll see more of it. I wouldn’t limit it to just for organizations – I’d like to see more women CEOs across the board. The number of women CEOs – it’s not big enough, it should be bigger. The talent is there and hopefully the opportunity will follow.” 

Even though the WNBA – which has been led by Cathy Engelbert since May 2019 – finished with an A in gender hiring, it saw drops in the percentage of women who were either head coaches or general managers. Of the league’s 12 teams, only four are coached by women, and just three women hold the role of general manager.

The percentage of women holding professional team staff positions also declined from 58% in 2018 to 40.4% in 2019 – a B+ grade in this category. 

“What we see is a continuing decline in gender hiring practices across too many leagues, including the NBA, which has always been so good,” Lapchick said. “It’s not that they’re bad now – it’s just that numbers are going down. At a time that America is focusing on the issue of race in ways that we haven’t before, I think it becomes even more relevant – since sports is probably our most diverse workplace in America on the playing fields – that we take this look, self-reflect, and that the leagues reevaluate how they can get themselves to be in better position in terms of hiring practices.” 

READ MORE: Spree Of Female Executive Hires A Hopeful Harbinger For A More Diverse Future

Learning how to discuss and implement change are things that Lapchick has been trying to develop for decades. As he looks back on his career, he remembers being very involved with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was there to witness Nelson Mandela’s presidential appointment in 1994. Suddenly, a country that had suffered from centuries of oppression was beginning to discover what is important: equal housing, equal schools, equal health-care opportunities. 

That, Lapchick thinks, is what the U.S. is being to see: the division caused by discrimination and how to eradicate it.

“We’re getting more in tune with the idea of how bad the discrimination is, but how are you going to change it instantly? And I think that’s going to be the same thing applied to the leagues,” he said. “If we have point people on each team moving the needle, we’re going to have a better opportunity to make sure that every hire that opens up gets that diverse pool of candidates, and we get the best person. It might be another white guy – a straight white guy – but we will at least have seen who the best candidates are and then hire the best person, irrespective of any background that that person may bring to the table.”

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