The State of Diversity in Sports
By Jaeson “Doc” Parsons
“There’s no crying in baseball!” These are the words of the gruff, belligerent coach, Jimmy Dugan, played by Tom Hanks in the iconic film, A League of Their Own. While this line has become its own “league” in terms of popularity, the movie brought to light a deeper issue – diversity in sports – a topic that still resonates into the new millennium.
One hundred years ago, diversity in sports was unheard of—in fact, it was prohibited. Not until Jackie Robinson was drafted into the Brooklyn Dodgers did baseball finally start down the road toward diversity. He was followed by other minorities including Roberto Clemente, who became the first Latin-American player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. The baseball our grandfathers knew has dramatically changed due to diversity, and now more than 40 percent of players are non-white. However, much of this diversity is still not reflected in the front-office as much as it is on the field.
According to Renee Tirado, Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Chief Diversity Officer, “There’s no sugar-coating this. There’s a lot to do.” In an article published on NPR.org, across the entire league only 188 women are in an operations role, which include positions such as scouting and contract negotiations. Since the league was founded, not one woman has been in a general managers’ position and only three have risen to assistant.
However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The MLB has created two programs which are meant to equalize this disparity among the genders. One such program is the Diversity Pipeline Program which, “seeks to identify, develop and grow the pool of qualified minority and female candidates for on-field and baseball operations positions throughout the industry.”
Baseball isn’t the only major sport looking to focus on diversity, as the National Football League has been looking to diversify their workforce as well. For example, the San Francisco 49ers education consulting venture, EDU Academy, and their “Play Like a Girl” (PLAG) non-profit, have partnered to provide high-impact STEAM and sports programs tailored specifically towards young girls. Their efforts have engaged more than 250,000 K-8 participants in the San Francisco area over the past five years. In addition, the NFL, in partnership with the Black College Football Hall of Fame, hosted a summit earlier this year for assistant coaches both at the college and pro levels. The goal of this summit, according to an article published by Axios, “is to strengthen the development pipeline for coaches of color on the offensive side of the ball, where the NFL currently lacks diversity.”
The NHL is another sport looking into diversity and while hockey is one of the most internationally diverse sports on the planet, its racial diversity is far behind all other North American sports leagues. But the NHL is working to change this by launching its Hockey Is for Everyone program in 1998, which celebrates diversity of race, gender and sexuality in the sport throughout the month of February with league wide events. And its Learn to Play program, launched in 2016, provides free ice time and equipment in an effort to reach lower income and inner-city communities.
Other sports organizations, such as the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA), have also been looking to diversity their ranks. Golf and the PGA have long been considered behind the curve in terms of diversity and much of their efforts on diversity were focused primarily on player development programs. However, the PGA saw this wasn’t enough and they have been working towards focusing more on the workforce, which provides two million jobs in an $84 million industry. In addition, the PGA made a landmark investment of $2.5 million over the next five years in diversity efforts, which started with the PGA Works Fellowship and has grown to include scholarships and career events. This program offers entry-level employment for recent college grads, providing them with critical hands-on experience in operations and administration.
Similar to golf, tennis has struggled with diversity but in 2017, at the US Open, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) hosted the sixth annual Diversity and Inclusion Summit which is the annual conference of the Diversity and Inclusion in Sports Consortium. By hosting this summit, the USTA sought to use this as a launching point for their own efforts focusing on the development and growth of tennis across all cultures. During this summit, D.A. Abrams, USTA’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer stated, “We are proud to gather and share best practices on utilizing Diversity and Inclusion to not only grow and expand our sports, but use D&I as a key strategy to ultimately succeed in our business units”. Extending the tradition, the USTA hosted their second Diversity and Inclusion summit during this year’s US Open, with the focus of this being the role of supplier diversity in helping to strengthen community engagement efforts.
Not to be left out of this continuing trend, NASCAR has also become more focused on diversifying its sport through efforts such as the Drive for Diversity program, created by former champion driver, Joe Gibbs, in 2003. Graduates of this program are competing at the highest level today, which include Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr; Daniel Suarez, the first Mexican-American driver; and Aric Almirola, the first Cuban-American driver; in the Cup series. In addition to NASCAR’s efforts to diversify their professional drivers, they are sponsoring programs for increased diversification within their pit crews. One such program began in May of this year, the NASCAR Diversity Pit Crew Combine, held in Concord, NC. This competition placed 12 college athletes from very diverse backgrounds against each other in order to claim their chance to train as a NASCAR pit crew member.
One sports league that’s ahead of the game in terms of diversity is the National Basketball Association (NBA), and many other leagues are looking to follow suit. Focusing on diversity led to the hire of its first female head coach, Lindsey Harding of the 76ers. The NBA’s culture of inclusion is, as one owner says, “light years ahead of all other North American leagues.” This diversity shows both on the court and off as this sport continues to be extremely popular and financially successful.
Change is slow and diversity efforts take time, but ensuring the opportunity is there is what these programs are all about. Almirola put it best during an interview with the Kansas City Star last year: “I feel like as an athlete we all just want one shot, one opportunity, and if you get that shot and that opportunity, then it’s up to you to go and make the most of it.”