Alternative Facts: The Inequality Of Leadership In College Athletics

By Jason Belzer

Author’s Note: This essay was compiled with the help of more than a dozen minority and majority athletic directors, coaches, search firms and experts on the issues of diversity and inclusion. 

 

“Please explain how your professional experience and cultural upbringing might lend itself to connecting with new student-athletes you would be recruiting to our institution?” asked the head of the search committee.

 

“Well, I’ve spent the last nine years as an assistant coach at two Division I  programs, where I helped lead our teams to two conference championships and four postseason appearances over that period,” responded Andre, the interviewee. “That being said, I’m not quite sure how my cultural upbringing has relevance to this position?” he inquired hesitantly, seeking clarification to the odd question.

 

“Our institution has made a concerted effort over the last few years to increase the number of minority students on campus, particularly ones that come from urban centers in the state. Regrettably, we haven’t had much success in that area, and we’d like to make sure that whomever we hire for this position can work to assist us in our goals,” explained another interviewer.

 

“So, you’re asking whether I think I can help recruit more minorities to your school because I myself am a young minority?” Andre asked, already knowing the coming answer.

 

“Yes, exactly!” the original questioner chimed back in. “We really think someone with your recruiting experience, and your – background – could help us do just that.  Don’t you agree?” she added.

 

Andre shifted uncomfortably in his seat, carefully gathering his thoughts before answering. “Based on my previous experience, I have had success recruiting a diverse group of student athletes, but my focus has always been on finding the best possible players for team regardless of their skin color or background.”

 

“Of course, of course!” replied the head of the search committee. “But…. well as you might have uncovered in your research, our athletics program is facing significant financial constraints, likely limiting our ability to recruit student-athletes nationally. Whoever takes over this job will have no choice but to focus on recruiting talent closer to home, and in different neighborhoods than in the past.”

 

———

 

The above interaction occurred during an actual interview for a coaching position at a small Midwestern institution, one whose budget, scholarship numbers and facilities ranks at the bottom of its conference and Division I as a whole. While some might argue that the university’s logic in hiring a minority head coach to attract minority student-athletes was not discriminatory on its face, to Andre (not his real name) it was clear that the institution cared far less about his actual qualifications for the job and far more about the fact that he was a black male that could help them fill a quota.

 

Andre did receive an offer from the institution, and even though he knew his chances of building a successful program were low due to the number of constraints he would be facing – not to mention his moral compass saying otherwise – he accepted the position. The reality was that if he passed up on such an offer, it was more likely than not that it could be years before he might have another chance at a head coaching job, if that chance came at all.

 

The unfortunate truth is that minority coaches and administrators seeking to rise to the top of their respective positions in collegiate athletics face daunting challenges. According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), white men hold almost 80% of the 128 athletic director positions at Football Bowl Subdivision schools, while only 14% can be classified as a minority. Even fewer are women. The statistics for coaches are even worse, with more than 87% of head football coaches on the FBS level being white men. Of course, it should come as no surprise that the individuals at the top of the college athletics hierarchy – university presidents – are also predominately white, at a rate of more than 88%. The same holds true for additional decision makers – board of trustee members – who are overwhelmingly comprised of large donors to the institution. These statistics become even more eye opening when considering the number of minorities participating in college athletics. Black men make up approximately 2.8 % of undergraduate students at non-HBCU Division 1 institutions, but 57.1 percent of football student-athletes and 64.3 percent of men’s basketball student-athletes.

 

Minority leadership numbers in college sports are similar to those seen in the corporate ranks, where a mere 4.7% of executive team members in the Fortune 100 (the top 100 U.S. companies by revenue) are minorities, and a paltry 6.7% of the nation’s 16.2 million “management” jobs are held by African-Americans. That being said, the private sector has made a concerted effort in driving diversity, with approximately 36% of the board seats in the Fortune 100 occupied by women and minorities – a number expected to rise to over 40% within the next few years. The same is not true within the context of college athletics.

 

None of these statistics should be a surprise; the absence of minority administrators and head coaches in college athletics has been an issue for decades and there has been little meaningful action from the white majority to change. There is ample evidence that decision-making effectiveness in organizations is enhanced by a diverse perspective, and that minorities represent an underutilized talent pool in an industry that has become progressively more talent constrained. Moreover, organizations that fail to foster inclusive workplaces see higher employee turnover rates than those that create diverse work environments. Lastly, diverse and inclusive workplaces drive innovation – of over three hundred large global enterprises surveyed in a 2011 Forbes study, 85 percent agreed or strongly agreed that diversity is crucial to fostering innovation in the workplace.

 

While numbers may provide objective insight into the magnitude of the problem of racial inequality in college athletics, they do nothing to capture the frustration that many minorities feel as they try to compete and flourish in an industry in which their race is just an opportunity for their employer to check a box. Worse yet, there is still a fundamental disconnect between the concepts of “diversity” and “inclusion” in the industry. Although some departments have taken steps to increase the numbers of minorities within their administration and coaching staffs, few have worked to integrate those individuals into the decision-making processes of the organization.  While some may have made the team, many people of color are left on the sidelines holding the clipboard while their white counterparts run the show.

 

So, what is preventing those with authority from hiring minorities in leadership positions? Is there still underlying discrimination – or dare we say outright racism – occurring within the hundreds of institutions of higher education that have long promoted themselves as being champions of social progress? More importantly, what can both sides of the equation – the white majority and those who aren’t in that group – do to help make college athletics a true champion of diversity and inclusion?

 

You Can’t Just Turn Off Bias

 

As the old adage goes, the first step to fixing your problem is acknowledging you have one. Yet for people in the world of college athletics, almost all of whom are highly educated, getting them to admit that they are innately biased towards others is all but impossible. But it is indeed true, we are all biased towards others in varying degrees, whether because they went to a rival university, dress differently, or because their skin is a different color than our own.

 

As psychologist Daniel Kahneman discovered, human beings think both fast and slow. When we are deciding on something important and complicated – like reviewing a job candidate’s resume or participating in diversity training – we will think slow and deliberately. Yet the overwhelming majority of our daily decisions depend on on our intuitive judgement, which requires us to think fast.

 

While we work hard to avoid discrimination in our slow thinking – and thus reaffirming our belief that we are unbiased – it is a significant challenge for us to avoid it when thinking fast. That’s because our fast judgement is based on associations and fueled by stereotypes our mind has collected and stored from thousands of sources and experiences throughout life. In a matter of milliseconds, every lecture we’ve listened to, movie we’ve watched, and Facebook post we’ve read comes together to give us a judgement on a person. Because the world is so full of bigotry, racism and prejudice all these concepts have become deeply ingrained in our own thought processes, making it next to impossible for us to avoid making decisions without preconceived biases. Consequentially, even though we “think” we are giving a minority candidate a fair opportunity at a job, we have long made up our minds about whether we will hire them – sometimes within the first few seconds of meeting them.

 

Don’t believe it?

 

While doing research for this article, we interviewed several collegiate athletic directors, both black and white. During each conversation, we asked whether skin color ever played a factor in their decision to hire one coach over another. They all had the same answer: “I hire the best possible coach for the position, regardless of their race, religion or any other category.”

 

You might read that statement and say, “well of course they did!” What successful athletics administrator in this day and age would hire someone based on some reason other than professional merit? But, what if we told you that most of the white ADs had only hired white coaches during their tenures? Or that several of the black ADs had only hired black coaches? Each was adamant that they had made their decision on objective, non-biased criteria, of each candidate and yet they still somehow ended up hiring someone that looked just like them.

 

When you grow up in a white neighborhood, go to school with white kids, and have little interaction with people of different racial, religious and social backgrounds, even though you may not consciously favor white people, your subconscious certainly does. Of course, this is no different for minorities or anyone who grows up in a community that lacks diversity. By the time you reach the workforce and are responsible for hiring others, “the best possible person for the job” also just happens to be the type of person you’ve been most comfortable being around your entire life.

 

What makes things worse is the fact that in college athletics, there is almost always one person exclusively making the hiring decision – the university president or athletics director. Thus, 9 times out of 10 we are expecting a white male to not hire someone other than a white male for the position. We don’t have to guess how many times they actually do – the statistics are there for everyone to see.

 

This deep-rooted bias is also one of the reasons why diversity programs aren’t doing a very good job of increasing diversity. Higher education and college athletics has followed the lead of the corporate world when it comes to diversity and inclusion training – create a system of checks and balances within human resources to ensure fair and equal opportunity for everyone. Yet, everyone that works in college athletics knows there is nothing universities love more than bureaucracy, and attempting to control peoples behavior through a clear system of “dos and don’ts” is as bureaucratic of an approach to addressing bias as one could have imagined.

 

The problem, of course, is that you can’t shame people into getting rid of their biases. Put any athletic administrator or coach through a rigorous multi-day diversity training and then test them and you’re likely to like what they say. But, come back a week later and pretty much every innate bias they had before the training exercise is still there – and sometimes it’s even stronger. Strategies for controlling or changing bias fail almost universally, and the statistics across corporate America and collegiate athletics prove it. It’s not that there aren’t enough qualified candidates – there have been huge education gains by minorities over the last several decades – but rather you just can’t persuade someone by forcing them to get with the program and punishing them if they don’t.

 

Regrettably, there is no ultimate panacea for solving the issue of diversity in college athletics. If we are to live in a world where minorities have the same opportunity to become an athletic director or head coach as their white male colleagues, then it will require both sides to adjust their behavior. The following is a non-exhaustive list of considerations, policies, and behaviors that may help put us on a path towards sustainable equality.

 

Considerations for those in Leadership Positions:

 

  1. Learn to think outside the box when it comes to hiring those who don’t fit the traditional athletic administration role. Consider minority executives from non-traditional settings like the private sector who have skill sets that can translate to success in the higher education arena. One of the clear ways to increase the pool of qualified minority candidates is to expand the pool outside of college athletics. Individuals with proven business acumen, surrounded by experienced administrators, can create a powerful management teams for any athletics department. Moreover, slow down and expand the search process. What matters most is interviewing a diverse group of candidates that give you the greatest possible opportunity to hire the best person for the job.

 

  1. Actively grow the pool of minority candidates, not just for positions within your own department and university but for the industry as a whole. It starts with identifying young staff and students who show aptitude and promise for a career in college athletics. Next, provide training, development and mentorship opportunities for them. More specifically, create cross-race mentorship opportunities for those individuals, as well as others in your department no matter what stage of career they are in. Research has shown that mentoring someone of a different race than yourself is one of the single best ways to help reduce inherent bias.

 

  1. Make sure your institutions and athletics department takes ownership of diversity and inclusion by going beyond the antiquated training processes that historically lead to few results. One of the best ways to do so is to make sure that your department comes to a consensus on what real diversity and inclusion is, and then actively champion that viewpoint on the NCAA level. Most institutions hope diversity becomes someone else’s problem, instead let’s make it everyone’s problem. You should also make implicit bias training a necessary and common part of the on-going development for your administrative and coaching staffs, as well as your student-athletes.

 

  1. Hold search firms and presidents/chancellors accountable for the lack of diversity hiring, and do it significantly before an actual position is available. If white boards keeping hiring white presidents who hire white athletic directors who hire white coaches, nothing will ever change. Unless our university and department leadership is willing to recognize they are innately biased when it comes to hiring people of color, a lack of diversity within college athletics will remain an issue for decades to come. What’s the easiest way to fix this? By making search processes TRANSPARENT. The media is likely to find out who you are interviewing anyway, why not use it as an opportunity to hold yourself accountable during the hiring process?

 

Considerations for Minorities in Athletics:

 

  1. Build a network of well-respected athletic administrators who will serve as mentors to you throughout your career. These people should provide guidance and support as you navigate the industry landscape. This requires building relationships with both minority administrators and others outside of your race, especially people from different backgrounds and regions than you. Remember that relationships are based on value, and there must be mutual benefit to both parties. Significant, lifelong relationships can be fostered through active participation – and preferably in leadership roles – in a wide variety of professional associations (e.g. MOAA, NACMA, NAAAD) as well as committees within your conference and the NCAA.

 

As one search firm executive put it, “Minorities need to have diverse mentors in this business and become strategic with their career. They need to be upwardly mobile and gain experiences in different areas so they are as strong, if not stronger than, majority candidates. Too often minorities are either siloed or silo themselves in a particular area. Many times, this is outside of their control as many departments pigeonhole them into specific positions or areas of athletics. If this is the case, they need to consider moving to another institution to differentiate their skillset as soon as it makes sense.”

 

  1. Understand and embrace the fact that senior level administration and athletic director positions are extremely competitive and political. This means that you must be prepared to be the absolute most qualified and well-rounded candidate you can be for a job. That starts with identifying your unique value proposition, focusing your skillset and identifying the types of institutions and environments you will best thrive in. Moreover, you must do a great job in your current position without necessarily focusing your energy on the next opportunity. That means “control your controllables” and be sure to understand that attempting to predict what school might hire you is not within your control. Instead, focus on blooming where you are planted and people will take notice.

 

It is worth emphasizing that in terms of skill set cultivation, the single best investment minorities can make for career progression is within fundraising and development. It is well known that most modern athletic directors do not get hired (or keep a job for very long) if they can’t raise money for their departments. Because of innate bias, not only must minorities come equipped with a fundraising portfolio, they must also convince an often predominately white majority hiring committee that they can raise money from predominately wealthy white male donors. This might be the single biggest obstacle facing minorities attempting to move up to the highest positions in collegiate athletics.

 

  1. Understand that as a minority, being a successful athletics administrator or head coach may require you to accept the reality of being uncomfortable as you learn to create an equilibrium and comfort level between you and others who might not be accustomed to interacting with someone of your background, race, or gender.

 

As one minority athletics director put it, “Every day I have to prepare to be the athletics director at this institution. What does that mean? It means that I’m not going to see a lot of people like me today. And, while that doesn’t mean that I must change who I am as a person, it does mean that if I want to be successful at my job, I have to be flexible and learn to work within a framework that maximizes my ability to be successful at what I was hired to do.”

 

Another shared similar sentiment, “If you don’t have the wherewithal to understand that you may attend an event and be the only black person in the room, and if you don’t realize that there will be someone in that room who doesn’t want you there, then perhaps you better find a new line of work.”

 

  1. Build relationships with the current landscape of collegiate athletic search firms. These firms are often the gatekeepers to search processes as well as the mouth pieces of the presidents and athletic directors that hire them. Often times, coaches and administrators alike will say they aren’t pursuing a job because “[insert search firm] is handling the process” and they aren’t “one of their guys.” But that shows a lack of understanding as that person may not have done the  necessary legwork to build a relationship with that search firm to ensure they are a viable candidate for the position.

 

Here’s a list of ten major search firms currently operating in collegiate athletics: PES, CSA, DHR, CSSKorn Ferry, Turnkey, Witt/Kieffer, CarrSports, Eastman & Beaudine, and Ventura Partners. The next time you’re going to be in their area, send them a note and see if you can set up an introductory meeting. Also, remember that building relationships means creating value, so figure out ways of helping them do their work (like identifying candidates or even new searches for them).

 

As one firm put it, “Our commitment diversity is very high. We make a lot of extra phone calls and do a lot of extra research to present a diverse pool of candidates. Unfortunately, sometimes getting minority candidates can be difficult. Many believe they are simply being offered an interview on the basis that they are a minority – the “token interview” as it has been called. But that is a false narrative; if you’re offered an interview, and you’re genuinely interested in the opportunity, then do it. Otherwise, not only have you guaranteed that you won’t get this job, but now you’ll make me think twice before we call you on the next opportunity.” But it must be noted that the questions should be asked, do token interviews actually take place and if they do, will the candidates be taken seriously?

 

———

 

In 1994, then NCAA Executive Director Cedric Dempsey noted the Association’s member institutions had done little to promote opportunities for minorities and that while the road ahead would be a long one, “[we] must redouble… efforts to allow minority individuals access to careers in intercollegiate athletics.” Unfortunately, almost a quarter century later, little progress has been made. The reason? Because the vast majority of collegiate administrators don’t understand the barriers they have constructed on their very own campuses, which have been built upon a foundation of their collective mindsets. Barriers fueled by stereotypes and biases, and exacerbated by fears that donors and alumni may not accept the hiring of a minority athletics director or coach. Barriers whose roots are wrapped deeply within their own minds, where they find comfort in hiring people who walk, talk and look like them.

 

Unless decision makers learn to understand their biases and appreciate that they and they alone hold the power to make change, then there will always be a minority in collegiate athletics. But, if they do force themselves to look in the mirror and accept responsibility, promising to do what is necessary to push our industry forward, then perhaps we will gradually, without even noticing it, live along some distant day into equality.

 

 

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