Fix Your House Up Before You Invite People Over: How Athletic Administrators Can Create an Inclusive Environment Within Athletics
When many athletic administrators or coaches step into new roles, we see them stand at the podium or speak into the microphone affirming their commitment to diversity and inclusion. They repeat the athletic department or university mission of diversity and how important it is to them. They talk about the words diversity and inclusion both earnestly and vaguely, but have no real defined strategic plan that focuses on both recruitment/hiring AND education. Those listening do not get an in-depth explanation of how they will create diverse pipelines when hiring/recruiting and we certainly do not hear how they will create a social justice educational plan that will assist in laying an inclusive culture to be in place when the diverse hirings or recruits come on board.
It is falsely assumed that the more student-athletes of color they have the more inclusive they are. You can have a diverse group within a culture that is not inclusive. As Verna Myers explains, “ Diversity is about quantity. Inclusion is about quality. I learned this when I was executive director of the Boston Law Firm Group (now called the Boston Lawyers Group). As a consortium of large law firms in Boston, we initially aimed all our efforts at outreach and recruitment of attorneys of color, and we saw the numbers increase tremendously. Then we noticed them stagnate and even decline; all the people we invited in the front door were leaving out the back! We used to think that diversity was a goal in itself until we discovered that unless the environment, the friendship, the neighborhood, and the workplace are inviting, fair, and respectful, diversity is not going to thrive.”
It is not about the amount of student-athletes of color you recruit to your athletic department. It is about the quality of their total experience as a student-athlete of color. Athletic administrators and coaches assume the problems of diversity and inclusion will be solved with more student-athletes of color, but in reality the tough and painful work has not been done to start solving the issues. Without intently and diligently focusing on creating an inclusive environment, student-athletes of color will simply be in an environment that isn’t inclusive and potentially unhealthy. Unhealthy because the weight of creating the inclusive culture is on them. If questions of race, diversity, or inclusion are asked the student-athletes of color will be the ones to be expected to answer. When recruits or parents ask questions about the culture many student-athletes of color know they cannot answer truthfully. They cannot honestly explain how they feel they are treated by administrators or coaches. They cannot say they are tired of not seeing people of color being hired within within the athletic department. They cannot say they feel isolated or alone because they not only do not know who to reach out to within the athletic department, they definitely do not know who to reach out to within the university. They know they cannot explain how they really feel. When I have asked student-athletes of color if they can talk to their coaches about a racial problem they quickly give a resounding no.
To be recruited to predominately white teams with a predominately white staff in a predominately white athletic department which is part of a predominately white university or college can be uncomfortable, painful, jarring, and tough. These feelings are amplified when they do not know who to turn to, only knowing who they cannot turn to. Student-athletes of color can tell when the environment they are a part of isn’t fully inclusive. They can tell when they are expected to BE the culture and diversity. They feel the weight of being the educators on their team and for their coaching staff. They can feel when topics of race come up and the room becomes uncomfortable with tension. More importantly, they can tell when coaches and administrators are not comfortable or educated to have conversations about race and the student-athletes of color’s experience.
Just as the mission and vision of a team starts with the coaching staff, an inclusive culture starts at the top of the food chain with the athletic administrators. Yes, of course, the coaching staff can develop an inclusive team culture but when racist events occur the athletic administration immediately gets involved and depending on how bad the situation is, the administrators might only be the ones who speak on the matter and decide on the consequences. How those events are handled show what diversity and inclusion mean to the athletic department and teams. The type of consequences they handout speak of how they feel about diversity and inclusion or what they say to the media shows how they feel about diversity and inclusion. These are all things that are out of a coach’s hand. Below are two examples of situations that happened on a team that were really problems for the athletic administrators.
Because these problems include athletic administrators the athletic administrators should be getting the same, if not more social justice training and educating as the student-athletes. The athletic administrators create the culture. Recruiting and hiring diversity is not enough in these times. Those are the easy parts. The tough parts are doing the work, and doing it among the student-athletes and coaches. Here is where I get radical… Well more radical than I usually am. Currently, social justice education is done at the same level. Student-athletes learn with student-athletes, coaches learn with coaches, and the athletic administration learn with athletic administration. Coaches and athletic administrators are usually at the student-athlete social justice education trainings watching and “supervising”. They do not take part, they do not allow themselves to be uncomfortable, and they do not show themselves being vulnerable. They only partially allow uncomfortableness and vulnerability to show when among those of the same level. The supervising during the training creates a power dynamic that does not allow an inclusive culture to occur. This power move allows power to be kept with those who already have it and doesn’t allow power to be given to the student-athletes. Student-athletes do not have the ability to talk about their pain and experiences with those who potentially might be causing them. Doing social justice education side by side with student-athletes will give athletic administrators a method, as Sarah Nahm explains, of ”looking at their culture to understand what they are explicitly inclusive to and what they are explicitly exclusive to. Those choices will tell you what kind of identity and culture you have, who will resonate within your culture, and what kind of people belong."
This is uncomfortable, slow work. This is what builds an inclusive culture. This will take time. Building a winning program, not just just a winning team takes time. It takes developing a foundation to build upon. It won’t be and can’t be fast. There will be resistance towards it. There will be questions of the importance of it if you aren’t doing the work you expect all others to do. There will be questions if you are not in the room at all. Buy in will not occur if you are not in the room. Period. Working towards a common goal together creates understanding and movement towards an inclusive culture, supervising and watching will not. Throughout social justice education mistakes will occur. It is painful. It rips open scabs you didn’t know you had and tells you that the only way to heal is to keep ripping it open again and again. Lapchick noted, “Opportunities for coaches of color continued to be a significant area of concern in all divisions. For the 2017 season, 86.5 percent of Division I, 87.8 percent of Division II and 91.6 percent of Division III men’s coaches were white. On the women’s side, whites held 84.5 percent, 86.8 percent and 91.0 percent in Divisions I, II, and III, respectively. The numbers are not any better for athletic directors. As Lapchick notes with athletic directors, “whites held the overwhelming percent of the decision-making athletics director positions during the 2016-2017 year at 86.1 percent, 87.4 percent, and 93.4 percent in Divisions I, II, and III, respectively. Women made up only 11.2 percent of Division I athletics directors, an increase from 9.8 in 2015-2016.
These numbers show why it is so important for the social justice education to start at the stop when creating an inclusive culture. Why shouldn’t the athletic administrators who are over 85% white receive as much social justice education and training. Buy in starts at the top. If they see the athletic administrators are just as bought in as they expect their coaches and student-athletes selling it won’t be as difficult. Without the over 85% white athletic administrators and their staffs putting in just as much work others will question the real importance of social justice education within athletics.
The question athletic departments should ask themselves is how truly vested are they in diversity and inclusion. Verna Myers states, the real question isn’t, “Why haven’t we seen a change in diversity?” The actual questions are these: “Do we want real change?” “What does change mean?” “Why should we want to change?” as well as, what work are we willing to put in, that may be uncomfortable, to create real lasting change? If you are interested in developing lasting change,. below are next steps to help you on that road.
1. Mandate that athletic administrators and coaches have to be involved in the same workshops and seminars as the student-athletes.
2. Educate your coaches, staff, and athletic administrators on how to handle issues of bias on campus. How is it reported?
3. Hold meetings at the diversity centers to get to know both the locations and those who work in them.
4. Make a diversity committee made up of student-athletes that anyone interviewing for a position must interview with. Questions asked could be:
Explain how you recruit diverse student-athletes.
How would you hire a diverse staff?
If your student-athlete of color came to you about microaggressions they felt from a faculty member how would you handle it?
A student-athlete on your team says a racial epithet, what do you say to the student-athlete who said it? What do you say to the student-athlete of color it was aimed at?
What is your personal diversity mission statement?
How do you keep abreast of current diversity issues within your sport and higher education?
How would you get your student-athletes involved in campus diversity centers?
5. Put money into the budget to purchase books on diversity and inclusion topics to give out to coaches.
6. Have an athletic department reading group on diversity and inclusion for those who want to be involved- include student-athletes, coaches, and athletic administrators within it.
7. Ask speakers hired what is the end goal of their presentation and that there should be actionable items that help continue social justice education.
8. When hiring, ask yourself where are you placing the job ad. Is it the same place you have put all others, but expect different results? Is it a place where the likelihood of a diverse applicant pool is slim to none?
9. Make all your search committees go through implicit bias training.
10. Heck, make the whole athletic department go through implicit bias training. All new employees should go through implicit bias training.
Inclusive cultures are hard work, especially if you aren’t expecting the student-athletes of color to BE the culture. Understand you are building a foundation that will develop a culture that will not only be beneficial to ALL student-athletes while at your institution, this culture will build culturally competent student-athletes who graduate and go into their profession or graduate school with knowledge many not only do not have. If you fix your house before you invite people over, it is more likely they will stay and bring their friends. Remember just because you didn’t hear about the biases or racist incident doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. It just means they don’t want to tell you. Start fixing your house.
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