Why this matters
The diversification of sports leadership in the 21st century has been noticeable but not substantial, despite public pressure and rules encouraging diverse hiring in several major sports leagues. As those rules show cracks and major sport increasingly becomes the sandbox of the extremely wealthy, it's hard to see how the situation will improve for women and people of Color.
The very first words of the introduction to Kenneth Shropshire’s book on sports leadership diversity, “In Black and White: Race and Sports in America,” are a quote from Bob Steiner, the longtime director of public relations for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Great Western Forum.
“We have no solutions to the problems faced by minorities in attaining equitable employment status – other than to simplistically expect that persons who hire be race- and gender-blind,” Steiner said.
Shropshire, who later went on to found the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University and now serves as a senior advisor to the dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, wrote “In Black and White” in 1996 – but the book, as well as Steiner’s quote, is no less relevant today.
Expectations aren’t working. Despite an increase in discussion, media attention, scholarship, and data around racial equity in sports leadership, things haven’t changed much. In many areas, there have been only incremental improvements in terms of hiring blindly, as Steiner put it. Big strides are hard to find, and, in some cases, hopeful signs of progress haven’t lasted:
- The National Basketball Association has made significant strides in recent years in regard to non-White front office executives. In 2017, 90 percent of NBA team general managers were White, but for the 2021-2022 season, a record 40 percent of GM positions were held by men of Color.
- Four National Football League teams have hired Black team presidents in the past two years, the first Black presidents in league history.
- Conversely, the number of Black head coaches in the NFL has dropped from a high of eight in 2011 to just two in the 2021 season.
- The NBA continues to have the best record of all men’s professional sports in hiring people of color into league positions, up to 41.6 percent in the most recent survey by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, part of the University of Central Florida.
- The Women’s National Basketball Association has better racial and gender hiring grades than any men’s professional league.
Shropshire wrote in his preface that he wanted to address “a continuing problem that likely will not disappear.”
Today, he recognizes the cynicism in those words but knows the numbers still support the sentiment.
“[That line] struck me as extraordinarily pessimistic, especially post-civil rights optimism moments, but the numbers, except for the NBA, are pretty similar. And it’s even more pessimistic in terms of ownership.
“So, yeah, I still feel the same way. I feel like things will get better, but there won’t be a panacea moment where, ‘Here we are; we’ve finally arrived.’”
‘A Spiral Downward’ in the NFL
As explained in “In Black and White,” Shropshire touched on the plight of other minority groups in the book but kept his focus on African-Americans. Even 25 years later, anti-Black sentiment continues to perniciously linger when it comes to hiring, especially in America’s most popular spectator sport, football.
The numbers of Hispanics, Asian-Americans, or Indigenous Americans across all sports leadership remain unacceptably low.
When “In Black and White” was published, the National Football League had three Black head coaches. Today, with the curtain about to go up on the 2022 regular season, the NFL has three Black head coaches among six non-White head coaches in total. And that’s with the league’s Rooney Rule, instituted in an attempt to increase diversity within the head coaching ranks, coming up on its own milestone 20th anniversary.
In the earlier years of the Rooney Rule, team owners, at least some of them, took it to heart. By 2011, there were eight Black head coaches, representing a quarter of the teams in the league. That number would be matched again for the 2017 season, though at that time it was seven Black coaches and Ron Rivera, a coach of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who was then with the Carolina Panthers. With regard to Black coaches, that number has been on the decline since, with just two Black head coaches in the 2021 season. The number of Black players in the league remains around 70 percent.
In early January 2018, as the playoffs for the 2017 regular season were just beginning to unfold, the Oakland Raiders hired Jon Gruden on a 10-year contract to be their next head coach. Gruden hadn’t been on the sideline in years, instead using the comfort of the broadcast booth of ESPN’s Monday Night Football and rumors – real or not – of one team or another wanting to hire him to coach to milk pay raises from the network on a near-annual basis.
But Mark Davis, the owner of the Raiders, was enamored with Gruden and wanted nothing more to have him back with the franchise he’d led from 1998 to 2001, when Davis’ late father, Al, was in charge of the club. Davis had tried multiple times to lure Gruden back to the Raiders, and when Gruden finally relented, Davis had an agreement in place for Gruden to become head coach again before he’d even fired Jack Del Rio, the man who held the title.
It was only after essentially the whole world knew that Gruden had been hired that Davis went through the motions of interviewing two Black candidates to satisfy the Rooney Rule. Despite the blatant and transparent flouting of the rule, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did not punish Davis.
“I do believe that the Rooney Rule was a big part of the burst early on in diversity. They got us to that eight number, but there has been backsliding, and the Rooney Rule hasn’t been able to arrest that backsliding,” said N. Jeremi Duru, a law professor at American University who has long focused on racial and gender dynamics in sports. “Among other reasons, that has to do with the way in which the Rooney Rule has been implemented. I feel like in the early going of the rule, the first decade or so, there was a fair bit of fidelity to it on the part of the clubs. I think that the posture was that it was a very serious rule that had to be taken seriously.
“But more recently, we’ve seen clubs not implement the rule the way it’s supposed to be implemented – not give a meaningful interview, create what seem to be sham interviews – and the league hasn’t punished the clubs. That’s created a spiral downward.”
Duru also believes Goodell turning a blind eye to Davis in 2018 was an inflection point.
“The facts are pretty compelling to indicate that there was a Rooney Rule violation,” he says. “When it wasn’t found, I think clubs may have been like, ‘Hey, this isn’t that big a deal.’ The clubs not implementing the rule seriously and meaningfully is going to make the rule less effective.”
During the hiring cycle for the 2022 season, Patrick Graham, a Yale-educated Black coach who has been building his résumé at the college and NFL levels for almost 20 years, interviewed with the Minnesota Vikings for their head coaching vacancy. Multiple media outlets reported that Graham was at the Vikings’ facility for nine hours, and the team dutifully tweeted out a photo announcing the daylong meeting to show that it had brought in a non-White candidate.
But no sooner had Graham finished and left the building than a reporter for the league-owned media outlet tweet that Minnesota brass would meet the next day with University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh with Harbaugh “confident” that he would get the job. A Michigan beat writer took things even further, writing that Harbaugh’s interview was a mere formality and that he was headed to Minneapolis to sign a contract.
The Vikings ultimately did not hire Harbaugh, instead going with another White candidate, Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. As offensive coordinator of the 2022 Super Bowl champions, the 37-year-old did check a box often espoused by NFL leadership, but his impact on the team could be questioned as he did not actually call plays for the team.
And Graham is far from the only Black coach who has had this experience, likely spending countless hours prepping to interview for a job he never seemed fully in the running for. It is a common occurrence, one that finally had a massive light shone on it this year when, on Feb. 1, former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit, since joined by two others, alleging racially discriminatory practices and naming the Dolphins, Denver Broncos and New York Giants specifically as well as the NFL and all 29 other member teams. The lawsuit is winding its way through the court system.
‘The Intimacy of Basketball’
Things are a little different in the NBA, which for the first time ever in the 2021-22 season saw a full half of its 30 teams led by Black head coaches. Two years earlier, there were just six.
And it was done without a Rooney Rule-type requirement, but more organically – and deliberately. The league’s deputy commissioner, Mark Tatum, who has Jamaican and Vietnamese-Chinese parents, has been at the forefront of the turnaround; there is a consistently updated list of diverse candidates made available to governors, team presidents, and general managers, and the league office conducts mock interviews and provides mentoring to help those candidates prepare for when their opportunity comes.
The NBA also seems far closer than the NFL to having the first female head coach in American men’s professional sports. Before departing to become head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, Becky Hammon was a top assistant with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and coached the team’s summer league squad. Teresa Weatherspoon, an assistant with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, is said to be loved by players and was a finalist to coach the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury this year.
While the NFL has had several women in the low-level assistant coaching ranks since 2015, when Jen Welter made history as a training camp coaching intern with the Arizona Cardinals, as of yet not one has been promoted, and the vast majority have been White.
The natural suspicion with the NBA, however, is whether the current diversity among head coaches and general managers (where the league went from 10 percent non-White GMs to 40 percent over the past five years) continues into the future.
“Certainly, failure doesn’t help, but success doesn’t necessarily always guarantee you’ll keep getting the job or you’ll be kept in there,” Shropshire noted, recalling the NFL’s Jim Caldwell, who was fired in Detroit when the Lions’ owner said a 9-7 record in his final season with the team “wasn’t good enough” and who was replaced by a coach who won 13 games in three years.
“I think about the intimacy of basketball and the way that they get to know each other. Owners and GMs, they’re on the floor [during games]; there’s only a few guys on the team. You know, it’s a much more intimate kind of connection than there is in football,” Shropshire said. “Maybe it is the relationships and you get to know people, and these things can change.”
Across all NBA teams, nearly a quarter of C-suite executives are people of color, and 26.4 percent are women. And the NBA isn’t just asking teams to hire diverse leaders: 41.6 percent of league office employees are people of color, and 42 percent are women. Both of those numbers are highest in American men’s professional sports.
NFL teams are doing better when it comes to the front office. Shortly after the Broncos officially changed hands, the team announced a new team president, Damani Leech. In two years, the league went from never having had a Black person serve as a team president to having four, with the Washington franchise hiring Jason Wright in August 2020, then in 2022 the Baltimore Ravens, Las Vegas Raiders, and Broncos following suit. For the 2022 season, seven teams have Black general managers. Five of those GMs are in their first or second season on the job.
Whereas the NBA league office’s proactive approach toward diversifying the coach and front office ranks has worked, it’s fair to question the NFL’s commitment to the same: In December 2020, a member of an AFC team’s front office shared a document with this writer, on NFL Football Operations letterhead, of the “Football Coaching & Executive Ready List” given to teams. It included one man who is White but did not include names like Ryan Poles or Brad Holmes, both of whom went on to become general managers within 14 months of that list’s distribution.
“The numbers in these two ranks have increased; head coach numbers haven’t quite,” Duru said. “I’m deeply concerned about the lack of diversity in the league, but with the increase in those two other realms, it may be that there is a trend up in all the realms, and we just need another offseason to see it. But without question, the numbers of the presidents and GMs, that’s definitely positive. What it means, long run, we’ll see whether it’s more of a snapshot we’re looking at or a trend.”
One question that is asked often (though not always in good faith) in regard to Black head coaches and executives is how many is enough?
“That question always kicks off a rip-roaring conversation,” Shropshire said. Both he and Duru acknowledge there isn’t a particular numerical answer or even a percentage to that, but, Shropshire contends, “there is a feeling that we can all kind of come to.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the WNBA league office counts 42 percent of staff-level employees as people of color (though that number was at 50 percent at one point), and eight of the league’s 12 teams have female presidents, four of those Black women.
One league that has somewhat quietly been doing the work is Major League Soccer. MLS reports that 18.2 percent of league employees are women of color. And in 2021, the league updated its policy on candidate pools to stipulate that the finalist pool for an open sporting position must include at least two non-White candidates, and one of those two must be Black; additionally, teams must show that all candidates had a comparable interview experience.
That wording, addressing the historic exclusion of Black candidates from serious consideration, is unique among American leagues.
The NFL isn’t the only league worthy of scrutiny. In Major League Baseball, where the number of Black players has fallen to just 7.2 percent, there currently isn’t a single Black general manager, and while over 28 percent of players are Latino, there aren’t any Latino general managers, either.
In 2000, not long after Shropshire’s book was published, the Chicago White Sox named Ken Williams their GM, and he remains with the team now, as executive vice president. But any hope that Williams’ success would lead to a marked increase in Black baseball executives has been dashed in the 20 years since.
In the dugout, there are two Black managers – Dusty Baker with the Houston Astros and Dave Roberts with the Los Angeles Dodgers – and three Latino managers: Alex Cora with the Boston Red Sox, Oliver Marmol with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals’ Dave Martinez.
The Miami Marlins did make history in 2021 when the franchise chose Kim Ng, an Asian-American woman, to become general manager. Ng became the first woman to run a front office in any of the most popular American men’s professional sports – baseball, football, hockey and basketball.
Baseball has had a rule in place since 1999 mandating that teams interview a diverse pool of candidates, but the Selig Rule, like the NFL’s Rooney Rule, has done little to improve hiring statistics. And the sport’s fascination with analytics may be making things worse, if the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s famed Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is any indication; the conference itself has come under fire for remaining overwhelmingly White and male.
The NHL saw history of its own in July when Mike Grier was hired as general manager for the San Jose Sharks. Grier is the first Black GM in the 105-year history of the league.
Who Has the Gold?
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in all of this: Whoever has the gold makes the rules. The people who hire the team presidents, general managers, and head coaches, the team owners, are almost exclusively White, with NBA legend Michael Jordan currently the only Black majority-owner of a team in American sports.
Jordan may not be alone much longer. NBA superstar LeBron James has said he wants to own a league expansion team in Las Vegas, and one longtime reporter said recently that James is in “pole position” for that to happen. Earlier in 2022, Forbes declared James a billionaire for the first time, making him the first active athlete to reach that milestone. The 37-year-old, who is gearing up for his 20th NBA season, has earned his money not only through salaries and endorsement money but also through entrepreneurship: His SpringHill production company has been valued at $725 million. James already owns small stakes in MLB’s Red Sox and English Premier League soccer club Liverpool.
There have been other Black athletes who have entered into the ownership ranks in recent years. Grant Hill owns a stake in the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and is vice-chairman of the team’s board; in 2021, Dwyane Wade bought into the Utah Jazz. It’s unclear how big each man’s stake is, but NBA rules stipulate that all new owners must buy at least 1 percent. Renee Montgomery, a two-time WNBA champion, is part of the group that purchased that league’s Atlanta Dream last year.
But one transaction this year virtually guaranteed that in the NFL, the exclusive majority owners’ club will never include a Black person: The Broncos were sold for the astronomical price of $4.65 billion to Rob Walton (son of Walmart founder Sam Walton), who has an estimated net worth of $60 billion. That was nearly double what the Carolina Panthers went for in 2018.
According to Forbes, there are about 2,300 billionaires in the world. Roughly one-third of them live in the U.S. But only 15 are Black, nine of those American, and none is worth more than $6 billion. That is an incredible amount of wealth. But considering the NFL requires principal owners to have at least a 30 percent stake in the team, there are three people of African descent on Earth who have the kind of capital to buy 30 percent of a nearly $5 billion team. While several Black entertainers have entered the billionaire ranks in recent years, these rising prices mean it’s hard to feel good about the chances of America’s biggest league having a Black majority owner any time soon.
In fairness to the new Denver ownership group, it does count three Black minority owners: Formula 1 auto racing superstar Lewis Hamilton, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and businesswoman Mellody Hobson. But it is unclear how much of a stake each has (this is rarely disclosed) or whether that has earned them a real voice at the table in NFL matters to effect change.
“To the NFL’s credit, they at least tried to reach out to at least the [wealthiest] American Blacks [when the Broncos were up for sale],” Shropshire said. “But how many Africans are on that list, and if somehow they got interested, would that make us feel better? It’s wonderful if Black people, wherever they’re from, are engaged in this, but there’s something about [descendants of] the previously enslaved having these levels of success that we’re talking about.”
Taken in full, Shropshire and Duru have slightly differing opinions on whether someday – maybe in 25 more years when we’re celebrating the golden anniversary of the publishing of Shropshire’s “In Black and White” – we will be able to say change really has occurred.
“As we see with basketball, things can get better,” Shropshire said. “But we’ll still be having the conversation.”
“I do have some hope and optimism and some of that ‘I hope you don’t think I’m pandering because I really do feel this way,’ but I think some of that is because of Ken’s work,” Duru said. “So there’s more of a movement that exists now than existed then, and I have to believe that’s a cause for some optimism.
“But, again, we talked about backsliding. It could be that we talk about this in five years and we’re in good shape and in eight years we’re not. What I am hoping for is that we are going to see a steady progress that is not easily untracked.”
In his 1996 book "In Black & White," Global Sport Institute founding CEO Kenneth L. Shropshire wrote that "the selection of the right person for a position in sports, both on and off the field of play, is extraordinarily subjective." That book prescribed reforms across levers of society to increase the representation of Black leaders in sport.
This issue continues Shropshire's exploration, with a particular interest in how those in power have shaped progress when it comes to diversity, for better and worse.