Ensuring Real Diversity And Inclusion In College Athletics

Equality has resurfaced as a renewed importance over the last six months in all aspects of our society. It has forced us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether or not we as individuals are part of the solution or perpetuating the problem. In collegiate athletics, it is our job as educators to provide the most inclusive environment for our student- athletes, which includes having diverse representation in our department’s coaches and administrators.


Nelson Mandela, one of the most influential political figures of the last century, once said:


“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”


We look at sports as a melting pot of individuals looking to achieve a common goal. It is a goal based upon the idea of a meritocracy and not one of inequality. Yet it seems as though our industry and our society have lost sight of what it truly means to weave a diverse tapestry within our programs, to ensure that underrepresented groups have equal access to opportunities within our industry.


Going forward, our institutions have to be intentional on attracting, recruiting, and retaining diverse talent. As we start to think through the needs of our departments, we must ask ourselves the following three questions:


  • What is the most innovative strategy we have implemented to recruit diverse talent?


  • What is the most innovative strategy our institution has implemented to recruit employees?


  • How do we support women and people of color in our department to ensure retention?


We must ask these questions because in truth, how most institutions and athletics departments traditionally recruit and identify qualified candidates isn’t good enough. To attract and retain the best from all backgrounds, our departments need to be innovative in how we attract such talent. When organizations don’t have these strategies in place, we often hear excuses such as, “there’s not enough diverse talent out in the market for us to create a pool from.” But most of us know that is not the case. There is a plethora of diverse talent in the workforce, but it takes institutional commitment to identify the particular talent that fits your culture.


The Role of Bias in Hiring


There are varying degrees of bias that play a part of our hiring practices, something that AthleticDirectorU has explored extensively in the past. According to the Kirwan Institute for The Study of Race and Ethnicity, implicit bias – also referred to unconscious bias – refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.


Implicit bias is one of the main drivers that do not yield to diverse hires within our athletics departments. A common practice for a job opening is to call a colleague, who looks like us and comes from a similar background, and ask for recommendations to fill a position. In turn that person will most likely refer candidates with similar characteristics and attributes, and then we inevitably end up lacking diversity in our pool. While most people do not intentionally exclude those that do not look like them, because of implicit bias, our workforce has come to look overwhelmingly white.


Then there is the role of explicit bias, where we intentionally exclude a group of people. This is demonstrated in the requirements of our job descriptions. Sometimes we won’t consider a candidate because of the type of university they attend. If a candidate is a graduate from an HBCU, or spent a majority of their career working at one, why do hiring managers feel the candidates won’t be as qualified? The same goes for our unwillingness to recruit from certain organizations or companies. Our opinions on the culture of certain departments or their athletics directors often leads us to explicitly remove their employees from our pools.


These presumptions drive us away from having constructive conversations and eliminating candidates that could potentially be a great fit for the institution. The more mindful we are aware of these forces in our hiring practices the more effective our institutions can be in hiring diverse candidates. The question then becomes how can we eliminate bias from our hiring processes? Fortunately, there are a number of simple ways decision makers can combat this issue according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article written by Rebecca Knight in 2018 (SHRM is the world’s largest HR association):


1. Seek To Understand – Awareness training is the first step to unraveling unconscious biases because it allows employees to recognize that everyone possesses them and to identify their own. The idea is to create an “organizational conversation” about biases and help spark ideas on steps the organization as a whole can take to minimize them.


2. Rework Job Descriptions – Job listings play an important role in recruiting talent and often provide the first impression of a company’s culture. Even subtle word choices can have a strong impact on the application pool.


3. Blind Resume Reviews – A blind, systematic process for reviewing applications and resumes will help you improve your chances of including the most relevant candidates in your interview pool, including uncovering some hidden gems.


4. Give A Work Sample Test – A skill test forces employers to critique the quality of a candidate’s work versus unconsciously judging them based on appearance, gender, age, and even personality.


5. Standardize Interviews – Research shows that unstructured interviews — which lack defined questions and whereby a candidate’s experience and expertise are meant to unfold organically through conversation — are often unreliable for predicting job success. On the other hand, structured interviews, whereby each candidate is asked the same set of defined questions, “standardized the interview process” and “minimizes bias” by allowing employers to focus on the factors that have a direct impact on performance.


6. Consider Likability – Ask yourself, does it matter whether you like the person you hire? And how important is it to you? If you do care about it, rate candidates as you would on their other skills during the interview by giving likeability a score, you’re making it more controllable.


7. Set Diversity Goals – Data can help you get buy-in. A growing body of research suggests that diversity in the workforce results in significant business advantages. At the end of every hiring process, leaders track how well they’ve done against the diversity goals they set out to achieve. This also encourages those involved in the hiring and in other parts of the company to keep diversity and equality top of mind.


Implementing The Recruiting Strategy


The importance of having representation that reflects our student-athlete population is important. Our students need to see paths for themselves. This prepares them for life after college, especially as the workforce becomes increasingly diverse.


In order to achieve this level of intentionality, we cannot use the same recruiting methods we have used in the past. As mentioned previously, there must be innovative strategies to attract and recruit diverse talent. Position advertising is one of those ways in which we must be more creative. The traditional human resources portal is no longer enough. Casting a wider net to include diverse networks will yield much better results. We must collaborate with organizations including but not limited to; Women Leaders in College Sports, Minority Opportunities Athletic Association (MOAA), Hispanics in Higher Education, Women in Higher Education, as well as the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AASCU).


All of these networks will generate candidates from many different backgrounds, giving us a very diverse pool to lay the foundation of our searches. We should also focus on leveraging our student-athletes to build our candidate pipelines for the future. Educating them on the different careers within college athletics, or forging partnerships with organizations such as the Winning Edge Leadership Academy, the Athlete book (professional development software for student-athletes and young professionals) and other networks catered to young professionals.


Additionally, an important avenue to generate a more diverse pipeline of candidates is to use our own department for referrals. Create employee resource groups composed of diverse representation, and have those groups develop programming and connections with external groups their members are associated with to expand talent pools.


Many administrators and coaches belong to professional organizations including many minority specific organizations within their industry or skill-set. It’s important that we empower our current staff to be positive marketing tools for the department. It’s also equally important to understand how they feel about the level of inclusivity within the department. If your staff feels they do not work in an inclusive environment, they will deter other minorities from applying to open positions.


Intentionality Is What Makes The Difference


While it is important that you are equipped with the knowledge and tools necessary to ensure your department is evolving into the most inclusive environment possible, none of it matters if there is no action taken. You must construct a strategy for your department to execute to get the desired result and consistently reassess to ensure your strategies are timely, relevant, and effective.


Intentional has been a buzz word over the last six months but to transform your workforce you must execute on this mindset. As decision makers, we always have to be evolving in the space of diversity and inclusion while implementing equitable search practices throughout our institutions. In the present, I believe there’s no better time to start developing that short-list. We must start building relationships of trust with diverse talent so when hiring opportunities become more prevalent, we have connections in place to ensure a truly inclusive process.             




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