Black History Month: A key to diversifying college sports leadership may lie with young athletes themselves

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Chris Perkins, South Florida Sun Sentinel
·4 min read
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Dr. Richard Lapchick estimates he speaks at 25 colleges and universities each year. As the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, he said his visits follow a familiar pattern that reveal hidden frustrations on campus.

He is picked up at the airport by the highest-ranking person of color — or sometimes a woman — at the school. He listens as they tell him how much they love the school and how great the host city is for raising a family.

But by the end of the trip, the same person who picked him up is often now asking for help finding a way out of the university, where they don’t see opportunities for advancement.

College athletics exemplifies the frustration Black sports professionals feel when trying to climb the ladder of success in that field.

Attitudes are changing slowly, but Lapchick said there’s a faster path forward — and it starts with athlete activism.

He calls it a social reckoning, those times when college and professional athletes have used their voices in ways that have made a difference.

“When those voices turn inward…it will impact those hires,” Lapchick said.

According to NCAA figures from 2019, the latest year numbers are available, 9% of athletic directors were Black at Division I schools that are not historically Black colleges and universities.

One challenge for Blacks landing top-level administrative or management jobs is that hiring managers often choose people they know or those recommended by somebody in their professional network.

Getting inside that network is the first step but not the most challenging one, said Eric Coleman, senior associate athletic director for academics and student development at Florida Atlantic University.

Coleman, who has been an an academic counselor since 2007 and aspires to be a Division 1 athletic director, said Blacks are hired by colleges in academic or student services because their ability to relate to Black athletes helps the school improve its academic progress rate — the measure used to ensure college athletes are also performing academically.

“But then we kind of get stuck here,” he said. “They don’t look at us as viable options to become athletic directors.”

Coleman said many Blacks look to Division II and Division III schools, the lower tiers of college athletics, to get athletic director jobs.

Renae Myles Payne, the University of Miami’s senior associate athletic director and chief diversity officer, said when hiring top-level people, universities look to those with experience in the three Fs – fund-raising, finance and football.

Myles Payne recently attended a meeting of 130 athletic directors, who developed 10 things schools can do immediately to improve diversity and inclusion. One idea is tethering financial incentives to institutions that make diverse hires.

UM is head of the curve in that respect with four Black administrators, including Myles Payne, on the senior athletics staff. Oklahoma, according to Myles Payne, is the only other major school with more than two Black administrators.

Blacks, despite being qualified, aren’t usually promoted to leadership positions.

“At the college level, I think every top position is egregiously represented by women and people of color,” said Lapchick, who is also president for the Institute for Sport and Social Justice.

Progress has been made at the professional level of sports.

Lapchick said numerous leagues have requested race and gender report cards, including the National Hockey League and NASCAR. He said the pros are ahead of colleges when it comes to inclusion, especially at the upper levels.

In 2019, South Florida was a picture of opportunity for Black decision-makers in professional sports. Chris Grier was serving as the Miami Dolphins’ general manager, Brian Flores was the Dolphins’ coach, and Michael Hill was serving as the Marlins’ general manager.

In November 2020, the Florida Panthers hired Brett Peterson as their assistant general manager, the first to hold that title in the National Hockey League.

Those aren’t normal situations, however.

Like Lapchick, Myles Payne believes voices of young athletes might be the key for building Black leaders in college athletics.

“I am encouraged by the student-athlete voice being more pronounced,” Myles Payne said. “They’re going to be sort of like that human shield for the people of color that are working in athletic departments now because they’re going to say, ‘No, we want a Black mental health counselor because we need someone who can talk to us about these microaggressions that I’m dealing with every day in my classroom or when I walk to class.’ So they’re being very specific.”

Ultimately, Lapchick said, the change in hiring practices won’t come until those in charge are as willing to hire Blacks as whites.

“It’s not just about changing the numbers,” he said, “it’s about changing the climate.”