January 17, 2022

Diversity & Inclusion in Sports Leadership

Picture the North American major sports leagues in the 1990s: The players were mostly people of color, but the coaches, managers, and team owners were almost all white. 

A snapshot today looks mostly the same.

Despite a handful of initiatives meant to increase diversity in the leadership of sports organizations, coaching, and management roles have mostly gone to white candidates in the past 30 years, according to a New York Times analysis of data from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

True leadership is essential, and sports organizations with effective leadership in diversity and inclusion often make the difference. Through effective communication, support of participation, and the expression of shared goals, better performance can be realized. These important factors create a culture of respect and inclusion where diversity thrives. 

The inclusion of diverse individuals, which goes far beyond gender and race, can be a key differentiator among companies, leading to industry-leading profitability. The advantages of openly celebrating differences are abundant. When people feel included, empowered, and respected, it creates trust and a feeling of belonging within your organization. From a business standpoint, this leads to increased creativity, innovation, and productivity.

To promote DEIA as a prominent leader in sports, it is critically important to help cultivate strong visual role models for developing generations. This applies to every department of a sport, be that administration, officiating, coaching, and most importantly of all, to athletes. Paying attention to media outlets and social networks is vital in this regard.

Diversity in sports has been a driver of positive social change for many decades. Sports continue to represent a microcosm where social issues are confronted. Nevertheless, it is ultimately those bold enough to stand up for diversity and inclusion that makes the real impact.

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The National Basketball Association (NBA) and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) have been leaders among professional sports leagues in addressing issues of inequality and social justice. Their players have been broadly outspoken on topics ranging from mental health to police brutality to equal pay.

In 2021, the WNBA has outperformed other sports organizations in racial and gender hiring practices since 2004.

  • The WNBA was awarded A+ grades for its racial and gender hiring practices, according to a scale designed by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, or TIDES.
  • 2021 marks the 17th consecutive year the WNBA has earned A’s for race and gender.
  • The only men’s league teams whose grades came close to the WNBA were the NBA and MLS, which both received A’s for racial hiring practices, but B’s and C’s for gender hiring practices.

In a statement, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said it remains a priority to remain “one of the most inclusive and progressive leagues,” and that the TIDES report card reflected that emphasis.

“We are focused on creating opportunities across every level of the WNBA and will hold ourselves accountable for upholding a strong culture of diversity,” Engelbert said.

PGA of America

The events over the last couple of years have motivated many organizations and companies to re-examine their culture and the part they play. Companies are reflecting on what additional things they can do to improve inclusion and diversity. PGA of America is no different.

While they first looked internally at our workforce, policies, protocols, and practices, they also had to focus our efforts on the consumers we aspired to attract to the sport, the golf industry workforce, and our supply chain. A key ingredient in our recipe for success was creating strategic partnerships to engage those who are unrepresented in the sport and the business of golf as a whole.

Chief People Officer, Sandy Cross, shares three lessons from an organization with a particularly challenging DEI history:

  • Don’t do it alone.
  • Partner with individuals and organizations that believe in your mission.
  • Include diverse perspectives at the table.


Brandon Thompson was named as Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion on June 16, 2020 tapped to a new position meant to promote diversity throughout the NASCAR industry. His appointment arrived in the midst of a turbulent time of change not just for the sport, but for society in general.

Through the work of Thompson’s department, NASCAR has developed relationships with multiple organizations — the Urban Youth Racing School, Trevor Project, the Women’s Sports Foundation and UnidosUS just as a sampling — and expanded resources for diverse employees, supplier diversity efforts, and enhanced training have all grown.

“Relationship-building is definitely a key part of all this, and not only relationships internally across departments,” Thompson says. “The network can’t live just within the D&I department, but it’s even throughout the industry, whether it’s the relationships with teams, tracks, etc., as we’re trying to accomplish a lot of our goals.”

While improvements still need to be made at all levels of organizations, companies, and agencies, many strides have been made to increase diversity and inclusion across the board. Are you looking for where to start?  Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Communicate the importance of inclusion within your team and organization.
  2. Create an inclusive team environment and practice inclusive team behaviors.
  3. Create strategic partnerships with organizations that feature diverse populations.
  4. Review your local diversity data annually to assist in setting goals.
  5. Implement a volunteer or staff diversity protocol that outlines the process for securing diverse leadership in your organization.
  6. Mentor and create a pipeline.
  7. Examine your assumptions.
  8. Allocate funds specifically for outreach initiatives to alleviate barriers to participation.
  9. Revamp your outreach efforts.
  10. Continually evaluate your Diversity and Inclusion Plan.

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