WNBA, NBA, MLS lead U.S. sports in diverse, equitable, inclusive hiring

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Editor's note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author.

In the past two years, we have witnessed seismic change in the world following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and then the racial reckoning that began after the murder of George Floyd. And now, war in Ukraine. The structure of our society has been challenged. That includes the world of sports, which is such an important common denominator for so many. This was especially true in regard to the United States' reaction to the racial reckoning.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) released the Complete 2021 Racial and Gender Report Card, which summarizes and analyzes the individual 2021 report cards of the NBA, WNBA, MLS, the NFL, MLB and college sports. Analyzing the current efforts at diverse and inclusive hiring practices throughout sports can show us whether meaningful progress has been made, and how it might reflect society.

In regard to race, the complete report card found that the WNBA, the NBA and MLS were the only ones that received at least an A grade for racial hiring, with the WNBA leading the way with an A+. The NFL and MLB followed with B+ grades. College sports was far behind with a C. The NFL, WNBA and MLS had improvements in their racial hiring grades.

The gender hiring grades emphasize how far we are from equitable and inclusive hiring practices for women in leadership positions. The WNBA and NBA were the only leagues to earn a B or higher, with an A+ and B, respectively. Major League Soccer and the NFL alone achieved some improvement from the 2020 report cards. The NFL earned a C+, while MLB, MLS and college sports each received a C.

Between both racial and gender hiring practices, the largest increase was secured by MLS after increasing 4.8 percentage points to 74.7% in gender hiring practices. The second-largest improvement was earned by the NFL after surging 3.0 percentage points to 88.5% in racial hiring practices. College sports declined 4.6 percentage points in racial hiring -- representing the largest decline among all reports.

The NFL, MLB, WNBA, NBA and MLS are all doing well in their league offices. They all received at least an A for racial hiring practices. However, at the team level, there is room for improvement in the proportion of women and people of color holding senior-level positions. With large numbers of professional athletes being people of color, the players (and student-athletes) are not reflective of those running the teams.

MLB, for example, had 37.6% players of color, while only 13.3% of team general managers/presidents of baseball operations were people of color. Similarly, 70.7% of players in the NFL were players of color, but only 15.6% of the head coaches, 9.4% of presidents/CEOs and 15.6% of general managers were people of color at the start of the 2021 season.

MLS had 61.7% players of color compared to 13.8% of presidents/CEOs and 18.8% of general managers were people of color.

College sports remains the most disappointing. In Division I FBS, 48.6% of football student-athletes were people of color while only 9.0% of head coaches, 18.5% of athletic directors and 16.9% of presidents/chancellors were people of color.

In 2007-08, 86.5% of conference commissioners in Division I were white. Fifteen years later, 80.0% were white. We just had a great men's and women's March Madness in which we almost saw two Black head coaches win the national championship for the first time. (Dawn Staley coached the South Carolina women to a second title; Hubert Davis coached the North Carolina men to a runner-up finish.) However, only 26.7% of the men's head basketball coaches were Black in the 2021 College Report Card. That was less than the 25% in 2006-07.

Once again, gender in college sports is among the most disheartening category. Women held 41.3% of the head-coaching positions for Division I women's teams in the 2021 College Report Card. So little improvement from the 39.5% in 2010-11.

I believe we are making progress and much of it is being led by the athlete activists who emerged during the racial reckoning. In conjunction with supportive league offices, they helped create such a significant array of social justice initiatives that we began to give "bonus points" in each of the 2021 report cards. While most of the initiatives are directed at addressing systemic racism, I am confident they will turn inward toward their own sports and the hiring practices in those sports.

There clearly has been an increased emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts since George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were killed and the racial reckoning began.

The leagues, teams and athletic departments must continue to emphasize the importance of diversity, inclusion and equity and how sports can contribute to the social justice initiatives in society. We cannot forget what we have learned from the racial reckoning, and must use that momentum to move forward to better equity in sports.

Rachel Bernardo and Candace Martin made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick directs the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.