Student-athletes need to see leaders who look like them

MSR file photo Rachel Roberson

First of a two-part story

Black leadership in college sport—coaches, athletic directors, presidents, and other key decision-making positions—is needed now more than ever. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) Director Richard Lapchick, in his racial and gender report cards, shows that college athletic departments are among the worst in racial and gender hiring, “a significant area of concern in all divisions.”

College athletes seeing adults as leaders who look like themselves is as important today as it was for Black post-World War II baby boomers. But NCAA data reveals that 84% of men’s basketball head coaches, 92% of head football coaches, and 94% of baseball head coaches are White. The percentages are similar for White athletic directors.

These are some lopsided numbers considering that 57% of college football players, nearly half of women basketball players (43%), and over half of men’s basketball players (54%) are Black. Only 22% of head MBB coaches, 12% of head WBB coaches, and 10% of head football coaches are Black.

And before last fall, all Power 5 conference commissioners were White men; 28 of 30 Division I conference heads are White. Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, who was intricately involved in last week’s announcement to cancel March Madness tournaments, championship events, and all spring sports due to the coronavirus pandemic, is the only Power 5 commissioner of color. 

We need more empowered people of color making crucial and meaningful decisions on a regular basis.

California first-year Women’s Basketball Head Coach Charmin Smith recently told a Berkeley newspaper that throughout her entire playing career—high school, Stanford, and the WNBA—she only had one Black coach, a summer AAU coach. Berkeley graduate student Rachel Roberson said in the same article that in her research work for her dissertation on gender equity in collegiate athletics, having a Black female coach really matters to Black female players in how they connect with the team and feel comfortable being in college.

“I was drawn to this particular population of Black female-identified basketball players…particularly within predominately White institutions,” Roberson later explained in an MSR phone interview. “We know that our Black students in predominately White institutions around the country experience what we call ‘hyper-visibility,’ that they are always being watched on campus. They are labeled as the ‘other’ and not belonging.  

“That directly impacts their campus climate, their sense of belonging on campus, and ultimately, it is indicative on their likelihood to succeed and ultimately graduate from the institution,” she continued. 

Roberson said young Black females as early as in their teens look at the low number of Black female head coaches when deciding what school they want to attend and play for. She recalled one young woman telling her that she received recruiting offers from top schools, but none were coached by Blacks. The student eventually chose a less prestigious school that did have a Black coach, Roberson reported. 

“Having a Black head coach, specifically a Black female head coach, is one of those mechanisms that is huge in order to leverage their capital, their choice in order to make that [college] experience a little bit easier to bear,” she said.

The issue of more diversity in college sport leadership, Roberson reiterated, “is a conversation that should be had across the institution. The gap and the opportunity along racial and gender lines exist within our society at large. We all have the opportunity to uplift these stories in our society.”

Earlier this month, the MSR asked Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren to speak on the importance of more diversity in college sport now that he is in charge. We will share his responses next week.