Race, gender and the road before us

Lovie Smith's success with the Bears is one of the encouraging developments as Richard Lapchick releases the latest Racial and Gender Report Card.

Originally Published: December 20, 2006
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

I have been writing the Racial and Gender Report Card since the 1980s. The report released today by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida marks the first time that every sport covered has received a grade of at least a B-minus for race.

It shows that professional and college sport is making real progress, while still leaving room for improvement, especially in certain categories. In the early years of the Report Card, the NBA was the only league to receive a B or better.

The NBA still sets the standard this year with the only A among men's sports, but major league baseball and the NFL are closing the gap with B-plusses in the new Report Card.

In MLB, Ozzie Guillen, a Latino manager, and Ken Williams, an African-American general manager, led the Chicago White Sox to the 2005 World Series title. And this season, Omar Minaya, a Latino GM, and Willie Randolph, an African-American manager, took the New York Mets to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.

Lovie Smith
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonLovie Smith's 12-2 record this year is proof positive that he was the right person for the Bears' job.
For the first time in its history, the NFL is playing with as many as seven African-American head coaches. As of this week, Lovie Smith's Chicago Bears have the best record in the NFC at 12-2 and Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts are tied with the Ravens for the second-best record (behind San Diego) in the AFC at 11-3.

The NBA currently has 12 African-American head coaches. Unlike in the other sports, we've reached a point in the NBA that we almost don't notice when a black head coach is either hired or fired. Commissioner David Stern has set the highest bar in sports regarding opportunities for the best candidates to fill positions, irrespective of race.

How do race and gender affect sports? Are we playing fair on and off the field when it comes to race and gender?

There are readers who regularly respond to my columns with suggestions that I am too worried about opportunities for African-Americans and Latinos, and that I am biased against whites. After my column last week on college sports, I was bombarded with angry e-mails and phone calls.

Here is one message I received from a reader: "What nonsense! If you did one of your 'studies' on the NBA, you would find blacks make up 95% of the players. Would you then whine about diversity? No -- you would not even do such a study, let alone whine about the outcome. You people are idiots!"

For the record, African-Americans make up 73 percent of the players in the NBA.

Many of the responses I get could wonder why I don't argue for more opportunities for white players, and include statements such as, "I can't tell my son he can be an athlete in college or the pros."

Another common response involves the belief that African-Americans are superior athletes (brawn skills) while whites are smarter and better leaders (brain skills), such as this recent e-mail: "So, if the overrepresentation of blacks as players is based on merit, can't it be possible that other races are better at administration/management/coaching duties and these account for their overrepresentation? Clearly these jobs require a different skill set than those required to play basketball. Having an advanced skill in one area does not mean that same individual will have an advanced skill in another unrelated area. … You can't have it both ways. Your study smacks of racism."

Omar Minaya and Willie Randolph
AP Photo/Kathy WillensManager Willie Randolph and general manager Omar Minaya took the Mets to within a game of the World Series.
I get such responses whenever I write about an unequal playing field. Some readers misunderstand my intent. I support a process that will get the best candidates into the interview room so that the best person will be hired for the job, irrespective of race. That goes for players, coaches and front office/athletic department personnel.

Roger Goodell inherited a far different NFL than did Paul Tagliabue, who became commissioner in 1989 when the NFL had no African-American head coaches or GMs. Now, the NFL has a league-wide policy that urges all its teams to interview at least one person of color for any front office vacancy.

For the third time, the WNBA, now 10 seasons old, gets A's across the board for race, gender and as a combined grade. It received the same sweep of A's in the 2001 and 2004 Racial and Gender Report Cards. No other professional sports league has achieved that even once. Donna Orender has continued the progressive leadership of Val Ackerman, the WNBA's first president.

NCAA president Dr. Myles Brand has often argued for more opportunities for people of color and women. Nonetheless, college sports received a B-minus for race and a B for gender hiring practices, and that B-minus is the lowest grade overall for race. College sports received an F in the area of hiring college football coaches, because only 5 percent of Division IA head coaches are African-American, while 45 percent of the players are African-American. College sports set a new record for people of color as men's basketball head coaches (25 percent in Division IA), but also received F's for university presidents, athletic directors, women's basketball coaches and conference commissioners.

Tony Dungy
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonThe Colts are in contention annually under Tony Dungy.
One of the most striking finds in this Racial and Gender Report Card, which I co-authored this year with Danielle Kushner, Jenny Brenden and Stacy Martin, is that there has been little progress for gender. The WNBA maintained it's A; but the NFL did not improve, the NBA dropped from a B to a B-minus and MLB slipped from a C to a D-plus. College sports declined from a B-plus to a B.

Still, the improvements I've noted, along with the fact that some individual categories hit record highs in most of the leagues and colleges, show that goals for diversity can be reached with concerted work.

I believe that commissioners Stern, Tagliabue (now Goodell) and Selig, and presidents Orender and Brand regularly work to improve hiring practices for people of color and women in front offices/athletic departments and in the coaching and managerial ranks. However, the results at the team levels still clearly show that their power is limited in this area. League and NCAA leaders set an important tone, but don't have the authority to affect real change at the team or college level.

The NBA has made progress year by year. It took dramatic actions by Selig and Tagliabue (the Rooney Rule) to mandate diverse pools of candidates for the top jobs in MLB and the NFL. After Major League Soccer received an F for gender in 2003, it addressed the problem on a league-wide basis. The NCAA and college sports have no such mechanism in place. As of the publication of this most recent Racial and Gender Report Card, discussions are ongoing about adopting something similar to a Rooney Rule for colleges. The Black Coaches Association is also contemplating legal actions against colleges using Title VII regulations.

It is far from a perfect world in college and pro sports regarding opportunities for women and people of color to be real leaders in sport. But I am convinced we have the right people in place to continue to move us ahead and make meaningful change.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida (http://www.bus.ucf.edu/sport/). He is President of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com