Study Yields Little Diversity

By Dave Fairbank
Updated: January 28, 2006

VIRGINIA–Once again, Richard Lapchick has held up a mirror to major colleges and big-time college athletics. Depending on your vantage point, the image falls somewhere between unremarkable and downright unattractive.

Lapchick runs the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. In a study released this week that surprised no one, he found that the overwhelming majority of power brokers in major college athletics are white males.

At Division I-A football institutions, the school presidents are white men, the athletic directors are white men, the head football coaches are white men. The offensive and defensive coordinators are white, the faculty representatives are white. Even the conference commissioners are white.

Sure, there are exceptions, some notably in our corner of the world. Virginia’s Craig Littlepage is one of 10 African-American athletic directors out of 119 in Division I-A. Mike London is the Cavaliers’ new defensive coordinator.

Former Virginia offensive coordinator Ron Prince was hired as the head coach at Kansas State, making him one of only five black head football coaches at I-A programs heading into the 2006 season.

(Though basketball was not part of Lapchick’s most recent report, Virginia basketball coach Dave Leitao is the school’s first African-American head coach in any sport.) “A lot of people think the playing field is level now for head coaches and administrators. It’s not,” said Dennis Thomas, commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, made up of historically black colleges whose schools play football at the I-AA level.

Lapchick’s report points out that the playing field may be level. The offices and boardrooms and paths to power, however, are not.

The abundance of white males in authority is explainable, if not always defensible. Those in power tend to hire people who look like them.

Since most college presidents are white males, consciously or not they often hire white male athletic directors, who in turn often hire white male coaches, and so on down the line.

Plug into the equation the variable of big-money boosters, most of whom are white males as well and sometimes wield unhealthy influence, and it can become even more difficult to break molds and diversify.

The reason this matters: Participation in the marquee, revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball.

Though blacks make up roughly 13 percent of the total population, they comprised 49 percent of Division I-A football rosters in 2005. In Division I basketball, African-Americans made up 58 percent of men’s rosters and 46 percent of women’s rosters in 2003-04.

The implied message: You’re good enough to play for us and fill the stands, but not good enough (or qualified enough) to make decisions and help run programs once your playing days are done.

Thomas, the former athletic director at Hampton University, described a way to poke a few holes in the glass ceiling that many blacks experience.

“If elite African-American student-athletes see that there aren’t many people who look like them in positions of authority at the schools and conferences they’re considering and said, ‘I’m not going there’ and started to go to HBCU’s, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. You want to talk about change? Change would come overnight.”

Thomas also understands that such a scenario is unlikely. The most talented kids, and their parents, are often attracted by the trappings of big-time schools, with the idea of giving themselves a better shot at “the next level” – despite the fact that professional sports are the longest of long shots for all college athletes.

“I don’t know of any employer, even if it’s the NFL, who judges a kid based on whether he played in front of 70,000 or 15,000,” Thomas said. “You’re evaluated based on your ability to help an organization.”

That said, Thomas is adamantly opposed to quotas. Hire the most qualified candidate, he said, regardless of color and gender. For example, Thomas promoted Steve Merfeld, a white man, to coach the Pirates’ men’s basketball team. Merfeld took HU to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.

But if athletic teams can scour the nation and the globe for on-field talent, Thomas wondered, how difficult can it be to expand the candidate pool for coaches and administrators to include qualified minorities?

Some view report cards and studies such as Lapchick’s as unnecessarily divisive, further driving a wedge between black and white. This position is often held by those who have always had access to the elevator, who have not been denied opportunity.

The sin isn’t asking the question or pointing out the blemish. It’s doing nothing about it.