The Issue Of Lack Of Diversity In College Sports Reaches The Halls Of Congress

By Carla Peay
Updated: March 3, 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The date seemed apropos for the occasion, the final day of February, of Black History Month. The setting was Capitol Hill, and the topic was “The Lack of Leadership Positions in NCAA Collegiate Sports”.

In other words, institutional racism.

The hearing was convened by Congressman Bobby Rush (D-ILL), and included two panels of speakers. Speaking on panel one were Jesse Jackson, Founder and President of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and Myles Brand, NCAA President.

After the opening statements by members of the committee, questions were asked, points were made, and answers were given. “Only the ignorant are surprised,” Jackson said of the fuss made over Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith being the first blacks to coach in the Super Bowl.

“We didn’t just learn to coach football in January. We’re here today because this is a civil rights issue,” said Jackson who cited legislation including Title VII and Title IX with bringing about changes in sports that are a necessary first step, but only a first step.

As NCAA president, Brand reiterated that his office is able to make recommendations, but the ultimate hiring processes are up to each individual institution.

“There is much to be proud of, such as improved graduation rates, but there is still a dismal hiring record among black coaches in the NCAA. It’d unacceptable, and it’s unconsciously wrong,” Brand said.

Both Brand and Jackson cited the Rooney Rule employed by the NFL, which mandates that a minority candidate be interviewed for a head coach opening, but it’s a rule not easily applicable in college, according to Brand.

“The entire search process has to be more open and inclusive. Right now, there just isn’t the will to hire more minorities in football the way there is in basketball. With these search committees, the elephant in the room that no one is talking about is race,” Brand said.

Brand’s statistics are stunning. Out of 119 schools in Division I-A, II and III, there are only 14 black head coaches, not counting Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s). Brand called it a “risk adverse” position, which compels those doing the hiring to make the least risky choices possible. Jackson simplified that assessment.

“People do business with people they know, like, trust, and have to. If we as a people must depend only doing business with people because they know, like or trust us, then we are excluded. That’s where the “have to” factor comes into play. Public pressure is the tipping point,” Jackson said.

Brand called the congressional hearings a necessary first step in a shining a light on the issue. “What we don’t have in place yet is that next essential step that’s going to open up that closed circle,” Brand said.

The sentiments of Jackson and Brand were echoed by the second panel of speakers, which consisted of Fitzgerald Hill, President of Arkansas Baptist College, Floyd Keith, Executive Director of the Black Coaches Association, Richard Lapchick, Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, Tim Weiser, Director of Athletics at Kansas State and Nolan Richardson, former head basketball coach at the University of Arkansas.

Richardson in particular was struck the most by the date of the hearing.

“It was five years ago to the date that I was fired from the University of Arkansas. The good old boy system is alive and well in college athletics,” Richardson said. Richardson blames alumni and boosters for the having too much power at a lot of colleges and universities across the country, a sentiment echoed by Hill.

“We’ve gone backwards. There is still too much influence by these boosters in college. They need to be made aware of what diversity looks like within the search process. But we’ve gone backwards. It’s 200 and we’re still having hearings. It’s time to move to corrective action,” Hill said.

Richardson agreed.

“It’s got to become law because it’s affecting our younger generation. When a young black kid looks to the sideline and sees no one who looks like him, why should he even think about pursuing coaching as a career?” Richardson said.

Committee members curious as to the disconnect between collegiate and professional sports seemed surprised at an anecdote told by Keith.

“I recommended a talented young African American coordinator to three different schools for a head coaching position. Not one of them even called him. But the Pittsburgh Steelers did. His name is Mike Tomlin and he’s now the Steelers head coach,” Keith said, emphasizing the difference between college and the pros from a hiring standpoint.

“There are fewer people to deal with on the pro level. It’s usually an owner and a general manager. In college, you have search committees, executive search committees, a board of trustees, the college president, the athletic director…it gets complicated. But we have to find a way to hold these school accountable so that we’re not still talking about this issue ten years from now.”

Lapchick, a foremost scholar on this issue, also said it’s time to move beyond talk.

“The reality is that there is virtually no opportunity in Division III, and it’s not good in Divisions II and I-A. For women, there’s a double layer of discrimination. 35 years after Title IX, there are still more men coaching women’s teams than women.”

“The embarrassment of bringing this issue to the public may not be enough. I think lawsuit may be a powerful tool in years to come,” Lapchick said. The hearing concluded with Congressman Rush assuring the panelists that their concerns would be addressed.

“We intend to deal with this issue resolutely, not just keep having hearings,” Rush said, adding that he welcomed the participation and advice of his panel of speakers.

“I am committed to trying to resolve this problem.”