A year ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a sporting event or a high-profile athlete, Black or not, that didn’t in some way embrace and acknowledge the social injustices in the sports world and beyond. This led to corporate philosophical and ideological shifts, the kind that in some sectors of society afforded opportunities for Blacks in positions of leadership and impact that for years had been denied or limited. But like every eureka moment involving diversity that comes around, we’re often left to wonder about the sustainability of the energy that led to change.
That’s why as we kick off the men’s college basketball season this week with notably more Brown and Black faces than we’ve seen in recent years as head coaches, call me skeptical that the uptick we’ve seen can be sustained or improved upon.
Too often, strides made along clear lines of diversity get blurred by those in power (mostly white men) returning to their default preferences which more often than not, discount or devalue the importance of diversity in hiring. They do this because it’s easy, it makes them feel comfortable and, most notably, they do it because they can. And just like that, all that progress that was praised, becomes a forgotten footnote like parachute pants or bedazzled phone cases.
For now, we can feel good that the majority (34 of 61) of Division I men’s basketball head coaches hired for the 2021-2022 season, were Black. In addition to increasing the total number of Black Division I head coaches, the percentage of Black coaches overall at the Division I level is up to 31 percent which is a four point bump compared to the number in 2020.
But progress without progression becomes nothing more than a flashpoint in time, a fleeting moment whose importance will only diminish like a brand new car off the lot. That’s why as important as change is on the basketball court, significant change must be made off the court when it comes to college athletics and leadership.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing on May 25, 2020, the Black AD Alliance was formed.
“The Black AD Alliance is committed to promoting the growth, development, and elevation of Black athletics administrators at the Division I level,” reads its mission statement. “We engage industry decision-makers, provide exposure for aspiring Black college athletics professionals through purposeful mentoring, and foster connections with those who will aid in positioning leaders in intercollegiate athletics.”
What they are looking to do—is what has to happen in order for efforts to bring about more diversity and inclusion in the rooms where decisions are made and careers cultivated—to have any shot at sustainability. And the idea that they are working in concert with fellow ADs of color, is noteworthy and serves as a reminder that success when it comes to diversity can not be done alone or in an isolated vacuum.
But ultimately, the change that so many are looking for comes down to power.
Specifically, a greater willingness on the part of those who are current holders of most of the decision-making power in college athletics—white men—to understand why diversity in terms of coaching, in terms of leadership, matters.
And it does…for now.
But we’ve seen how the very factors that led institutions to make a concerted effort to target, attract and eventually hire more Blacks and people of color to head coaching jobs, will give way to boosters and institutional influencers (predominately white men). And we’re not even going to get into how Black coaches tend to have less leeway to struggle than their white counterparts, or how difficult it is for a Black coach to get a second chance as a head coach if they’re fired.
College football has been around more than 150 years, with the first game played being November 6, 1869, between Rutgers University and Princeton. But it wasn’t until 2004, 130-plus years later, had a Black coach been fired at a Power 5 school and re-hired afterwards.
That was Tyrone Willingham, who had been fired by Notre Dame and soon hired by the University of Washington.
So the idea that we have made strides towards diversity when it comes to coaching feels good right now.
But…don’t get too comfortable. There is still work to be done.
Celebrating the opportunities that Black head coaches are getting at the Division I level is noteworthy.
But if we’re talking about real game-changing moves being, more Black athletic directors and school presidents is where the true power shift has to come from for the strides made to be more than just a passing phase in the seemingly never-ending fight for diversity.