In 30 years, little progress for US sports leagues on leadership diversity
By Gillian R. Brassil and Eleanor Lutz
Picture the North American major sports leagues in the 1990s: The players were mostly people of color, but the coaches, managers and team owners were almost all white. A snapshot today looks mostly the same.
Despite a handful of initiatives meant to increase diversity in the leadership of sports organizations, coaching and management roles have mostly gone to white candidates in the past 30 years, according to a New York Times analysis of data from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.
The data calls into question whether the policies work effectively. It also shows a gap between what sports organizations say publicly about race and how they operate internally.
Even as organizations have shown little progress in diversifying their leaders, many have made splashy declarations co-opting the causes of their athletes, namely pledging to combat systemic racial injustices in the United States.
The data used in this analysis, which comes from five leagues, is self-reported by teams and league offices. The information is voluntary, based on how individuals identify themselves, and in some instances does not account for people who may identify with two or more races.
As a result, some of the data is incomplete and may be imprecise. The percentages used in this analysis have been adjusted to account for a small number of people who did not respond to the surveys in each league.
The analysis includes data from the NFL, the WNBA, MLS, the NBA and MLB. The NHL is not included because it only recently started working with the institute, based at the University of Central Florida.
National Football League
In 1921, the year after the National Football League was formed under a different name, Jim Thorpe and Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard became its first coaches of color, said Joe Horrigan, former executive director of professional football’s Hall of Fame. Pollard was the only Black head coach in the NFL until 1989, when Art Shell took over the Los Angeles Raiders.
Tony Dungy and Herm Edwards were the only Black head coaches in the 32-team league in 2002, when a study found that Black coaches were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired than their white counterparts, even when they won a higher percentage of games. (Dungy himself was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a playoff appearance in the 2001 season and was hired by the Indianapolis Colts eight days later.)
Under pressure from players and advocates, the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003. The rule, named for the late Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney and which has since been expanded, required teams to interview at least one nonwhite candidate for head coaching positions. Businesses within sports and beyond have looked to the rule as an example as they developed their own hiring practices.
But the rule does not require teams to hire nonwhite candidates once they conduct those interviews, and their coaches, managers and top executives have remained mostly white. At any given time, the league has had as many as eight nonwhite head coaches (a number it first reached in 2011) but that has since dipped, according to the data.
In 2020, the NFL started the season with four coaches who identified as nonwhite (three as Black, one as Latino), meaning that 13 percent of head coaches were people of color. Almost 74 percent of the players who disclosed their race in the survey were people of color.
Among the five leagues that submit data to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the NFL had the biggest discrepancy between the percentage of head coaches and the percentage of players who were nonwhite: a difference of 61 percentage points.
A 2019 study by the Arizona State University Global Sport Education and Research Lab showed that Black coaches were hired at older ages, had much more playing experience and did not get second chances at the same rate as white coaches. “When African American head coaches have been fired in the NFL, it has been more difficult for them, as compared to white and Latino American head coaches, to obtain another head coaching position at the same level,” the study said.
When that study was published, 12 of the NFL’s franchises had only hired white head coaches since the NFL merged with the American Football League in 1970. Ron Rivera was hired by the Washington Football Team on Dec. 31, 2019, dropping that total to 11. If the Atlanta Falcons hire interim head coach Raheem Morris and the Houston Texans — a much newer franchise than Washington or Atlanta — do the same with Romeo Crennel, that total will be nine.
The NFL updated its rules this year to apply its interview standards to more front-office positions and to require teams to interview at least two nonwhite external candidates, up from one, for head coaching vacancies. It also required at least one nonwhite candidate to be interviewed for coordinator positions and senior football operations roles, to boost diversity beyond the playing field.
“We’re focusing on getting more Black candidates in coaching — especially for quarterbacks and coaches on the offensive side of the ball, since those positions tend to have a higher chance of ascending to the head coach level,” said Samantha Rapoport, the NFL’s senior director of diversity and inclusion.
This August, 100 years after the NFL’s inception, Jason Wright became the first Black team president when he was hired by the Washington Football Team amid a broader overhaul within the organization. Two NFL team presidents are Asian, according to the data: Paraag Marathe of the San Francisco 49ers and Kim Pegula of the Buffalo Bills. The New York Jets’ Hymie Elhai identified as Hispanic. The rest are white.
Women’s National Basketball Association
The WNBA had almost as high of a disparity between the percentage of players and head coaches who were nonwhite as the NFL in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available. Three out of 12 head coaches were people of color compared with 119 out of 144 players, a difference of 58 percentage points. All three coaches of color were Black.
Compared with the racial makeup of the U.S. population, however, the WNBA has the best marks among the North American professional leagues in the analysis for Black coaches.
Twenty-five percent of the league’s head coaches were Black and 13.4 percent of the U.S. population was Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The only other league with representation that exceeded 13.4 percent was the NBA, for which 23 percent of head coaches identified as Black. The NFL trails at just above 9 percent.
Richard Lapchick, the director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, praised the WNBA for its diversity compared with the U.S. population. He determines the grades for his annual Racial and Gender Report Cards based on how closely the racial makeup of each league compares with society at large.
“The WNBA is the best, period — consistently when you look at any category,” Lapchick said.
But the WNBA lacks representation across all races. Only two individuals who did not identify as white or Black have held a role of assistant coach, head coach or general manager since 1998, the league’s second season.
An assistant coach hired in 1998 identified as Asian; another assistant coach in 2019 identified as “other.” (“Other” includes individuals who identified as Native American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian or Alaskan and, in later years, biracial, depending on the league.)
The Dallas Wings hired Vickie Johnson in early December, making her the league’s only female head coach of color. Neither the WNBA nor the NBA has a guideline like the NFL’s Rooney Rule.
“We need to work with the teams more when there are openings, like a general manager or a head coach, that they’re looking at all candidates, including diverse candidates, in a very constructive way,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said before the 2020 finals.
Major League Soccer
Despite Lapchick’s praise for the WNBA, Major League Soccer actually had a higher percentage of head coaches who are people of color than any of the five leagues we assessed: 41 percent in 2020. It also had the smallest disparity between head coaches and players of color. And MLS players make up one of the most racially diverse sets of athletes.
MLS matches census data for the number of white coaches. Just over 59 percent of coaches identified as white, while 60 percent of the U.S. identified as white. Other leagues had a much higher complement of white coaches.
This is largely because a high percentage of MLS head coaches identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2020 — 29.6 percent, compared with 18.5 percent of the U.S. population who identified as Hispanic or Latino.
Few players are Black, and even fewer managers identify as Black. Data shows that no Black coaches were hired between 2013 and 2018; Robin Fraser changed that in 2019 when the Colorado Rapids hired him.
MLS has had a Coaching Diversity Initiative since 2007, which is similar to the Rooney Rule.
This October, the league announced a commitment to increase Black representation in management. In consultation with its new diversity committee, the league intends to create “policies and an educational ecosystem to increase Black representation in executive and sporting positions at the league office, the member clubs and other North American soccer organizations,” the announcement said.
National Basketball Association
Just as athletes in the WNBA and other sports leagues have for years, NBA players have championed social justice initiatives in several highly visible forms recently. This summer, the Milwaukee Bucks sparked a walkout across American pro sports by refusing to play after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wis.
While the NBA has co-opted its players’ protests, it has not adopted a hiring rule like the NFL or MLS. As of July, about 30 percent of NBA head coaches from the 2020 season identified as people of color, while 83 percent of players identified as nonwhite.
The NBA has a training program called the Coaches Equality Initiative, but it does not specify guidelines for racial inclusion. It also has a Global Inclusion Council, which recommends inclusion strategies for the NBA and WNBA, offering guidance on policies, benchmarks and “serves as a catalyst for diversity and inclusion efforts worldwide.”
Conversation about the NBA’s hiring policies reignited when Steve Nash, in his own words, did “skip the line” when he became head coach of the Brooklyn Nets without any coaching experience. Nash, who is white, is a Hall of Famer recognized as one of the greatest point guards in professional basketball history. Sean Marks, the team’s general manager, said he hired Nash for his name, record and ties to players.
Choosing him over the team’s interim coach, Jacque Vaughn, who is Black and had experience as a head coach, renewed questions about the league’s lack of structure for interviewing nonwhite candidates, a standard practice in several other leagues. A lot of league reshuffling of head coaches has occurred since then: Now there are nine head coaches of color.
The NBA has seven Black head coaches, one Latino head coach (James Borrego of the Charlotte Hornets) and one Asian head coach (Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat).
Five general managers were Black and two identified as “other” through July 2020.
Spoelstra, who is of Filipino descent, became the first Asian American coach in one of the “Big Four” North American leagues in 2008. In fact, a lack of Asian players in most major pro sports led to a disproportionate number of leaders who identify as Asian compared with athletes, especially in the NFL, MLS and NBA. Still, Asian Americans were underrepresented in all five leagues compared with the population of the United States, according to census data.
Major League Baseball
Much like other leagues, MLB has had players who identified as African American, Latino and Native American since its founding years, according to the league’s historian, John Thorn.
Despite some early firsts, similar opportunities were not afforded to upper level staff until much later: Frank Robinson became baseball’s first Black manager in 1975, nearly 30 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line after playing in the Negro leagues. (In baseball, head coaches are called “managers” and assistant coaches are called “coaches.”)
“I don’t think I was hired because I was Black,” Frank Robinson, who died in 2019, told The New York Times when he was hired. “I hope not. I think I’ve been hired because of my ability.”
Baseball has the Selig Rule, which requires teams to consider nonwhite candidates when hiring for several specific management roles. The guidance proposed in 1999 by Bud Selig, a former league commissioner, hasn’t changed since its inception. The number of general managers, managers and coaches of color hasn’t changed much either.
It has by far the smallest percentage of players (40 percent) and the second smallest percentage of managers (20 percent) who identified as people of color as of January 2020, making baseball the whitest of the sports surveyed. Since the data was compiled, the Chicago White Sox’s Rick Renteria, who is Latino, was replaced by Tony La Russa, and the Boston Red Sox’s Ron Roenicke was replaced by Alex Cora, who is Puerto Rican.
MLB was the only league that had a higher percentage of coaches of color (44 percent) than players of color in 2020.
A growing number of Latino coaches in assistant roles bolster that difference: Thirty-four percent of coaches identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2020. All other races remained underrepresented.
And baseball has the least racially diverse set of majority owners. Only one person of color was the majority owner of an MLB team this year: Arte Moreno, who acquired the Los Angeles Angels in 2003. Moreno is the first Latino to own a majority stake of a franchise in any major league sport in the United States. Hiroshi Yamauchi became the first Asian person to own a major U.S. team when he bought the Seattle Mariners in 1992.
MLB had another “first” this fall when Kim Ng became the first female general manager in any of the North American major men’s sports leagues. She was hired by the Miami Marlins in November.
Ng, who is Asian American, joins Kenny Williams (Chicago White Sox), who is Black, Farhan Zaidi (San Francisco Giants), who is of Pakistani descent, and Al Avila (Detroit Tigers), who is Cuban, in the ranks of baseball executives of color overseeing similar operations, according to the data.
“When I got into this business, it seemed unlikely a woman would lead a major league team, but I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals,” Ng said in the Marlins’ announcement.