two painted multi-color hands shaking to show diversity

Does this sequence of events look familiar in your institution’s quest for diversity?

  1. An institution decides it needs to implement a diversity and inclusion initiative.
  2. Leadership involves human resources and engages an outside consultant to develop and implement a strategic plan to fix the institution’s diversity problems.
  3. An inspirational mission statement and new HR policies are rolled out. This moves the dial a little, but not enough.
  4. Certain areas of campus resist change or make excuses for not taking action. So while results show measurable improvement with more diverse demographics, the mission isn’t quite yet accomplished.

An area on campus where some say diversity falls short is in hiring for collegiate athletics. According to an NCAA Demographics Database published in Dec. 2018, the data for coaching demographics by sport and position have shown only a nominal shift from 2008 to 2018.

It took the federal government enacting Title IX in 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, to bring diversity into college athletics. While progress has been made over the past 50 years, however, athletic programs still struggle with compliance in this area.

Then there’s the Rooney Rule, an NFL policy adopted in 2003 that requires teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and other senior positions. While well intentioned, it hasn’t seemed to have much impact. Several recent articles in the media indicate that NFL coaching diversity is actually trending in the wrong direction. And as of 2020, the league has three African-American head coaches—the same number as when the Rooney Rule was put into place.

Bill Carr, president and founder of CarrSports Consulting, LLC, has performed over 130 executive searches in intercollegiate athletics. He has spent many years preparing and then observing decision makers as they evaluate candidates.

“Ultimately, it all comes down to the commitment of the decision makers,” Carr said. “If they have a sense of reality or altruism—and there are degrees between the two—serious consideration will be given to an under-represented group of candidates. If leadership is pressed for time or resources or is otherwise biased, then you won’t.

“That’s why the Rooney Rule isn’t working. There are more minority coaches who merit consideration than receive opportunity.”

So if federal law and league policy aren’t enough to really move the dial, what can college sports leaders do differently to practice what their institutions and the athletics industry are preaching?

Carr notes that there are areas to be addressed by decision makers to change hiring practices that have become industry accepted.

  1. Build a culture committed to diversity. Encourage leadership to define their commitment to diversity. Each decision maker should first demand this commitment of themselves. Leaders should also look at what external factors impede a culture of diversity (e.g., media and fan reactions), accept that these hurdles are artificial, and gain consensus around that.
  2. Assess the criteria being used for evaluating candidates. Evaluate what your program actually needs in a leader, such as skills necessary to build on strengths and mitigate weaknesses while effectively addressing the organization’s most critical issues. Then you’ll have a better grasp on the qualities, skills and experiences that this person should bring to the table. Avoid setting extraneous “required” qualifications; simply making them “preferred” will broaden your pool of capable candidates.
  3. Define a hiring strategy that will allow you to move quickly. Some circumstances require a decision to be expedited, especially for head coach searches. While this is legitimate, it overwhelms the dynamic of equal opportunity. Going into the hiring season with a process strategically designed for quick and flexible decision making will allow the search process to remain nimble while also allowing consideration of multiple qualified candidates. The institutions that only look at one hand-picked, high-profile candidate, should be a rare exception in the overall population of coaching hires.

“Setting the bar too high initially is a mistake—for example, requiring an athletic director to have a master’s degree or a head coach to have experience as a coordinator,” Carr said. “Sometimes a truly effective leader learns under fire and not by following a traditional path. There are other ways to evaluate experience and the paramount ability to provide consistent good judgment.

The fight for talent is only becoming more competitive. Institutions that put an emphasis on what differentiates them from other schools, such as making a commitment to change the industry standards for hiring, will stand out. And standing out to the best pool of talent, regardless of gender or race, will be an advantage to your athletics program.

Taking these steps to encourage diversity now will help you hire the best candidates to lead your program into the future.

“The number one thing you have to do is examine your own mind and heart and whether you’re committed to providing equal opportunity,” said Carr. “The wisdom required for effective leadership is defined entirely by the context of each organization within its internal and external environments. The better you understand that complex and dynamic setting, the better chance you have of bringing a diverse group of excellent candidates to the table.”

Your institution’s human resources department or outside professionals such as James Moore’s Collegiate Athletics team or CarrSports Consulting’s search consultants can provide great insight on making these best practices a reality.

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