Do Black Lives Really Matter in the Sport Industry?

5 novembre 2020
By Dr Kwame Agyemang, Associate Professor at The Ohio State University and Mackenzie Rector, doctoral student at The Ohio State University, pursing a Ph.D. in Sport Management. 

When people say Black Lives Matter, they’re not just speaking about police brutality. They’re also talking about the numerous systems and institutions that disproportionally devalue Black people. For example, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in late May 2020, there’s been renewed interest in the way Black professionals experience work and the role corporate actors should play in combating systemic racism. In response, companies in a range of industries released statements espousing their support of Black lives and made commitments to uprooting racism. For instance, consider how IBM announced it would no longer make or research facial recognition technology, which has been under fire for being invasive and racist toward Black people (Allyn, 2020). Other companies revealed plans to alter the way they conduct business, including intentions to recruit, retain, and promote Black employees (Friedman, 2020).

This was no different in the sport industry. For example, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) announced they would prohibit the Confederate flag from all NASCAR events and properties (NASCAR, 2020). Amid the restart of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and National Basketball Association (NBA) seasons, social justice messages were on courts and players’ jerseys. Footballers in the Premier League and other top European football leagues could be seen kneeling in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s also worth noting Nike, the National Football League (NFL), and other prominent organisations decided to recognise Juneteenth[1] as a paid holiday for employees (Young, 2020). Moreover, sportswear giant Adidas announced it would invest $20 million over the next four years in North American Black communities. They have also pledged to fill 30 percent of its new positions in the United States with Black and Latinx people (Adidas, 2020). Like other companies, they utilised Twitter to communicate their support for Black lives on June 10, 2020:

“First, we need to give credit where it’s long overdue. The success of Adidas would be nothing without Black athletes, Black artists, Black employees and Black consumers. Remaining silent is not a neutral position when the people we should be standing with live in fear of police brutality due to systemic racism. With that in mind, it’s our people who we owe this to the most.”

Never before had we seen so many organisations in the sport industry boldly declare Black Lives Matter.


Scepticism of the New Sport Industry Posture

But was it genuine? As scholars who study the intersection of race and organisations, we’ve found these public declarations inconsistent with the reality Black people face in the sport industry. In the United States, 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that Black people accounted for merely 4.1 percent of chief executive officers (CEOs). General and operational managers accounted for just 6.6 percent. In contrast, White people comprised 88.8 percent and 86.4 percent of these roles, respectively (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020).

This issue is, perhaps, even more pronounced in sports. In leagues where Black athletes comprise either significant majorities or sizable percentages (e.g., football, basketball, American football), Black professionals have struggled to make inroads in several influential positions (e.g., ownership, boardroom, president, general manager, coaching). Consider this: the WNBA currently has zero Black women head coaches (Voepel, 2020), though the league is 67 percent Black (Lapchick, 2019). In England, out of the 92 clubs that comprise the professional football leagues, there were only six non-White coaches or managers as of June 2020 (Kelsey, 2020). In fact, the Premier League, which is regarded as the best football league in the world, has only ever had nine Black managers in its entire history (Aarons, 2020).

Meanwhile, the NBA, often lauded for its social justice efforts, lacks racial diversity in senior leadership as well. Sure, there’s been progress, as indicated by the growing number of Black general managers; however, Toronto Raptors’ Masai Ujiri remains the lone Black president in the league. It’s also worth noting that when the league does diversify, it’s often at the expense of other Black men (Gamble, 2020). What makes the NBA an even more peculiar case is that the league is 74 percent Black (Lapchick, 2020). Can you imagine the National Hockey League, which is over 90 percent white (only had 50 non-White players in 2018-19) (Radnofsky, 2019) being governed and led by a majority of Black people or other non-White backgrounds?

In sum, this sends a painful message that Black people are only supported when they’re athletes and not in decision-making roles.

It’s no surprise, then, that at the same time as corporate voices in sport proclaimed support of Black Lives Matter, there were people in sport who came forward to describe their experiences with racism. For example, more than 60 players in the Iowa college football program in the U.S. came forward to report abuses. An external review highlighted a hostile racial climate that bullied and demeaned Black players, unfairly punished them, and forced them to conform to White norms. In response, University of Iowa president, Bruce Harreld, noted the following in a prepared statement:

« I have read the report, and it is clear that the climate and culture must and will change within our football program. Our student-athletes must have the ability to be true to themselves, and we cannot and will not tolerate a systemic process that inhibits authenticity.” (Rittenberg and Steele, 2020)

Moreover, in July of this year, Simone Biles, considered by many to be the greatest gymnast of all time, discussed her own confrontations with racism in gymnastics (Roscher, 2020). Her story is similar to many other Black gymnasts who also expressed their own experiences with racist cultures in gymnastics (Daniels, 2020). My research on Black athletes and employees in sport echoes the experiences of those who have recently come forward: isolation, exclusion, facades of conformity, barriers to advancement. So, while sport claims to support the Black Lives Matter movement, the fact remains that the industry as whole continues to profit from the exploits of its Black athletes but is less willing to share authority and power with Black professionals. This suggests that maybe Black Lives don’t really matter in the sport industry, after all.


Moving Forward

In recent weeks, there’s been much discussion about how and in what ways leaders can forge a new path. On the surface, it seems simple: hire more Black professionals in sport. However, leaders need to go beyond this cursory approach. To start, sport organisations can begin to reflect on how they might perpetuate systems of racial inequity in their own organisations. This may include evaluating their recruiting and hiring practices, as well as their processes for maintaining and promoting employees. Beyond this, here are some other strategies that leaders in the sport industry can undertake to convey their support of Black lives in the workplace.

  1. Discover: A few years back, the first author had the opportunity to interview the Milwaukee Bucks’ Arvind Gopalratnam for a project he was working on. Arvind is the Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and also the Executive Director for the Milwaukee Bucks Foundation. During the conversation, Arvind shared how the Bucks organisation offers full-time employees paid time off at the discretion of their manager to go into the community to get involved. This would provide valuable insight for White and non-Black professionals to better understand racial injustice. Leaders and other employees could meet with and talk to experts and those in the community. This goes beyond the usual book clubs that organisations have commenced to learn more about racial injustice in recent months.

  2. Forget the business case. In recent years, much has been made about “the business case” for diversity. Essentially, there’s an argument that bringing together diverse voices stimulates creativity and innovation. Thus, it makes sense to put money into diversifying your organisation. However, this logic is flawed. The sport industry should not just pursue diversity when it is commercially convenient. Instead, sport industry leaders should pursue a moral case, as it’s just the right thing to do. By doing the right thing, organizations better position themselves to compete for workers that increasingly want to work for socially conscious and purpose-driven companies.

  3. Don’t rely on free labour. In recent months, we’ve come across stories of Black professionals being asked to lead change efforts, yet not be compensated for it. This may come in the form of leading and attending gatherings on race and racism and helping with recruiting. In other cases, Black employees have been asked to recommend organisations to partner with and what organisations to give donations to. Combined with their own work in a different area of the organisation, this can become too much to handle. This double-duty is an unfair burden that is not asked of other racial groups. Leaders of organisations should take the lead and rely upon organisations and consultants who focus on this type of work.

  4. Give Black professionals a seat in the c-suite. Leaders of sport organisations should have mechanisms in place that allow Black professionals to rise to executive roles within the organisation. They should also cast wider nets when searching for and recruiting Black executives. Ensuring that Black professionals have a seat in the c-suite, in which they are permitted to actively participate in the creation of policies, can have positives impacts on the ways Black people experience their workplaces.

  5. Embed diversity into the core. Sport organisations, just like organisations in other industries, frequently treat diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) departments as add-ons. This unit, and this unit only, is responsible for all the concerns related to fostering a diverse workforce and welcoming environment. However, a more successful model is a sport organisation that builds DEI into the core business model. Then, the entire organisation shares responsibility of doing DEI work.

What’s clear from the last few months is that there is an ever-growing pool of sport businesses purportedly trying to do the right thing. Though, a glance at senior management teams and boards in a few years will be one indicator if recent statements turned into action or were just empty words. Of course, the above suggestions don’t represent an all-encompassing list; it’s purely the start of a long process of healing, tearing down and remedying of systems that inhibit Black professionals in sport from thriving. Still, by committing to these and other strategies, sport organisations will be better equipped to fight systemic racism within their organisations and society. Sure, it’s a difficult task. Yet, what makes us, perhaps, cautiously optimistic is that Black Lives Matter is now a global movement. For Black populations in nations like the United Kingdom, Canada, France and others, the death of George Floyd was a reminder of their own experiences with racism. It should come as no surprise, then, that thousands have taken to the streets in these nations as well, and that sport organisations in these countries are also pledging support. Take the Premiere League, for instance, whose teams kneel before kick-off, while also donning “no room for racism” patches on their jerseys. Together, if we, as a global network of sport stakeholders, continue on this path, we can look towards a more racially just sport industry where Black lives really do matter.


[1] Juneteenth is an American holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved throughout the United States.


This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon
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