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Diversity in the Playbook – What Your Organization can Learn from Football

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

The lack of diversity on the sidelines has long been a reason for criticism. The majority of sports leadership positions are held by white men, even while players represent a diverse range of races and ethnicities. But in recent years, the National Football League has taken steps to improve their leadership diversity standing.

As Derede McAlpin writes in the Washington Post, “There exists a belief that sports is a true meritocracy where anyone with a proven ability and the right qualifications will succeed. The truth is other intangible factors greatly influence the opportunities that may come someone’s way.”

In 2003, the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule to provide more equal footing for minority coaching candidates. The Rooney Rule states that NFL teams must interview minority candidates for coaching positions. Since enacting the rule, minority leadership positions in the NFL have risen from 6% to 22%.

Most people would never expect professional sports organizations to enact progressive hiring initiatives. But in fact, the Rooney Rule pre-dated many new studies detailing the importance of diversity in leadership positions.

For example, a recent study by California Public Employees’ Retirement System’s (CalPERS) Investment Committee showed that diversified leadership provides a better range of viewpoints, more experience, and more innovative solutions, leading to better performance – whether in the sports arena or the boardroom.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is slowly following suit as well. In a recent CNN article, Floyd Keith, Executive Director of the Black Coaches and Administrators organization and winner of eight NCAA and AFCA appointments, two conference chairmanships and “Coach of the Year” honors writes, “Finally, it appears the labors of those who have so painstakingly tended to the tree of opportunity for minority football coaches have finally produced the first significant harvest of delicious fruit.”

He explains, “One year ago, only four African-Americans were head coaches in the FBS. It was the lowest total in 15 years. By the conclusion of the 2008/2009 hiring cycle, the number had risen to nine.” There are now 13 head football coaches of color among the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision/IA schools.

How does your organization’s diversity efforts measure up against the NFL and the NCAA? Studies show that diverse leadership not only improves your company’s performance but attracts more diverse and qualified job candidates as well.

If the NFL and NCAA can recognize a need for diversity in its leadership, and enact standards to improve diversity, perhaps your company should too. As McAlpin says, “Like views on religion, there will never be a consensus on diversity issues in America. But at the end of the day, we all want the same thing – to play to win.”

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