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Diversity in the Sports Industry

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By Dr. Tomi Wahlström |

As we watch the protests unfold in the news, we may wonder what the impact will be on the sports industry. This is a sensitive topic with a lot of history to be explored. One can immediately remember famous black athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Serena Williams. However, this brief article will not address these specific athletes in detail. Instead, it will focus on sports organizations and especially on the inclusion of black employees in the light of the current events surrounding the black community.

Increased diversity results in several organizational benefits. For example, it increases innovation and creativity. It also improves employee retention. Diverse employees do not tend to stay in organizations that do not have diversity, and the existence of diverse viewpoints promotes communication that leads to new perspectives. Diverse workforce helps to serve diverse customers. It is difficult for non-diverse organizations to understand the needs and preferences of diverse clients.

Diversity is clearly beneficial, but it can also lead to increased organizational conflict. Diverse viewpoints can cause disagreements and misunderstandings. When conflict is properly managed, it can become a catalyst for productivity and improved performance. However, when it gets out of control, it can lead to lawsuits and dysfunction. Managing conflict is an ongoing effort but it should not be viewed negatively. Functional conflict is, in many ways, very positive and even necessary at times.

Diverse organizations are typically able to attract talent better. This is especially important in the sports industry since so many athletes tend to be black. Without black members of the management and coaching team, it could be more difficult to manage black athletes especially right now. It is difficult for non-blacks to understand the anger of the black community right now. Black managers and coaches can relate better and create a supportive environment.

Ultimately, sports organizations must find a way to address the current issues of institutional racism. They should get past controversies such as the kneeling of Colin Kaepernick, and find ways to be more constructive and supportive. Black athletes are likely to use their platform to advocate for their community, and this may cause dysfunctional conflict if not managed properly. It is better to be proactive rather than reactive. The current protests are a result of 400 years of suppression, and it is unlikely that these complex issues will be resolved quickly. Understanding the context and being proactively supportive is important.

It is not sufficient to merely hire black managers and coaches. Organizations must focus on inclusion and ensure that everyone can contribute equally. Society for Human Resource Management defines inclusion separately from diversity as “the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.” It is not enough to just hire a diverse workforce and meet the affirmative action requirements. Diversity must be embraced by creating inclusive organizational cultures. This requires proper access, attitudes, and communication. It demands partnerships and creation of policies. But first of all, it is an intentional choice. It does not happen by an accident.

Dr. Tomi Wahlström is the Provost at the United States Sports Academy.

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