Tackling Racial Inequities in College Sports

A new report offers strategies and incentives for institutions and leagues to address long-standing inequities and barriers for Black athletes.

May 13, 2021
Athletes at the University of South Carolina demonstrated against racial injustice in the U.S. last summer.
(Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics issued a set of recommendations Wednesday in a new report, which urges college athletics directors to address the lack of diversity in the upper ranks of their departments, as well as barriers to academic success among athletes of color and racially hostile team environments.

These issues have long plagued college sports but gained renewed attention from athletes, scholars and advocates for athletics reform, such as the Knight Commission, as the country and higher education institutions confront systemic racial barriers brought to light after the murder of George Floyd. The report is authored by members of the commission’s racial equity task force, which was created in the wake of Floyd’s death. It echoes demands made recently to leaders of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, including calls to examine and decrease the wide gaps in graduation rates between white and Black athletes at Division I institutions.

About one-fifth of the Division I teams that competed in the 2021 men’s basketball tournament had a gap of 30 percent or more between the graduation rates of their white and Black athletes, according to the report. Previous research has found that significant numbers of Black athletes who play for colleges in the Power Five conferences, which include the most lucrative and competitive programs in college sports, do not graduate within six years and trail their nonathlete peers.

The report suggests that NCAA leaders and administrators allocate more resources for college preparation programs for Black athletes and work to close academic gaps among students who attended underfunded high schools. Many of these athletes also attend historically Black colleges, and teams at those colleges were 72 percent of those banned from postseason competition since 2010 for failing to meet academic benchmarks required of team athletes, according to the report.

The disparity in NCAA penalties for HBCUs compared to predominantly white institutions is also the subject of an ongoing class action lawsuit filed by HBCU athletes against the NCAA, which alleges systemic racial discrimination.

The Knight Commission is known for its academics-first emphasis in college athletics, and it endorses “strong academic standards” for athletes to qualify for competition. However, some of the NCAA’s measures for academic success, such as the use of standardized test scores to determine first-year students’ eligibility to play for a college team, are an unfair barrier to participation, the report said.

Jacques McClendon, a Knight Commission member and co-author of the report, said the intention is not to “water down” academic requirements to make it easier for athletes, but to urge athletics leaders and coaches to dedicate more resources and energy toward helping Black athletes improve their academic abilities and outcomes rather than focusing on rigid requirements that can box students in. Academic benchmarks, which are sometimes included in coaches’ contracts, incentivize coaches and academic advisers to guide athletes into easier majors -- a practice called "clustering." This is limiting for athletes, academically and careerwise, said McClendon, who played Division I football at the University of Tennessee and is director of football affairs for the Los Angeles Rams, a professional team.

“Having high academic standards also means having high academic experiences,” he said. “There is a way to still procure qualified candidates, but the NCAA can have a more equitable process for evaluating students.”

Those academic experiences must become “more transformational than transactional,” McClendon said.

The report argues that the NCAA and other entities that make money off college sports, such as the College Football Playoff, have not dedicated nearly enough funding to address academic achievement gaps between Black athletes and nonathletes.

The equity task force also addressed another pervasive and long-standing racial issue in college sports: the dearth of Black and nonwhite head coaches, athletic directors and other administrators who work in athletics departments. McClendon said this lack of racial diversity can directly influence how athletes of color are treated on college teams. Administrators and coaches of color are seen by athletes of color as being much more “bondable and approachable” and better able to make team environments more inclusive or to identify and rectify racial problems that crop up, he said.

“Systemic problems can be intentional, but they can also be unintentional because you don’t have the lens that these athletes look through,” McClendon said.

He noted that Black representation among Division I men’s and women’s basketball head coaches has improved recently, which has helped “drive healthy relationships” between coaches and players. But football programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which includes 130 Division I institutions and the top teams in college sports, are lagging behind, according to the commission’s report. The report noted that only 10 percent of the 130 head coaches in the FBS in 2020 were Black, while about half of football players in the subdivision were Black, according to data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

The Knight Commission report recommended that more conferences adopt diversity benchmarks in their hiring processes for athletic directors, senior administrators and head and assistant coaches. The report specifically endorsed a rule adopted in August by the NCAA Division I West Coast Conference, which requires the league’s member institutions to consider at least one candidate who is a member of an underrepresented group in the final round of the hiring process for athletics positions.

Gloria Nevarez, commissioner of the West Coast Conference and a recently appointed member of the Knight Commission, said the hiring rule was implemented after the league’s college presidents identified a need for athletics officials to reflect the diversity of students, faculty and staff members at the conference’s member institutions in California and the western United States. As for the lack of diversity among athletics administrators nationwide, “the numbers speak for themselves,” said Nevarez, who is the first Latinx conference commissioner in NCAA Division I.

Of all job openings for athletic directors at Division I institutions between 2010 and 2019, 77 percent were filled by a white administrator, 19 percent by a Black administrator and 2 percent by a Latino administrator, according to a report published last week by researchers at Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute.

Nevarez said the conference’s rule also requires member institutions to report racial and gender demographics of their staff members and job candidates, and to explain why they did not meet the diversity requirement. The data collection will help bring awareness about the underrepresentation of people of color in specific sports and could help identify a lack of diversity within “pipelines” to upper administrator roles and barriers that candidates of color face, she said.

The rule is “a signal to the student athletes that we’re trying and a signal to the market to please apply,” Nevarez said.

The Knight Commission report also included a call for more research on strategies that can improve Black athletes’ experiences and announced that the commission will offer $100,000 in grants over the next few years to fund such research. Scholars who apply for the grants must show they are working in partnership with an athletics administrator, the report said.

“We need people raising their hands, volunteering to do the work and putting the resources into it,” McClendon said.

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