Racial Report Cards: How the NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS Stack Up

Eben Novy-Williams and Lev Akabas

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Since the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests around the country, nearly every major sports league and team owner has publicly decried racism.

Many athletes have joined the nationwide protests calling attention to police brutality and racial inequality. Sports leaders have called on politicians and citizens to help solve the problems, and millions of dollars have been donated to organizations promoting social change.

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But how well have sports leagues done in granting opportunities to minorities?

Since 2002, the University of Central Florida’s sports business management program has been tracking the racial hiring practices of the major U.S. sports — MLB, NBA, NFL and MLS. The data compiled by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), gives a snapshot into how well each league, and its teams, create opportunities for minorities.

“We still haven’t found great institutional means to address the systemic shortcomings for how ownership, front office positions, and coaching positions are filled, said Courtney Cox, a professor of race and sports at the University of Oregon. “When leagues say they’re really trying, we can say, `Well, we looked at you in 2006 and we’re looking at you now and nothing has really changed.’”

No sport comes close to having diversity in its coaching and administrative positions that mirrors the diversity amongst its players. The NBA generally performs the best, while the NFL generally performs the worst. Of the six non-player roles consistent across leagues, the NFL is the least diverse in all but one. Of note, the most diverse position in all four leagues is the assistant coach.

When looking at hiring practices specifically for African-Americans, the NBA stands out even more. About a quarter of MLS players are black, but less than 6% of the teams’s professional staffs are black. The NFL has just three black head coaches, and two black general managers.

The major problem, according to Cox, is that openings are traditionally filled through a pre-existing network. And since those in power hire people they know or have worked with in the past, it creates a cycle that’s hard for minorities to break. Cox said cracking that pre-approved group is labor unto itself, beyond the work and qualifications needed to do the job in question.

“Because of the way the network is already embedded in terms of race and gender, we’ve already decided who we’re going to hire,” she said. “And that really doesn’t account for where we are, for the diversity of the sheer number of people qualified for these positions, versus the people that have them.”

Each league’s central office, all of which are based in New York City, is more diverse than the league as a whole. And of the four leagues tracked, MLS has the most diverse central office.

Leagues have been publicly speaking about prioritizing diversity for decades. And at the team level, the general trend over the past 15 years is towards more diversity. The one exception is MLS, which was about as diverse in 2019 as it was in 2006.

In 2003, the NFL introduced the “Rooney Rule,” which compelled teams to interview at least one candidate of color for top coaching and personnel positions. This year owners voted to change other hiring rules that were believed to hamper the advancement of minority coaches. League owners tabled a controversial proposal that would have rewarded teams hiring nonwhite candidates with better draft picks.

“We’re not satisfied where we are, we know we should and can do better,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last month. Troy Vincent, a former player and the league’s executive vice president of football operations, called the NFL’s approach a “broken system.”

In the past two weeks, as protests have continued in every state, sports leagues, teams and executives have been quick to respond. Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, one of two non-white NFL owners, wrote a 900-word essay about fixing discrimination in the Unites States. Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, called on other business leaders to turn their words into action.

Jim Dolan, the owner of the NBA’s New York Knicks and NHL’s Rangers, drew criticism after he sent an email telling employees that his company was “not any more qualified than anyone else” to offer an opinion on social matters.

Will the conversation around George Floyd’s death have a tangible impact on these hiring practices? Cox doesn’t think so, but she said change is coming.

“Just because of the political leanings of owners and GMs, I don’t think this will be a pivotal moment,” she said. “But the shift will happen culturally over time because of younger people moving up through the ranks. For example, I never thought that I would see assistant coaches in the NFL that are women. So I have a lot of hope that the racial and gender disparities in sports will shift over time.”

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