The list of names published with this column shows readers the power structures at the top of Minnesota’s largest sports organizations. It took Minneapolis becoming the epicenter of a national awakening on race for me to examine that list in a different context, to pay attention to whom I was looking at, which is embarrassing to admit.
In April, our sports section published organizational flowcharts for the professional sports franchises in the Twin Cities and the Gophers athletic department. I already knew most of it. As I scanned it then, I saw names and job titles of key decision-makers. I didn’t see race. It wasn’t at the forefront of my thought process.
A lot has changed since then.
The world has changed.
The Twin Cities has changed.
That list must change.
What I see now is a dearth of diversity in leadership for those seven sports organizations. No head coaches of color. Only one person of color among executives in the highest positions. Only a handful in other executive roles. A largely homogeneous portrait of top executives and sports-focused leadership positions in sports that have a high percentage of athletes who are minorities.
This is the time to change that. Especially here, of all places here, the starting point to what feels like a global revolution.
Those organizations need to prioritize diversity in their hiring not just because a spotlight now is shining brightly but because it’s the right thing to do.
This isn’t a case of casting stones. My sports department employs five white columnists and a team of reporters and editors that is mostly white to chronicle athletes with different perspectives and backgrounds.
Conversations about workplace diversity have taken place inside organizations for years, but the timing now brings more urgency to act.
Our local sports entities already are leading the way with an exemplary response to the killing of George Floyd. They have donated millions of dollars to confront systemic racism and social injustices. They have reconsidered their histories, created scholarships in Floyd’s name, started new programs to support kids, and committed financial and human resources to make sure the message and intensity of this moment in history do not wane.
I have no doubt those organizations are unified in their resolve to effect change. More steps, ones that change and add to the faces of leadership in Minnesota sports, are necessary.
The Vikings have been pioneers among sports franchises in investing in minority leadership. In 1992, the organization made Dennis Green the second black head coach in modern NFL history. Former Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren was the highest-ranking black executive on the business side of an NFL team before being named Big Ten commissioner last June.
Teams like the Vikings that have lost diversity in leadership need to reinvest. Other organizations need to take a deep look at who they want to be. Leadership needs to reflect different viewpoints and experiences. Teams bring athletes and employees of so many different backgrounds and beliefs together, and these people need to see the same in their bosses.
The University of Iowa football program was exposed recently when former black players came forward to say they felt mistreated and marginalized during their careers. In response, longtime coach Kirk Ferentz admitted to having a “blind spot.” An honest but alarming answer.
The annual Racial and Gender Report Card authored by Richard Lapchick monitors hiring trends in sports. In the recently released report for 2019, every major pro league and NCAA college program received at least a B letter grade in racial hiring practices. A few of those grades dropped — most notably the NFL’s — when only factoring head coaches and general managers.
Lapchick’s executive summary mentioned Floyd’s death and noted that “the importance of measuring where we are in terms of race in sport became even more critical.”
“It is paramount that professional leagues and college sport increase diverse and inclusive hiring practices when hiring league employees, front office and team professionals, and university administrators alike,” the report states.
If billionaire sports owners truly want diversity in their leadership teams, they can make it happen. They set the agenda for how their organizations look and operate. It comes down to being intentional and committed to hiring diverse leaders.
One idea: Create new jobs. Organizations do that all the time when they identify talented people they want to hire. Every team has expanded its leadership group in recent years, for positions it valued.
A good example: The Timberwolves created a new position of vice president of community engagement in 2017 in order to hire former Gophers standout John Thomas, who has been a valuable and visible presence in conversations about social justice since Floyd’s killing.
The Wolves have been progressive in hiring different ethnicities in executive roles, including President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas, a Colombia native and the only Latino to hold his title in the NBA.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle inherited an almost exclusively white team of top administrators and head coaches when hired, with only two people of color currently in those positions.
Coyle announced a four-year diversity and inclusion plan that expires in 2023, and now is the right time to put that plan into practice. He has a vacant senior administrator position. This is a big opportunity. Hire a person of color to help oversee community outreach and the department’s day-to-day operation.
One recent conversation opened my eyes. Protests were raging after Floyd’s death when I called legendary Minneapolis high school basketball coach Larry McKenzie. He was emotional and worried about his players. He had scheduled a Zoom call with the entire team. I asked what he planned to tell them.
Education, he said. Focus on that so that someday they can have “an entry into the rooms where decisions are made.”
He doesn’t just want his players to get a job someday. His aim: change-makers, representation, leaders with strong voices. This is too important, right now, for this not to be a priority in Minnesota.