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Ideas Made to Matter


From professional sports, 3 diversity insights for all industries


One of the qualities that makes sports so satisfying is the simplicity of the games: The team that scores the most points is the winner.

But a recent MIT Sloan workshop told a much more complicated story about opportunity and equality in athletics.

“We like to think that sports is this great meritocracy, in which winning is the only thing,” said Chris Rider, associate professor of strategy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “It’s definitely not that simple, and it’s much more systemic than we think.”

Rider joined MIT Sloan associate dean Ray Reagans and senior lecturer Ben Shields this winter in a three-day exploration and analysis of the intersection of race, gender, and management through the lens of professional sports. The workshop was also taught by Shira Springer, a journalist and lecturer at Boston University’s College of Communication.

“The one thing that we wanted the students to get out of this experience was recognizing how systemic processes work,” Reagans said. “So we're really using sports to do a lot of heavy lifting: people are emotionally attached, and it allows us to do things that you couldn't do in other settings.” 

Here are three insights for executives on how to think about systemic issues in this area in their own industries.

Diversity at the executive level alone doesn’t solve an organization’s opportunity imbalance

In 2003, the NFL established the Rooney Rule, requiring teams to interview at least one racial minority candidate when hiring for a head coach position. Between 1985 and the Rooney Rule’s implementation, the league’s minority head coaches represented less than 20% of all its head coaches. In 2009 the rule was expanded to include general manager positions and equivalent front office positions, and in 2020 the rule was again changed, this time requiring at least two external minority candidates be interviewed for head coach positions and one minority candidate for any coordinator roles. The NFL’s racial disparity in coaching did temporarily improve — with nonwhite head coaches coaching 27% and 25% of games in 2011 and 2017, respectively — but as of January 2021, only five of the NFL’s 32 head coaches were not white.

Why didn’t more interviews for minority candidates result in lasting diversity among head coaches? A 2016 study by Rider shows that 70% of head coach vacancies are filled through promotions from coordinator roles, and white position coaches were 114% more likely to get promoted to a coordinator role than their nonwhite peers.

“The Rooney Rule is a pretty straightforward solution to what might not be the problem,” Rider said. “This happens outside sports, it happens in consulting firms, higher education, that by race people are sorted into positions that differ in their prospects of moving up.”

In 2019, Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation) conducted a survey of more than 3,700 people and found that 65% of Black professionals felt they had to work harder to advance, compared to 16% of white workers.

Definitive bias is not always easy to measure

When a soccer player commits a penalty they’re given either a yellow warning card, or a red card removing them from the game.

But while the number of cards a player receives can be counted and compared, the reason why they received those penalties — including whether their skin color played a role in the referee’s decision — requires a broader look at how to measure bias.

Workshop participants were asked to analyze the number of yellow and red cards for 2,053 soccer players across four leagues including LaLiga, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, and the English Premier League. But the students realized there were a number of questions to ask before addressing whether or not a particular player was the victim of penalty bias due to their skin color: What position is a player, for what club, in which league? Is the game home or away? Is it a close game? And what about countries that do or don’t have a lot of players with darker skin tones, and countries that are forgiving of a more physical style of play?

“The exercise was challenging,” Shields said. “It demonstrated just how difficult it is to identify the causes of racial disparity, which makes developing solutions even more challenging.”

Ultimately, workshop participants could not definitively say there was racial bias in how referees meted out penalties.

And yet, there is evidence outside of soccer that racial minorities are disproportionately penalized when their work performance is being evaluated. For example, a 2015 study found that Black workers were “scrutinized more closely than white workers” and held to a higher standard of performance than their white colleagues. 

Bias may not always be obvious or easy to measure, as with the soccer penalties. But leaders interested in combating racial bias should take a close look at the potential differences in opportunities between white and nonwhite employees, and ensure that there is equal pay for equal work across the workforce, Reagans said.

“We were trying to teach a line of thinking,” Reagans said. “Ultimately we want these people to reflect on how they got to where they are. That's a hard conversation for a person to have with themselves. and we're slowly raising that mirror up in front of them.”

Women face structural and cultural barriers as they seek leadership roles

In 2020, Kim Ng was hired as the general manager of the Miami Marlins, the first time a woman has held the position in Major League Baseball.

But her hiring didn’t happen overnight. Ng started her career with MLB as an intern in 1990. From there she held roles like director of waivers and records for the American League, assistant general manager for the New York Yankees, and in 2011 she was hired as MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations.

Why did it take 30 years for a team to promote her to general manager? What was at play, according to Springer, were two types of barriers — structural and cultural — and executives in any industry should be aware of and work to remove them.

Structural barriers are the result of established networks. These networks don’t include, or will actively exclude, women. And there are different standards, like men are promoted on potential while women need to prove their competence.

Ng interviewed for five general manager roles between 2005 and 2014. After the Marlins’ announcement, Ng, former players, analysts, and baseball insiders spoke up that her 30 years of experience should have put her on the fast track to a general manager position, but she kept getting passed over.

“If you look at her resume, she should have been on the fast track,” MLB Network analyst and former New York Mets pitcher Ron Darling said at the time. “She was on the slow track, quite frankly, because she was an Asian woman.”

Outside of baseball, a 2012 study of 121 employers found that hiring managers “sought candidates who were not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves in terms of leisure pursuits, experiences, and self-presentation styles.”

Cultural barriers are the result of stereotypes or societal biases. An example is the gender bias that women don’t know as much about sports as men do. There’s also a diminishment of “the other” — think: “you throw like a girl.” And women’s athletics can be framed as less significant and less inspiring than news coverage of men’s sports.

In a statement from Ng after her GM announcement, she said when she joined the baseball business, “it seemed unlikely a woman would lead a major league team. But I am dogged in the pursuit of my goals.”

A survey from Boston Consulting Group found that women “start their careers with just as much ambition as men, but when there is a difference in ambition levels, it comes from the company culture where a woman works.

“Kim and her career path offer valuable lessons about the barriers women face in sports, especially when it comes to leadership roles in the major men’s professional leagues,” Springer said. “Sports is a particularly tradition-bound industry and that often translates into a reluctance to change or, in this case, a reluctance to hire someone who doesn’t fit a familiar male profile.”

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216