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Volume 22 No. 39
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Federations must buy into inclusivity for leadership

One of us is a faculty athletic representative to the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference and recently attended the NCAA’s annual Inclusion Forum in Atlanta. As part of the opening reception, conference attendees visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

It is especially fitting as a setting for discussions on inclusion, diversity and opportunity by representatives of America’s largest intercollegiate association. It’s also a place with important connotations for all industries, including ours.

More than 55 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others led a courageous journey intent on planting seeds of equality for individuals of all races. Those sowed seeds have not finished growing, but the NCAA’s recent forum is a prime place to observe the improved — but far from equal — status of women, nongendered individuals and those with physical or mental challenges.

Inclusion, which has emerged as the higher-level goal of diversity efforts, is a concept that sounds great conceptually but creates challenges logistically. Yes, holistic inclusion sets the bar for where we want to go but “equality” (for an entire gender or minority community) is an arduous marathon filled with pain, disappointment and numerous slights.

Examples where equity is not evident are easy to identify and too numerous to count. In the Olympic world, groups such as the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the international basketball federation (FIBA) have long been male-dominated. It was only in March that the IAAF confirmed it would elect its first female vice president this year.

For some, this decision by the IAAF is a reason to celebrate. A woman will join the elite administrative ranks of an organization that depends on women to generate approximately 50% of their competitors and Olympic media content, plus a significant portion of federation revenue.

For others, female representation at the VP level is long overdue and the IAAF’s announcement is continuing proof of the gender bias they know exists in sports at its highest levels. How is it possible, these critics would ask, that the world’s No. 2 sport (participation, not spectators or revenue) took until 2019 to have a female VP?

In our view, the issue is not trumpeting progress or dwelling on evident deficiencies. More simply, it is about a continuing commitment to empower an under-represented gender to secure an included and enhanced station … no matter where the members of that minority currently sit.

Over at FIBA, only one woman, Sweden’s Lena Wallin-Kantzy, serves on the federation’s powerful executive committee and less than 20% of FIBA’s central board (including its co-opted and ex-officio members) are women. Where this imbalance matters is in strategic planning or in the pushing of initiatives like a Women’s Commission (which once existed but then was abolished at the start of the 2014 governance cycle).

Undoubtedly, leadership at the IAAF and FIBA will trumpet their commitment to inclusion and diversity (as part of the IOC’s gender equity mandate) and their ongoing support for women as athletes. But the lack of female leadership and even, to a degree, reform measures for women, transgender and nongender people makes clear how far away the finish line of equality really is.

Why is it we see men coaching women’s pro teams but not the other way around? Is it because we believe women are incapable of mastering the nuances of the coaching game? That male athletes won’t take direction from women? That women cannot forge winners?

There is a nonsense to those foolish questions but also a harsh reality.

Yes, Becky Hammon and Lindsay Gottlieb are in the NBA, but is that the best our global society can achieve? If direction and vision from the top doesn’t demand the change, then inequality endures.

There’s one other thing to note here. Inclusion always requires the willing participation and mentored support from members of the majority. Those individuals at the top are the ones who must take on the power bases (usually an established old-boy system) unwilling to change — or unwilling to share their platform of power.

At one of our institutions, a new initiative by the football club, working under the “He For She” banner, is to tactically approach inclusion from a “majority must support” platform. More of these efforts are needed.

What’s difficult in this discussion is shining the spotlight of obligation on the men currently in charge. It’s asking a lot of them to replace system inhibitors that continually make it harder for women to access what men assume and presume so easily.

In the case of sports, it is to play, govern and make money at increasingly elite levels.

We are not so naive to misunderstand the realities of cash flow and profitability. And just bringing up these terms leads us toward the age-old topic of business sustainability. But the executives running groups like FIBA and the IAAF must buy into an inclusive approach or governmental authorities will make the decisions for them … much like those put forth in the 1960s for people of color.

Yes, civil rights, human rights, equal rights and inclusion are long races. But we will keep running them.   


Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former chief marketing officer of the USOC. Norm O’Reilly is Director of the International Institute for Sport Business & Leadership at the Lang School of Business at the University of Guelph and Partner Consultant at T1. 

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at