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Volume 23 No. 18
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Leagues employ varying strategies to achieve inclusive environment

The 2019 class of the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program joins All-Star Race winner Kyle Larson, a graduate of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, in Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.
Photo: getty images
The 2019 class of the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program joins All-Star Race winner Kyle Larson, a graduate of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, in Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.
Photo: getty images
The 2019 class of the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program joins All-Star Race winner Kyle Larson, a graduate of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, in Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.
Photo: getty images

All of the major sports leagues in North America are focused on changing their workforce and leadership teams to be more diverse in terms of women and people of color, but the paths and where they are in their journey are different.

While the NBA and MLB have high-level chief diversity officers who have been on the job and implementing plans of action for a few years now, other leagues are considering hiring someone to fill that position or are in the process of doing so.

The NHL is in the final stages of interviewing candidates to serve a head of diversity hiring, said Kim Davis, executive vice president of social impact, growth and legislative affairs.

“We expect to have that hire in place by the beginning of the season, which will be no later than the end of September,” Davis said. “We are down to our final three candidates.”

Davis was hired to a newly created position — which was designed in part to help the NHL diversify its audience and fan base — in December 2017. The title for the new hire will be senior director of inclusion and leadership and will report to Davis and to human resources, she said. 

“That person is going to help us with many aspects of diversity and inclusion, one of which is how do we continue to identify top talent that is diverse,” Davis said. “So that person will work with our HR department to help with those efforts so we continue to grow our own internal talent-based ability to reach diverse audiences.”

The NFL, meanwhile, had been looking to hire a chief diversity officer, as SBJ reported last year. But Robert Gulliver, who had been the league’s chief human resources officer, left the league to take the chief HR job at The Hain Celestial Group early this year.

People are being interviewed now to replace Gulliver, said Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations. He indicated that a chief diversity officer could be next.

“I would believe the head of HR would be part of that decision-making on whether he or she believes that chief diversity officer may be his or her possibly next hire,” Vincent said.

As of now, the NFL is focused on a three-pronged approach to making its workforce and leadership more diverse, including a diversity pipeline, a program to develop diverse employees and a strategy to keep these employees through mentorship.

“We understand the value of having mentors to assist and navigate in advance of diverse candidates,” Vincent said. “People in the industry hire people who they are familiar with.”

He said this three-part plan was discussed at the league meetings this year by the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee, chaired by Cincinnati Bengals Executive Vice President Katie Blackburn and of which Vincent is a member. 

At NASCAR, the organization does not have a chief diversity officer, but has long had a multicultural department that works on diversity initiatives, including the NASCAR Diversity Internship Program, which has had 400 student interns since its inception in 2000. Of those, 24 former NDIP interns now work full time in the NASCAR industry.

Dawn Harris heads up that department, which looks after other diversity and inclusion initiatives, including alliances with partners such as the Professional Diversity Network and the Sports Diversity & Inclusion Symposium, which NASCAR will be hosting this October in Daytona Beach, Fla.

NASCAR could have a chief diversity officer in the future, said Paula Miller, NASCAR senior vice president and chief human resources officer. Miller said it is something NASCAR executives have discussed and that it could be an internal or external hire. Steve Phelps was named NASCAR president last fall and he is not finished assembling his top management team, Miller said.

But Miller also noted that the multicultural department is already fulfilling that role without that title. “We have a four-person team and that is all they do. If we had a chief diversity officer by title, they would assemble a team inside of corporate. They would drive strategy, they would do everything that we do with the team we have today,” she said.

A business imperative

Asher Simons, co-head of CAA Search, works for a variety of sports businesses in finding executives and has helped organizations hire a chief diversity officer. It’s important that any business hiring such a person give them the latitude to “make real change,” Simons said.

In some cases, the chief diversity officer can be a designated position, and in others diversity and inclusion can be a function of human resources. “It really depends on the organization,” Simons said. “There are some organizations that have the size and scale that really requires someone purely dedicated to it.”

Team Diversity and Inclusion Officers/Other Positions



Nzinga Shaw, chief diversity and inclusion officer, Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena

Maurice Stinnett, VP, diversity and inclusion, Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Clayton, VP, diversity and inclusion, Cleveland Cavaliers

Gail O’Bannon, VP, diversity and inclusion, Dallas Mavericks

Kyle Ellington, director of diversity and inclusion, Sacramento Kings


Adrian Williams, senior director, diversity and community marketing, Atlanta Braves

Sara Lehrke, VP, human resources/chief diversity officer, Cleveland Indians

Miguel Ramos, director of diversity marketing, Minnesota Twins

Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida who has been following diversity hiring trends for more than 30 years, said every major sport now has a head of diversity.

“I don’t think there is a major professional sport that doesn’t have it,” Lapchick said. “I think a lot of individual teams have chief diversity officers now. And we are going to see eventually — I predict that — all teams will have a chief diversity officer.” 

The reason, he said, is the bottom line. As the population of North America gets more diverse and U.S. sports try to grow globally, they want their workforce and leadership to reflect their fan base.

“I am convinced that the current commissioners in all the major sports now understand that diversity is a business imperative and that they are committed to changing things,” Lapchick said. “And they continue to create more opportunities — particularly for people of color.”

But, Lapchick added, “I think we are lagging in the gender issue.” TIDES releases an annual report card on gender and racial hiring at most of the major leagues — the NHL and NASCAR have chosen not to participate. Racial hiring is improving overall, but the gender grades have been going down (see chart, opposite page).

“It’s been increasingly going down for the past five years,” Lapchick said. The only league that gets an A+ on gender hiring is the WNBA. 

Oris Stuart has been chief diversity and inclusion officer of the NBA since June 2015, after serving as CEO of Global Novations, a consulting firm specializing in diversity and inclusion that was sold to Korn Ferry.

When he joined the NBA, the league already had a reputation for being progressive and inclusive in sports under the longtime leadership of former Commissioner David Stern and the new leadership of Commissioner Adam Silver. Although the league had a good reputation of racial and gender hiring, it did not have a formalized strategic plan.

“We concluded that it didn’t make sense for us to only be compared to the other sports leagues. We wanted to compare ourselves to the world’s best-run organizations,” Stuart said.

Like his counterparts at other leagues, Stuart is not just focused on hiring women and people of color, but also LGBTQ and disabled people. Once they are hired, the league must ensure they feel included and have the best tools and support to thrive, he said.

“Women are an opportunity,” Stuart said. “You have to not only do everything you can to attract women, but then you’ve got to be able to retain them and sustain momentum.” 

The NBA has rolled out a new training program aimed at this, called inclusive retention and development, Stuart said. “What it reflects is the fact is we are not satisfied just to get more women into positions but we need our leaders to know there is a responsibility that they have to understand when there may be different needs or different headwinds of challenges that women are facing and they need to understand those and to be prepared to interrupt those issues and mitigate those issues,” Stuart said.

The program is not just aimed at women, but anyone who is a minority in an organization structure based on who they are or what they look like.

“There are lots of headwinds, right?” Stuart said. “One of them, if you are a woman and you end up being the only one, which is something that happens quite often in lots of organizational settings, that is not sustainable. You look around and you don’t see anyone who looks like you or you don’t feel there is a long-term opportunity. That’s hard to sustain.”

At MLB, meanwhile, Renée Tirado has been baseball’s chief diversity and inclusion officer since February 2016. Since then, she has worked on initiatives to improve the hiring of and working conditions for women, people of color, LGBTQ people and disabled people, including creating a pipeline of diverse job candidates, among other things.

Last year, Tirado told SBJ that her office had placed 80 diverse candidates in jobs in MLB and its clubs. This year, that number has grown to 140. She is working with the staffs of all 30 clubs and she said the teams have fully bought in to the diversity hiring program.

“They bought in because there is talent out there,” Tirado said. “These are not just people they hired because they are brown or they have estrogen. … I know they are being hired because they are talented, because we have about a 69 percent retention rate — so 69 percent of the candidates we placed are still in baseball.”

Diversity programs take a while to gain traction. Tirado said it took time to get to know the different clubs and the different needs each had. Sports is a relationship business and relationships take time to build.

“We are going in the right direction,” she said. “We provided an infrastructure in place to make sure these candidates are successful. … But at the end of the day they have to do the work themselves.”

Tirado has the numbers to back up her assessment of how MLB is becoming a more diverse workforce:

93% — percentage increase in the number of women hired at MLB in the past year.

28% — percentage of people Tirado’s office placed into internships since 2016 who have been converted to full-time hires.

54% — percentage of the people hired in that first year who have been promoted.

“I don’t think it will be that exciting or out of the norm in a couple of years when you see that diversity reflected more in more high-optic roles,” Tirado said. “I think it will become our new normal and that is always the goal.”