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Volume 22 No. 31
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How sports can break barriers

Take the tokenism out of diversity and inclusion — it’s about hiring the best staff to work for fans, partners and the community.
Nzinga Shaw

Almost four years ago, I accepted an unprecedented role in the sports entertainment industry as the first chief diversity and inclusion officer in the National Basketball Association. Taking on a role that did not have a road map for success or a predecessor to mentor me along the way was daunting.

However, there were more pressing issues that I needed to unravel, including racial, gender and economic gaps in our front-office positions and significant social unrest in the sports community following our franchise’s public-facing racial crisis. All of this required me to clearly define the fundamental reasons for our challenges regarding equity, and to establish a path forward to prevent negative trends and recurrence.

I quickly learned that curating courageous conversations with multiple stakeholders was critical to tackle the tough issues, ask the hard questions and force our organization to confront weaknesses and address subjects that it would otherwise choose to avoid or ignore. Moreover, I learned that if we did the hard work upfront, our journey toward inclusion would signal the significance of leveraging diversity to reshape the sports industry.

Shaw interviews Gabrielle Claiborne, CEO of Transformation Journeys, at the Hawks’ annual MOSAIC symposium.
Photo: Kat Goduco Photography


As part of its continued commitment to foster an inclusive work environment, the Atlanta Hawks D&I Council launched “Courageous Conversations,” a facilitated internal forum for employees to freely discuss current events and the issues shaping the city, nation and industry. The forum provides a safe space for employees to learn about the multifaceted issues that encompass diversity and form ideas on ways that the organization can affect positive change.

Diversity and inclusion is not about tokenism; it’s about hiring and supporting the best and most creative staff to produce the best, most innovative work for our fans, business partners and clients while making a positive impact in the communities that we serve. While all inclusion issues will not be solved at once, courageous conversations can be paramount to our ability to break down internal demographic barriers that might prevent us from organically connecting with new and emerging audiences, thus hindering our ability to transform our business model and meet the industry’s future needs.

Sports are unique in that there is a dynamic quality for our product to unite all types of people. Whether it’s the cross-pollination of our business functions to transform the physical space of an arena, or using emojis to reveal the team schedule, there is value in fostering an environment in which our employees are encouraged to do new things, be innovative and embrace people on their teams who bring a unique perspective to the table.

D&I leaders have a charge to move beyond the paralyzing cordiality that sometimes infects sports organizations. Instead, we must directly address issues about performance and relevance, while running the risk of offending the powers that be or creating the perception that the D&I function is not a team player. We must also reach across business functions to engage individuals who may have previously found justifications not to talk about diversity and inclusion or integrate it as a core component of their business practices.

However, curating courageous conversations enables us to finally tackle those issues that are frequently talked about but never resolved. If D&I leaders are to challenge the perspectives of others, they must be willing to subject themselves to the same rigorous analysis. As a D&I champion, you simply cannot remain silent when you see things that are not inclusive or see people making decisions that are counter to the values of your organization. Be courageous and speak up. Respectfully challenge others’ perspectives.

From improving D&I programs, to sharing best practices, and creating unbiased ways to recruit and promote colleagues, the sports community has a duty to ensure we’re fostering an industry that is welcoming, innovative and inclusive. In order to remain relevant, we must be disruptive innovators and find ways to meet our fans’ current needs, and anticipate their unstated or future needs. Similarly, we must proactively engage with job candidates, supplier clients and a host of stakeholders and leverage their unique insights to bring dimension to our offerings, employee engagement and fan experience.

Today, sports organizations are developing new directions and strategies every three to five years, and D&I is at the heart of the ability to redirect change to support evolving business objectives. The mindset needs to be about strategy and impact, and sports leaders need to look at diversity and inclusion in a vastly different way. It is a whole new ballgame, and if we don’t change our game, we will simply not be invited to play. Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice. What we do matters. We must power forward toward inclusion.

Nzinga Shaw is chief diversity and inclusion officer for the Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena.