Sports·Special Report

Sidelined: In the push for change, this time feels different for people who are under-represented in sports

A lack of diversity in sports leadership positions has always been in full view, but it's come into sharp focus now. There is a sense the time has come to actually implement structural, tangible change. This time feels different. 

'The difference-maker is going to be athlete activism,' says expert in sports diversity

Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel in protest of police brutality in 2016 sparked a modern wave of athlete activism that has taken hold following the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May. (Getty Images)

It's been three years since Colin Kaepernick was sidelined by the National Football League for taking a knee in protest of police brutality and the systemic racism that emboldens it.

The former San Francisco quarterback was publicly vilified by even the president of the United States for daring to speak out against something he saw as wrong. 

But today, in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer in May, and the months of global protests that have followed, more and more people who are Black, Indigenous or persons of colour (BIPOC) are raising their voices against systemic racism and the institutional problems associated with it.

Many feel their message is now being heard.

"There's still a lot of racism here. There's still a lot of bias here. And there's still a lot of work to be done to fix that," said UBC Okanagan men's basketball coach Clayton Pottinger. "I think the whole George Floyd thing is a catalyst. And you know it's on us. People of colour and our Caucasian allies really need to roll up our sleeves and keep the momentum going so that these conversations just don't get lost again."

(Illustration by Alexis Allison/CBC Sports)

As part of the discussion, CBC Sports undertook an investigation into the lack of racial diversity among the leadership — presidents, general managers, coaches and other positions of authority — in sports leagues and organizations.

The numbers are stark. Out of hundreds of such positions in the North American pro leagues, including the NHL, CFL, WNBA, MLB, NBA and NFL, anywhere from 80 to 90 per cent of them are filled by white people, even though in almost all of those leagues BIPOC athletes represent a large portion of participants.

The same is true within Canada's national sport organizations, and across the 56 athletic departments in universities who compete under the banner of U Sports, the national governing body of university sport in Canada.

WATCH | Canadian sport organizations say more must be done to address leadership inequality:

Canadian universities and national sports groups say they have to do more to diversify their coaching staff and leadership, after CBC Sports carried out a visual audit and found the vast majority of those positions are held by people who are white. 2:10

Following Floyd's death, many organizations, companies and sports leagues began examining how the composition of their staff and leadership teams lack diversity and fail to reflect the ideals of inclusion and diversity they espouse.

The CBC was among them, releasing a statement in June addressing the issue of diversity in its own leadership positions, and acknowledging that action must be taken to improve.

Caught in the crosshairs of this accountability is sport. 

(Illustration by Alexis Allison/CBC Sports)

There is an overall admission, from the pro leagues to the Canadian Olympic Committee, from Hockey Canada and U Sports to Swimming Canada, that more work needs to be done to close the gap. 

"I think the difference-maker is going to be athlete activism," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, founder and director of the Institute For Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. The organization was the first to begin compiling racial breakdowns of hiring practices in sports in the U.S. 

"I think athlete activism has brought policy changes in the NFL. I think if they turn their attention to hiring practices at the college and pro level, that's going to change the game. And I think that people on the business side get that diversity is a business imperative."

Read other stories in the series:

More and more athletes across the sports spectrum have begun to speak out against police brutality and systemic racism, and the NFL, for one, completely changed its stance on Kaepernick.

And for the few Black coaches and sports leaders in Canada, there is an urgency to not only continue the tough conversations but to actually act on them. 

"We have to do it now because two years from now people will forget about this," said Tenicha Gittens, coach of the Concordia University's women's basketball team.

WATCH | 'It's everybody's movement':

Tenicha Gittens, head coach of Concordia University's women's basketball team, speaks about how important it is for Black coaches to be given important roles and positions to succeed. 1:21

Gittens is part of a group that just launched the Black Canadian Coaches Association with a focus on bringing more BIPOC representation into Canadian sports. 

"We're talking about a charter," Gittens said. "We want real change. Now is the time to do this. It's our moment and it's a movement." 

While the number of Black coaches is limited, their experiences are all too similar. 

Khari Jones, head coach of the Montreal Alouettes, has been candid about facing racism as a quarterback in the CFL and the struggle to achieve the top coaching position. 

(Illustration by Alexis Allison/CBC Sports)

"It's time. It's time. It took a terrible thing like George Floyd to bring everything to light," Jones told CBC Sports. "This is the right time to do this. Everybody is finally seeing what has been going on for a long time. It's not just Black people. It's everybody."

Jones, who grew up in Sacramento, Calif., and played nine seasons in the CFL, is grateful for the platform that sports provides.

"It's a good feeling to know that sport can lead that charge," Jones said. "It always has on the field, but we have to go beyond that and look at what we can do off the field and in the front offices." 

Jeffrey Orridge, who was the first Black to serve as commissioner of the CFL, agrees the time has come.

"I'm hopeful that those of true power, influence and wealth will also accept their responsibility to effect the change they now say they support," Orridge said. "It's an uncomfortable conversation … but now is the time to have it. It's no longer enough to espouse, it is time to enact."

About the Author

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is based in Toronto. Email: devin.heroux@cbc.ca. Jamie Strashin reports for CBC News and Sports. He is based in Toronto. Email: jamie.strashin@cbc.ca.

with files from Cole Shelton and Zack Smart

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