Identifying and Implementing Meaningful Cultural Change in College Athletic Departments

Goulston & Storrs PC

Black Lives Matter!  The Killing of George Floyd! Taking a Knee!

The current and historic legacy of discrimination based on race and gender is on the front pages of our papers and our digital news feeds.  It also should be top of mind for universities, athletic departments, athletic directors, coaches, and affiliated administrators.  Current issues reflect the inherent complexity of addressing these problems directly and effectively.  For the most part, leaders employ words of understanding without taking the time to comprehend, assess, and respond to these issues.  Repetitive failures pose a myriad of problems – adverse publicity, difficult complications in recruiting, lawsuits, and sanctions.  For the most part, leaders find themselves on the defensive; they react in a piecemeal fashion without a clear plan for honest assessment and confrontation of the challenges that they face. 

The Racial Issues

Black student-athletes comprised approximately 45% of all the NCAA Division I football teams[1] and 53% of all NCAA Division I men’s basketball teams in 2019.  No other racial group, including Whites, comprised the same percentage.  Yet, these same Black student-athletes have been a remarkably disfranchised group in the athletic programs.  The result has been a ground-swell of recently filed lawsuits and claims against colleges and universities:

  • In November 2020, 13 former student-football players at the University of Iowa sued the school and its athletic director and football coaches, alleging the plaintiffs, while they were students, were subjected to racial slurs, faced retaliation for speaking out, and were required to forgo Black hairstyles, fashion, and culture.  The university also commissioned an investigation which resulted in a report that found evidence of systemic racial discrimination.
  • In December 2020, a trial is scheduled between a former assistant track coach and the University of Missouri, its track coach, and the associate athletic director on claims of racial discrimination, including the claims of racial comments and preference to White athletes in scholarships.
  • In August 2020, Colorado State University paused football activities after an independent investigation into the football program’s handling of COVID-19 cases uncovered allegations of racism and verbal abuse by athletic staff and administrators.
  • Other schools are facing charges that they discriminated against predominantly Black student-athletes by requiring them to practice and play football and basketball during the pandemic. Meanwhile, these same schools have purportedly suspended or delayed sports populated largely by White student-athletes, and have required other community members, students, and faculty to participate only remotely in educational activities.

College student-athletes have reacted not only by suing but also by using their platforms to speak out about racial injustice and to demand change.  Thus, student-athletes have protested by, among other things: (i) threatening to opt-out of the football season, (ii) speaking out against school songs and pennants that have been associated with the Confederacy, (iii) wearing jerseys and other gear with “Black Lives Matter”, and (iv) demanding that their colleges hire more people of color in head coaching and athletic administration roles.[2]

The claims that arise are costly to investigate and defend.  The cultural context that gives rise to these claims is far more troubling.  It can define an institution and, in the current era, impact recruiting and retention of student-athletes, adversely impact alumni and donor support and commitment, create tensions between student-athletes and other students, and undermine broader efforts to build inclusive educational institutions.  Said differently, proactive schools may avoid the price extracted when they have to react.

Traditional answers – declarations of intent, letters to the community, and so forth – are not sufficient.  Indeed, recent experience suggests that those responses fan the flames of resentment.  Leaders and institutions must engage directly with these issues and with the people who are outraged, concerned, or injured. 


[1] The percentage was higher at FBS schools with Black student-athletes comprising nearly 49%.

[2] NCAA data shows that, as of 2019, Black individuals were underrepresented in Division I athletic program leadership, comprising just 9% of the athletic directors, 7% of football head coaches, and 24% of men’s basketball head coaches. These figures are at odds with athletic programs where Black student-athletes make up a plurality, if not a majority.

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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