Q-and-A: NCAA Chief Inclusion Officer Discusses Equity in College Athletics

As the regulatory body for student-athletes at its nearly 1,300 member institutions, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) — formed more than a century ago — has a deep-seated presence in everything related to college athletics. Perhaps its most important role is ensuring the equitable participation of all student-athletes, an effort led by the Office of Inclusion with the help of Bernard Franklin, PhD, executive vice president of education and community engagement and chief inclusion officer for the NCAA.

Above: Bernard Franklin, executive vice president of education and community engagement and chief inclusion officer for the NCAA (photo courtesy of Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)

Franklin has helped the organization move beyond diversity to focus on creating inclusive environments at member institutions and at the NCAA itself. He recently spoke with INSIGHT Into Diversity about the organization’s continued commitment to equity and inclusion and its initiatives aimed at increasing minority representation in intercollegiate athletics.

Q: The NCAA board of governors recently approved a resolution to boost the organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts, with a focus on increasing employment opportunities in athletic departments for underrepresented groups, developing a diversity and inclusion metric for measuring progress and determining areas for improvement, and engaging with Minority-Serving Institutions to identify resources and initiatives to promote cultural diversity. What does this mean for the NCAA and its members?

A: What you find in this resolution is a statement from our board of governors about what we believe, what we value. The next step for us with this reaffirmation is to be more specific about what it is we’re going to do to actualize those values and beliefs, and then the third part of that [is]: What will be the outcomes based on our beliefs, our strategies, as it relates to improving representation in terms of diversity and inclusion? That is really an evolutionary part. We’ve established a stake in the ground. We have baseline data to say this is where we are today [and] this is where we can be tomorrow. And we plan to present a comprehensive plan to the board of governors at its April meeting.

Franklin speaks with a registrant at the annual NCAA Inclusion Forum. (photo courtesy of Marcia Stubbeman/NCAA Photos)
Franklin speaks with a registrant at the annual NCAA Inclusion Forum. (photo courtesy of Marcia Stubbeman/NCAA Photos)

Q: Since 1981, the number of women competing in college sports has increased more than 300 percent. How is the NCAA supporting female athletes and creating opportunities for them to compete at the institutional, conference, and national levels?

A: Over 50 percent of the students enrolled in higher education are women, so we’re seeing the number of women competing in intercollegiate athletics increasing significantly. For example, in Division I athletics, 46 percent of our student-athletes are women, and part of what we’re trying to do at the national [NCAA] office and as a membership is [think about] what we can do to expand championship opportunities for them. So, in one case, we’ve added sand volleyball as our 90th national championship. We also have a committee on women’s athletics, and it has a subcommittee that oversees our emerging sports programs. Within that context, it is looking at rugby, triathlons, equestrian [activities]. I think our task is to provide greater opportunities for women to compete in intercollegiate athletics.

We also publish an NCAA women’s sports inventory where we look at all the sports, the participation levels in those sports, and the championship opportunities for women, and we’ve seen over time that those numbers are increasing. So it really does call upon us, particularly in light of our commitment to gender equity, to ensure that there are opportunities for female student-athletes.

 

“… In Division I athletics, 46 percent of our student-athletes are women, and part of what we’re trying to do at the national [NCAA] office and as a membership is [think about] what we can do to expand championship opportunities for them.”

 

Now, that said, let me digress a little bit and talk about a concern we’ve been tracking for the last couple of years, and while it does not relate specifically to student-athletes, it does relate specifically to women of color. We have a dearth of leadership both in terms of athletic administration and coaching for women of color. We really need to, and we are — in fact, we have conducted a study and surveyed a number of women of color throughout our association to try to identify what the barriers are that are preventing [them] from being able to climb the career ladder. I think it’s important for all of our student-athletes to have an opportunity to observe leaders from diverse backgrounds.

Q: How is the NCAA working to ensure opportunities for all diverse and underrepresented minority student-athletes across collegiate sports? In what ways is the organization partnering with member schools to increase diversity and ensure inclusion?

A: Annually, we sponsor our Inclusion Forum, which is two and a half days of best practices across many dimensions of diversity — whether it’s student-athletes of color, LGBTQ student-athletes and professionals, student-athletes with disabilities, or international student-athletes; those are the five key constituency groups that we have targeted as part of implementing our strategic initiatives. The point [is] that there are opportunities that we sponsor for our membership to become engaged and learn more about how they can improve the inclusive culture on their campuses and within their athletic departments.

The other thing that we offer is an institutional review program, [which] we piloted last year, where the Office of Inclusion puts together a team to go to a campus and assess specifically the athletic department, but since the athletic department does not function in a vacuum, they also look at the larger university or college culture as it relates to diversity and inclusion. It really moved me at the [recent NCAA] convention, because we went to one institution, and our recommendation was that they needed to look at appointing a chief diversity and inclusion officer in their athletic department — and to be at the convention and meet the person, based on our recommendation, whom they hired was really gratifying to me, that we were able to effect that kind of change through our institutional review.

[There is also] our Chancellors and Presidents Engagement Program; we rebranded that. We have much more aggressive outreach to presidents and chancellors, and part of that outreach is around issues of diversity and inclusion. We actually go to campuses and visit with presidents and chancellors.

[In addition], we are just coming out of our NCAA National Convention, and while we were there, our office sponsored an association-wide panel that was about best practices for supporting student-athletes of color. We had representation from all three divisions talking about what are the best practices and what can athletic administrators do to better support and understand both the challenges and opportunities that student-athletes of color face.

Q: How does the NCAA help ensure the academic success of diverse student-athletes? What role does the organization play in holding colleges accountable in this area?

A: About 14 years ago, Division I adopted the academic performance plan; this was the first time in the history of the NCAA that we developed real-time metrics of teams’ academic progress. If [teams] did not meet certain thresholds, there were penalties and sanctions associated with that. So you could have everything from loss of practice time to being disqualified to participate in postseason competition. What we have seen from that is an increasing number of student-athletes who have ultimately graduated from our institutions.

The outgrowth of that is another program we established three years ago, our Accelerating Academic Success Program. [It] is targeted at institutions that are in the bottom 10 percent in terms of resources, both as an institution and as an athletic department — because part of the challenge for these institutions was certainly not a lack of commitment to academic excellence and progress, but not having the resources to build the appropriate infrastructure. So we developed a grant program, and [it] allows an institution to apply for a three-year grant. [Schools] can be awarded up to $300,000 a year over a three-year period.

What I find very fascinating about this program is that we require institutions to submit a sustainability plan, so this isn’t just about funding something for three years; this is really about capacity-building for these institutions, and we’ve seen an enormous impact. We started with six pilot institutions, which have now completed their third year. … Between them there were 24 teams that were in a penalty situation, and now, three years later, there’s only one team in a penalty situation. We’ve seen an increase in the amount of credit hours earned, an increase in the continued eligibility of student-athletes, and an increase in grade point averages. So, to underscore the importance of this whole notion that education has to be primary, we really want to look at these students as students who happen to participate in athletics.

Q: How does the NCAA promote LGBTQ advocacy through practices and programs?

A: [This is] one of the targeted constituents we identified about five years ago. We wanted to develop programs that would be supportive of our LGBTQ community within intercollegiate athletics, so since then we’ve done a number of things.

We have, I think, perhaps one of the foremost publications on supporting LGBTQ students and professionals in intercollegiate athletics; we call it Champions of Respect. We also have a publication that talks specifically about the inclusion of transgender student-athletes; we published that in 2011.

 

“We’ve recommended policies that have been adopted in terms of how athletic departments should respond to, support, and treat [transgender] student-athletes who are transitioning.”

 

We’ve recommended policies that have been adopted in terms of how athletic departments should respond to, support, and treat [transgender]student-athletes who are transitioning. We have a subcommittee within our governance that looks specifically at issues related to the LGBTQ community. We’ve sponsored what we call a Common Ground Symposium. We brought here, to the national office, representatives from the LGBTQ community within intercollegiate athletics and representatives from religious-affiliated institutions because we recognize that at some of those institutions there are going to be students from the LGBTQ community, and how do we find a common ground in terms of best supporting those student-athletes? I can tell you, at the beginning, I didn’t know how that was going to go, but by the end of it, I was extremely gratified to see the progress. In fact, we’re going to sponsor a Common Grounds II Symposium either late this spring or in early fall.

And finally, we started a pilot program this year — we call it our HBCU LGBTQ Initiative — where we travel to a number of institutions to talk with them about some of the challenges they may have … around issues related to the LGBTQ community, and [we’ve had] a really positive response.

Q: In recent years, incidents at colleges across the country — including an attempt by a group of Northwestern University football players to unionize in 2014 and the decision by the football team at the University of Missouri-Columbia to strike last fall — have raised questions over whether student-athletes are considered employees of their respective institutions. Where does the NCAA stand on this issue, and is the organization doing anything to increase benefits for student-athletes?

A: Let me be unequivocal in terms of my response: We do not view student-athletes as employees, and if we ever go down that road, we will dismantle the intercollegiate athletic model. That said, I think we have made great progress in responding to the financial needs of student-athletes. In Division I, we’ve moved to full cost of attendance for our student-athletes. Some conferences and institutions have begun to guarantee four-year scholarships in all sports across the board. And in terms of the resources that the NCAA generates, we return over 90 percent to our member institutions to support their athletic programs [and] student-athletes and to provide scholarship opportunities. So I think that as an association — and I’m really talking about our membership as opposed to the [NCAA] national office.— [we have] moved in a direction of understanding and appreciating the importance of adequately funding our student-athletes.

I really want to underscore this notion of “students” because I absolutely think it’s important, and I’m sure you’ve heard the tagline, “The NCAA has over 460,000 student-athletes, and most of them go pro in something other than sports.” I’m going to pick out three of our most high-profile sports and share some data with you. If you look at football, only 1.6 percent of college players will go pro; in [men’s] basketball, 1.2 percent of college players will be drafted [by the NBA]; and for women’s basketball, 0.9 percent will be drafted by the WNBA. My point being, it is true that the vast majority of our student-athletes don’t go pro. So our obligation, our commitment, must be providing them [an] educational foundation.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.