The Power of Sports to Foster Greater Appreciation for Diversity and Inclusion

I recently announced my retirement from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) National Office, where I have served as a senior staff member for more than 13 years. During my tenure with the NCAA, I have been able to witness firsthand the lessons that sports can teach about achieving greater diversity and inclusion. For the most part, athletic competition is predicated on the notion of team participation. There are sports where individual participation is the norm, but in most instances, athletic competition centers on teamwork. It is through the concept of a team that athletics provide an insightful perspective on diversity and inclusion.

For an athletic team to function at its maximum capability and potential, its members must universally recognize the need to embrace the team’s diversity. This recognition is twofold since it must not only understand the diversity associated with the various roles and positions team members fill, but also the different dimensions of diversity each individual teammate represents. For example, a successful softball team cannot function if all the players are pitchers. A team composed of only pitchers may have a great pitching roster, but what about the other roles necessary to field a competitive team?

The success of any team is predicated on the reality that members must fill diverse roles and positions and that each one needs to have a different function in order for the team to succeed. Likewise, a team must embrace the fact that each member brings a unique set of experiences, perspectives, and characteristics. There will be racial, socioeconomic, and sexual orientation differences — and the list could go on — but the concept of a team reinforces the notion that although each player may be different, they are all one unit. This concept is the cornerstone for creating an inclusive environment.

Institutions and organizations can achieve diversity in their workforces, but that does not mean that they have an inclusive work environment. Often, they place great emphasis on diversity yet pay little to no attention to how to inculcate diversity into the overall cultural fiber of their organizations. Inclusion does not mean you bring into the circle only those people who look and think like you; rather, it necessitates that you make a deliberate effort to celebrate and embrace differences. This approach does not mean that there will always be agreement and acceptance. Inclusion represents a mutual respect for differences even when there may not be complete understanding of those differences.

Athletic competition offers a powerful lesson on creating more diverse and inclusive cultures and teams. We can all learn something from the power of sports that will help us embrace our differences and similarities and promote respect.●

Bernard Franklin, PhD, is the executive vice president of education and community engagement and chief inclusion officer for the NCAA. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.