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Sports have the power to create social change—and they’ve done so throughout time. As a microcosm of human interactions, sports challenges us to interact with others. And often, those we encounter are quite different in many respects. Diversity in sports involves not only players having different sets of skills but also players having differences in beliefs, opinions, and experiences.

Bold Business interviewed leaders from the WWE, USTA, and MLB during the Synapse Innovation Summit and Diversity MBA National Conference to gain their perspectives on diversity and inclusion in major sports.

Today, diversity in sports organizations is readily recognized. Athletes of different ethnicities, cultures, genders and sexual orientation often come together. But the degree of diversity in sports organizations today is much improved from decades past. And as society has evolved, it has diversity in sports to thank for social progress. Even now, events on the playing field continue to shape how we as a society perceive diversity and inclusion.

a photo of different athletes in the past 80 years that broke barriers and made a bold impact in pushing diversity in sports organizations
Sports have the power to create social change—and they’ve done so throughout time.

Remembering Those Who Paved the Way for Diversity in Sports Organizations

In the last century, many sports legends have been recognized in a variety of sports. But none have been more influential and prominent than those courageous individuals who broke through the diversity barriers. Today’s diversity in sports organizations is a direct result of bold leadership both on and off the field. By identifying a few of these sports legends, their incredible perseverance and effort can be better appreciated.

Kenny Washington — Advancing Diversity in Sports in the NFL

By all accounts, Kenny Washington was a superstar at UCLA. For one, he excelled in baseball and was considered better than Jackie Robinson by many. However, his true fame was in football, where his offensive rushing record stood for nearly 20 years. In today’s world, he would have been a first-round draft pick into the NFL. But there was no racial diversity in sports then, as the NFL had banned African American players in 1933—a ban that lasted 12 years.

Kenny Washington’s break came when the Cleveland Rams decided to move to Los Angeles. The Rams wanted to play in the infamous LA Coliseum. But LA Tribune sportswriter, Halley Hardy, took issue with another all-White football team playing in a taxpayer-paid stadium. Under duress from Hardy as well as from Kenny Washington’s fan support, the Coliseum Commission required the Rams to allow Black players. As a result, today, Kenny Washington can be credited with introducing diversity into sports organizations throughout the NFL.

a photo quote of Kenny Washington on the growing impact of inclusion and diversity in sports organizations
Legendary American football player, Kenny Washington

Jackie Robinson — Advancing Diversity in Sports in MLB

Jackie Robinson is well-known for the role he played in advancing diversity in sports organizations. In part, this fact can be attributed to the popularity of baseball as America’s pastime in the 1940s and 1950s. But it is also because of the incredible character, patience, and charisma Jackie Robinson possessed—and of course, his incredible talent. His first MLB game in 1947 resulted in 4 hits, 4 RBIs and a home run.

Without question, Jackie Robinson’s courageousness accounts for the diversity in sports that would follow in MLB and other sports. But there were also notable men who stood up for Robinson and diversity in sports organizations. Specifically, Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the one to sign Jackie Robinson to a contract. Likewise, MLB Commissioner Ford Frick and Team Manager Leo Durocher also went to bat for the superstar. The efforts of these individuals in addition to Jackie Robinson’s perseverance demonstrates the boldness needed to introduce diversity in sports.

a photo quote of Renée E. Tirado in relation to the growing impact of inclusion and diversity in sports organizations
Renée E. Tirado, Vice President of Talent Acquisition and Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Major League Baseball

Earl Lloyd — Advancing Diversity in Sports in the NBA

Earl Lloyd was known as the “moon fixer” because of his height. But this nickname could also be associated with his lofty impact in advancing diversity in sports organizations. Though Earl Lloyd was one of three African Americans to be drafted in 1950 into the NBA, he was the first to play. Despite being spat on by fans and refused service in many establishments, he persevered. And this went well beyond the basketball court.

Earl Lloyd’s impact in advancing diversity in sports positively affected the NBA. In fact, over 70 percent of the NBA today are individuals of color. Earl Lloyd also advanced diversity in sports organizations in the coaching ranks. When he retired as a player, he became the first African American assistant coach in the NBA. And he eventually became the second African American head coach in the NBA in 1971. Though recognized in the NBA’s Hall of Fame for his talents, he is well appreciated for advancing diversity in sports.

a photo quote of Adam Silver in relation to the growing impact of inclusion and diversity in sports organizations
Adam Silver, Current Commissioner, National Basketball Association

Althea Gibson — Advancing Diversity in Sports in the National Lawn and Tennis Association

Breaking the barrier for diversity in sports in the NFL, NBA and MLB were incredible feats. But doing so in professional tennis was even more challenging. Althea Gibson, however, represents a very courageous figure in advancing diversity in sports for tennis. Growing up in Harlem, Althea Gibson had little support, but she was a natural at tennis. Fortunately, two tennis-playing doctors active in the Black community took her under their wing. They encouraged her education and provided her with tennis lessons and a place to stay. And so, Althea Gibson excelled.

Unfortunately, Althea Gibson continued to meet obstacles despite her incredible tennis talents. It finally took tennis star Alice Marble to openly demand Althea Gibson’s presence on the court that made the difference. In 1950, the U.S. Lawn and Tennis Association granted inclusion of Althea Gibson into the tournaments. And over her ensuing career as a professional tennis player, she won 11 Grand Slam events. Her role in advancing diversity in sports is undeniable.

a photo quote of Billie Jean King in relation to the growing impact of inclusion and diversity in sports organizations
Billy Jean King, 12-time Grand Slam Tennis Champion

The Importance of Being Bold for Diversity and Inclusion

As evident from these courageous athletes, as well as the bold leaders who stood up for them, sports matters. By embracing diversity in sports organizations, society starts to pay with increasing attention to specific issues. The injustices, inequities, and discriminations become ever obvious when clear talent is excluded from athletic competition. The tangible evidence of the strong character of these extraordinary men and women is what has always made the difference. And sports provided the backdrop.

a photo of different men and women athletes in the past 80 years that broke barriers and made a bold impact in pushing diversity in sports organizations
In truth, diversity in sports has been a driver of positive social change for many decades.

Diversity exists everywhere. However, just because diversity exists, it does not mean that inclusion follows. Acceptance of each other’s differences is a starting point. But true inclusion occurs when the benefits and advantages of diversity are recognized and pursued.

Diversity in sports has been a driver of positive social change for many decades. And sports continue to represent a microcosm where social issues are confronted. Nevertheless, it is ultimately those bold enough to stand up for diversity and inclusion that make the real impact.

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