Minority Hiring Practices in Professional Sports


Professional sports provide a source of entertainment for millions of people. Players and games are seen as diversions to everyday life. Yet to athletes, and to those who work behind the scenes in the front-offices, professional sport is a job. Running and managing sports teams and leagues is big business. As such, hiring practices of these institutions should be of societal concern. Franchises impact the lives of not only those whom they employ, but entire cities as well. From the construction and operation of stadiums to the local merchants who take care of the fans, sports teams greatly affect a city’s economy. A glance at the rosters can quickly show what the players’ demographics are, but a closer look is needed to see the racial and gender make-up of these various teams and leagues.

Statement of the Problem

The purpose of this paper is to review the demographic hiring history of various professional sports teams and leagues. The demographic make-up of players, front-office and league personnel will be compared to the overall labor market to determine how professional sports fare in creating jobs for minority groups.

Independent Variable

The percentage of minority hiring across gender and racial lines will serve as the independent variable in this study.

Dependent Variables

The various professional sports organizations (NFL, NBA, MLB) and the population rates for each selected minority group will serve as the dependent variables in this study.


Sports organizations will likely fare well in terms of minority hiring where players are concerned. African-Americans comprise a majority on most teams’ rosters, and Hispanics fare well in Major League Baseball. More opportunities are emerging for women. Front-office positions will most likely be under-represented in minority hiring, particularly among females.


This study assumes no one is excluded from pursuing jobs in the professional sports field due to gender or race.


This study is delimited to professional sports teams, their players and league personnel.

Significance of the Study

The overall labor force is becoming more diverse. Professional athletes have traditionally been male and, for the most part, Caucasian or African-American. The emergence of new professional sports organizations for women have increased opportunities for female athletes. But who is working off-field for these organizations? How have sports teams and leagues staffed their organizations? Are they in line with the national labor hiring practices? Or, are they in stark contrast with the real world? A minority unfriendly hiring practice could have a negative impact on the popularity and support for each league.

Review of Literature

A review of the literature reveals that the data can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. At first glance professional sports seem to epitomize a system of racial harmony and equality. One needs only to look at the rosters of various teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), or Major League Baseball (MLB) to find a healthy mix of minority participation. A closer inspection reveals some disturbing observations. True, while minority participation is high, it seems relegated to one particular minority group, the African-American male. The opportunities for female athletes to participate have increased due to the formation of various sports leagues, most notably the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), but their numbers still far trail those of their male counterparts. Hispanic and Asian-American participation seems limited to MLB, where their numbers are not reflective of their presence in the overall population. A look at the team and league offices reveals that the true position of power in these sports is predominately dominated by the white male.

The Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sport in Society has been issuing racial report cards for professional team sports. The report has evolved from grading minority participation and employment in a few select leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB), to grading minority and gender participation in collegiate and other professional sports. The report also emphasizes the various levels of authority from coaching to ownership. An early report in 1992 found that the top management hiring practices of the NBA earned a B-, the NFL a C, and MLB an F (Clay, 1994). In a more comprehensive 1997 report, the overall grades for the three sports leagues were NBA an A, NFL a B, and MLB a C. In terms of playing opportunities for minorities the NFL and NBA each earned A+ grades, while MLB received an A. Coaching opportunities found the NBA leading the way again with an A, the NFL received a C+, and MLB a B. No league fared exceptionally well in terms of top management positions held by minorities. These positions include owners and executive officers. The NBA received a C, the NFL a C, and MLB an F (Hubbard, 1998). The 1998 report card included gender grades as well as looking at the National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Soccer (MLS), and the WNBA. Grades for colleges were included as well. The NBA once again scored the highest receiving an A- for minority hiring, and a B for gender hiring. The NFL graded a B+ for minority and a D+ for gender. MLB earned a B for minority hiring practices, but did not receive a gender grade due to a lack of available information. In any event, in terms of race, each league either maintained (MLB) or improved their scores. Other key findings were that soccer had the best record for minority group diversity; the NHL held the best opportunities for women; and that the WNBA had a good record for both minority group and gender diversity (“NBA Scores Highest”, 1999). Sport in Society Director Richard Lapchick stated after his tenth study that “While the hiring practices in sport have gotten better for people of color and women, there is clearly significant room for progress in all sports. Nonetheless, pro sports is measurably ahead of society in these matters.” (“NBA Scores Highest”, 1999).

Compiling statistics on such matters is not unique to Northeastern University. The Women’s Sports Foundation Gender Equity Report Card of 1997 found female involvement to be rare at higher levels of sports management, and opportunities were generally confined to director level positions in two jobs in particular. The Director of Promotions is 58.8% female, and the Director of Marketing is 29.9% female (Delpy, 1998). The Foundation also studied female spectatorship in the various leagues. Statistics showed that despite high levels of interest, the opportunities to work for these sports clubs were not there.

League Females Team/League Executives Female TV Audience
MLB 11/ 190 (5.8%)44%
NBA 19 /203 (9.4%)40%
NFL 10/171 (5.8%)40%
NHL 13/187 (6.9%)41%
–refers to women in CEO, CFO, COO, President or Vice President positions (Delpy, 1998).

The numbers look a little better for women when considering all senior front office positions, especially when compared to their African-American counterparts. Women held 16% of such jobs as compared to 10% for African-Americans in the NFL, and 31% to 11% in the NBA (Holder,1999).

The perceptions of racial discrimination arise when one considers the vast discrepancy between the number of minorities who participate as players to those who help organize and run organizations at team or league levels. “The number of minorities hired . . . doesn’t come anywhere close to the number of Black athletes who play the games . . . On the field sports have as much equal opportunity as anything America has to offer. Off the field, sports are very segregated.” (Greenlee, 1998). As of 1996, African-Americans comprised 12.2% of the United States population, but were represented on 75% of the NBA rosters, 63% of the NFL’s, and 33% of MLB’s (Evans, 1997). Presently there are 4 African-American head coaches in the NFL (13% of such positions), 7 in the NBA (24%), and 3 African-American (11%) and 1 Hispanic (3%) in MLB. African-American assistant coaches account for 25% of NFL staffs, 34% of the NBA’s, and 14% of MLB’s (Holder, 1999). Furthermore, of the 221 officiating positions in professional sports, 25 were filled by African-Americans (Lyons, 1992). Until 1997, there were no female officials. In that year, Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner made history by becoming the first women to officiate an NBA game.

There are numerous theories and opinions as to the importance of these statistics. One such theory is the Key Functionaries Theory where “key functionaries are positions within a social system that are capable of influencing and performing crucial activities” (Evans, 1997). The key functionary roles in sport include positions such as sportscaster, executive, coach or a paid endorser. The scarcity of African-Americans in these roles in sport is seen as proof that discriminatory barriers have not been abolished, but replaced by barriers in institutional practices that involve key functionary positions. Discrimination has shifted from criteria based on ascription (race) to achievement (or holding proper necessities for the job) (Evans, 1997). This institutional bias has led to African-Americans being under-represented in other prominent sport categories such as fans, referees, writers, program producers, directors, senior executives, printers of programs and/or tickets, agents, attorneys and vendors. Others who echo these discriminatory practices are in place are sports luminaries such as John Thompson and Joe Morgan. Thompson, long time coach at Georgetown University, questions the lack of minorities in front office positions and sarcastically quips African-Americans are “competent as a player, but so incompetent that his knowledge leaves him once he graduates from a university” (“Is there a double standard”, 1998). Joe Morgan, Hall of Fame baseball player of the Cincinnati Reds, points out that not one minority was even interviewed for the last thirty three managerial positions in MLB (“Is there a double standard”, 1997). The situation on the playing fields may not be as rosy as some would believe either. Tony Banks and Rodney Peete comment on the low number of African-American quarterbacks in the NFL, and Peete says, “We don’t often get the opportunity to go and make mistakes or get three or four years to develop” (“Is there a double standard”, 1997). Sherman Lewis, long time NFL assistant coach and Offensive Coordinator of the Green Bay Packers, ponders his situation. Lewis has seen two of his understudies, Steve Mariucci and Jon Gruden, given head coaching jobs ahead of him. Of Gruden, Lewis comments, “If you think Jon Gruden is more qualified for a head coaching position than me, it’s like saying I am more qualified to be president than Bill Clinton” (Hubbard, 1998). “Black athletes have taken pro sports to a higher level. But when it comes to who coaches, who manages, and who gets administration positions, athletics is strictly a white mans’ game” (Greenlee, 1998). Others view the numbers differently, and see no real discriminatory practices at work. A study to examine the relationship between the racial composition of NBA, NFL, and MLB teams and the racial composition of the franchise cities found that there were no systematic correlations (Leonard II, 1997). Previous theories held that cities with lower African-American populations fielded teams with lower percentages of African-American players, i.e., “The whiter the city, the whiter the team” (Leonard II, 1997). Leonard II’s study showed no such correlation and thus no directed bias or intentional segregation against African-American players on the part of NBA owners. Another study found no systematical bias of fan voting for MLB All-Stars in relation to race or ethnicity. The historical study found that by 1996 African-American players appeared to have an edge in fan selections which is “striking in light of the fact that black attendance at ball games is not only quite small but seems to have declined over the period” (“Color-Blind”, 1999). Still others feel that if there is a bias it is against white players. “If imbalances betoken bias, and if underrepresentation of various ethnic groups is a big, big problem, what shall we do about the scandalous underrepresentation of whites in most big-league sports?” (Seligman, 1987). Seligman’s true contention is that African-American athletes are simply better at their jobs, and that charges of bias and discrimination, and movements to enact affirmative action policies are brought up too readily.


Professional sports is not only entertainment but big business as well. As a business, the teams and leagues must concern themselves with dominant public issues. One such issue discussed in this paper are minority hiring practices. Comments by sports executives such as those made by Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott and former Los Angeles Dodger executive Al Campanis have led many to believe that racist and sexist beliefs run rampant among those who manage and run professional sports. A look at the numbers shows that this may or may not be the case.

At first glance, the rosters of pro sports teams seem to symbolize an ethnic diversity that should be admired and emulated. African-Americans could certainly think so, as this group comprises 75% of NBA rosters, 63% of the NFL’s, and 33% of MLB. But what of Hispanics and Asian-Americans whose only impact is in MLB, and even there at low levels of participation. These minority groups are under-represented at the collegiate level as well. In fact, only 1,400 Hispanics competed in major college sports in 1993-94 (Lapchick, 1995). Women, as a minority group, are faring much better, although their numbers still fall well behind those of their male counterparts. Thanks to Title IX, interest and participation has increased in women’s athletics. These opportunities have led to the formation of the WNBA, with other leagues to follow. Female athletes will continue to strive for equal compensation and endorsement opportunities in relation to their male peers, but their opportunity of expansion into new sports leagues far excels those of males.

The question of discrimination arises when one looks at the number of minorities who hold coaching and front office positions. Many observers feel the numbers should be more reflective of the people who actually play in the games. Presently, African-Americans constitute 13% of all head coaches in the NFL, 24% in the NBA, and 11% in MLB. These numbers are more in line with the overall African-American population in the U.S. of 12.2%, and are much more reflective of a truly diverse organization. The lack of other minority groups, where only one Hispanic holds a managerial position in MLB, should be more of a concern to the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Commission for Fairness in Sport. Senior front office positions are another story. One could assume that the knowledge of sports issues among minority groups is increasing due to participation and would be reflected in an increase in front office hiring. African-Americans hold 10% of the front office positions in the NFL and 11% in the NBA. Women hold 16% and 31% respectively. However, these positions are usually pigeonholed in particular jobs such as Director of Promotions, or Director of Marketing. Diversity demands an increase in these numbers and job titles.

Minority of hiring practices of professional sports teams and leagues should reflect society as a whole and not be based on the athletes who play the game. Yet, participation is important because it reduces the barriers in hiring relating to on-the-field experience and knowledge of competition. Before focusing on the private sector of professional sports, much progress can and should be made in the public sector, namely college athletics. At these mostly publically funded institutions of learning, experience can be gained by minorities in all areas from playing to management. Increased minority opportunities at the collegiate level will enable professional sports teams to identify successful candidates to fill similar positions in their organizations. According to the Northeastern University Report Card, professional sports have outperformed colleges in terms of minority and gender hiring. Professional sports teams and leagues should be credited with the work they have done, and continue to do through their internship programs for minorities. Minority hiring practices will be easier to monitor as professional sports leagues continue to expand. Expansion allows for teams to build their managerial staffs from the ground up rather than trying to fill one position at a time. More important, expansion presents the opportunity for minority ownership of teams.
A hiring practice that mirrors a society’s population cannot be labeled biased or discriminatory. Furthermore, if said hiring practice does not meet societal levels it does not necessarily mean that the organization is biased or discriminatory. Candidates for jobs not only have to be willing to participate but must meet all the qualifications for that position. Applicants must have the interest, ability, knowledge, experience and aptitude to carry out the job duties. In terms of professional rosters, one can easily argue that teams are simply employing the best available talent. The fact that so few Hispanics and Asian-Americans are competing in football, basketball and some respects baseball at the collegiate level makes the argument of having these groups more fairly represented at the professional level a moot point. As far as head coaching positions are concerned, one must remember that these are very exclusive and competitive jobs. Only thirty-one positions are available in the NFL. The four African-Americans who currently hold head coaching positions (13%) clearly mirror the overall U.S. population of this minority group. Are there more qualified African-American candidates to assume these roles? Most certainly. Should the number of African-American head coaches be raised simply to reflect the over-representation of African-American athletes participating in the games? Absolutely not!

Owners must be given credit for running their organizations. If owners are putting the best available talent on the field, and are color-blind enough to bolster their rosters with African-Americans, then it is just as conceivable that they are staffing their front offices with the best talent that they know. Ownership in sports league franchises is also an ultra-exclusive fraternity. Franchises are very expensive assets, and teams, for the most part, are run to win championships and generate income. To inflict a quota system on these privately held “corporations” is not only unfair, but does not allow these individuals to exercise all their business acumen that enabled them to become successful enough to buy a team in the first place. As more people compete and take part in athletics, particularly females, the greater the talent pool for jobs in sport will grow. In a perfect world we would all get the jobs we wished for. The fact is, if a professional sports team/league is hiring minority groups in a manner which mirrors their societal population, and they are hiring qualified personnel, then charging them with discriminatory behavior is difficult to justify.


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