Diversity and Sports
Because sports is a microcosm of society, it can teach us volumes about diversity and the way we respond to diversity. Specifically, it can teach us about the human spirit, cultural differences, bias, teamwork, gender roles, and race relations. As we grow up, many of the most important lessons we learn from sports transcend sports. For example, playing sports as a child and teen taught me that guys were tough and athletic, while girls were weak and athletically challenged. Girls could not endure pain and therefore played non-contact sports. Guys, on the other hand, played contact sports like football and took pride in how much pain they could inflict on themselves and others. Many years later, after watching my wife endure 24 hours of labor and deliver our first child, I learned differently.
But enough about me. Recently, the movie Glory Road received considerable attention. As many of you know, it recounts the story of Texas Western College 's basketball team, and their journey to the NCAA basketball championship in 1966. What set this team apart, other than their talent, was the fact that their starting lineup was entirely black. Some forty years later, this is no big deal. As a matter of fact, a college team starting five white players today and winning the national title would be much more newsworthy.
Texas Western's white coach, Don Haskins, did not recruit these players to make a social statement. He recruited them because of their talent and work ethic. In the championship game, Haskins and his team were matched up against an all white University of Kentucky team coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp. Whether Rupp was a racist or not is subject to debate. What is not in doubt is the fact that Rupp's views at the time limited his ability to recruit the best available talent. By ignoring black prospects, he caved into the thinking shared by many people at that time. Blacks were viewed as incapable of playing smart, disciplined, team-oriented basketball.
Nowadays, the pool of basketball recruits embraces Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Native Americans, and people of all races and ethnicities. College, as well as professional coaches, recruit locally and globally with the hope of finding the best talent available. This is no different than what goes on in most organizations.
Nevertheless, some companies lag behind in their ability to think inclusively when it comes to recruiting. For example, my son Jimmy works for Walmart as do many other people with disabilities. Jimmy is one of the hardest workers I know, and Walmart was smart enough to see this. McDaniel College and Carroll Community College are savvy recruiters as well. Unlike many other businesses and educational institutions, they searched for the best available president, regardless of gender. Now, they are now both thriving under female leaders.
Some five years after Texas Western claimed the national title, coach Herman Boone dealt with an equally difficult challenge. Because of school desegregation laws that were just enacted, white and black players found themselves on the same high school football team in Alexandria , Virginia . These were players who had never ventured outside of their own racially homogenous communities. Boone's journey in building this team and winning the state championship that year is chronicled in the movie, Remember the Titans .
A few years back, I had the pleasure of hearing Coach Boone speak. Boone, an African-American, grew up in North Carolina and came from a family of 12 children. When he took over the reins at Alexandria 's T. C. Williams High School , he caught it from all sides. According to Boone, “white kids did not like the fact that I was black, and the black kids did not like the fact that I wasn't black enough.”
Someone asked him when the players started coming together as a team. Without hesitation, Boone replied, “When we started winning.” Sometimes, we learn the most about diversity when we are the least aware of it. When we come together with a singular, all-important goal in mind, things like gender, color, accent, and religion become less important or unimportant. Winning, talent, and commitment to the team override everything else.
Boone went on to say that he required each member of his team to get to know everybody else on the team. He demanded that they spend their down time going around to different players and talking with someone they did not know. According to Boone, he knew he had a team when players started “cracking” on each other. As he said jokingly, before someone makes a crack or “jokes about your momma,” you need to feel comfortable with that person.
In addition to the camaraderie, one of the things I enjoy so much about sports is that it is about as close as we come to a level playing field in our society. Unlike other social arenas, money, power, prestige, looks, race, gender, and ethnicity are meaningless in terms of who wins. Because sports' participants are on the same footing, they tend to be more open and honest with each other. With openness and honesty comes learning.
The challenge is to take what we learn and apply it in everyday life. For example, how can we apply the lessons we learn from Glory Road to local recruiting and global thinking in Carroll County ? How can we take what we learn from Remember the Titans and tailor it to the way we coach and manage diverse employees in the workplace?
Sports are learning laboratories. In sports, we can discover a setting in which we learn about each other, value diversity, and bridge socially constructed divisions of all kinds. In his book entitled Days of Grace , former tennis star and social activist Arthur Ashe talks about the importance of seeing beyond the barbed wire of differences and recognizing our common humanity. Sports can help us do that.