A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics

Ajia I. Meux, PhD, MSW
Sr. Manager, Strategic Initiatives and Projects

American sport has always served as a platform for resistance and has been measured and critiqued by how it responds in critical moments of racial and social crises. From Muhammad Ali's defiant stand against racial inequality and the Vietnam War to Billie Jean King’s advocacy of gender equality in sports and society, American sports have been pivotal in shaping and reflecting societal attitudes. Over the last decade, we have seen a dramatic increase in the visibility of student-athletes nationally using their own identities and voices to call for action around racial and social justice. Because student-athletes don’t always get the opportunity to explore or have people to understand their identities outside of athletics, a tension exists between institutions and the identities of the students in service.

Athletics is a central part of the campus experience. Recognizing how institutional inclusion and equity practices foster inclusivity, broaden perspectives, and enhance the overall competitiveness and cultural richness of sports, the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE) in Higher Education established an “Athletics in the Academy” track in its annual programming. The purpose is to ensure a learning path to support institutional change around the issue of sport, race, and social justice. NCORE, a program of the Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies at the University of Oklahoma Outreach, organizes learning communities to explore issues of human conflict and resolution to sustain institutional change at the intersections of racial justice, social justice, sovereignty, and identity. The athletics space is an area where issues of inequity and exploitation of marginalized people operate in service of institutional goals. As the leading and most comprehensive national forum on issues of race and social justice in higher education, NCORE’s decision to include sports in programming was a natural one.

“So many student-athletes nationally were being called to take actions around racial justice,” said Justin Lincks, senior program administrator of NCORE. “A lot of athletes and student-athletes really focused on having a platform for changemaking in a way that our generation of athletes hadn't. We saw earlier examples in the 1960s and 1970s of athletes taking a stand, but we hadn't seen that in our contemporary moment.”

In 2013, NCORE and NCAA began discussing a partnership to understand the role of intercollegiate athletics and higher education. Since then, the two organizations have worked together to educate and inspire leadership, students, faculty, and staff to consider how equity efforts are integrated into athletics. Former NCAA President Mark Emmert led a university executive panel at NCORE 2014 in Indianapolis to explore the academic reforms of the NCAA and the influence those reforms have had on the academic performance gap. Katrice Albert, former executive vice president of NCAA’s Office of Inclusion, returned to NCORE 2018 and NCORE 2019 to host leadership panels exploring the intersections of racial/ethnic and gender representation, student-athlete welfare and support, and corporate inclusive excellence. In 2019, NCORE established an “Athletics in the Academy” call for proposals. In 2021, a caucus group was established on NCORE’s National Advisory Committee (NAC) to set conference program priorities around race and athletics. Felicia Martin, NCAA’s current senior vice president of inclusion, education and community engagement, and Niya Blair-Hackworth, the director of inclusion, joined NCORE’s Athletics in the Academy Caucus group in 2022.

As collegiate athletes, coaches, and sports staff begin to confront issues of discrimination, injustice, and inequality at their universities, the need for increased professional development became more and more clear. In response, NCORE and the NCAA partnered in 2023 to fill the learning and professional development needs of the NCAA’s Athletics Diversity and Inclusion Designees (ADIDs). ADIDs are staff members designated by a school’s chancellor/president or commissioner (or their proxy), that serves as the conduit for information related to national, local, and campus-level issues of diversity and inclusion and supports diverse and inclusive practices related to athletics. Because ADIDs may not necessarily have a background in diversity and inclusion, professional development opportunities that focus on contemporary and salient social and racial justice issues becomes uniquely important. Using NCORE’s Virtual Connections, a virtual conference in an asynchronous format, both organizations are working to fill a gap — empowering ADIDs with insights, strategies, and tools to address the evolving challenges in their roles.

Kenneth Cox, associate athletic director and head cross country and track and field coach at Birmingham-Southern College serves as the school’s ADID. With a 16-year BSC career, he shared that the ADID is instrumental in thinking about how institutions can evolve.

“You know what you know, and those things you don’t know, you seek guidance,” said Cox. “Oftentimes, it’s from people who have different experiences from you. It’s about being intentional about having those conversations and bringing in people who can help us have, not just surface conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Ultimately, this serves the student, positioning leadership to understand difference, not just with respect to race, but socio-economic status, gender equity, and abilities.

“As a leader, empowering student athletes, I don’t get to choose to only speak to athletes who look like me. In order to be an effective leader on a campus, in a community, or in a marketplace or city, my intention has to be bigger than my reality.”

Supporting the inclusion of student-athletes forces us to think about how their environment interfaces with their identities — from recruiting staff to coaches to the environment they have within their sport and athletics communities.

“A lot of times, depending on the campus, student-athletes are within their own bubble, so we work hard to make sure that students across campus are a part of cultures where they feel like they belong and are valued and supported,” explained Niya Blair-Hackworth. She is director of inclusion in the NCAA Office of Inclusion and focuses on race and ethnicity for the association and the national office and leads the overall diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives for the staff. 

Blair-Hackworth said that we must make sure that our student athletes are not left out of that conversation.

“This means we have to make sure DEI is integrated – from hiring, initiatives, environment within teams, and understanding student athletes’ multiple identities,” shared Blair-Hackworth.

NCORE’s race and athletics learning offerings has seen tremendous growth since the initial conversations with NCAA in 2014, cementing its commitment to the development of constructive, equitable, and transformative change in our institutions with respect to sport. Through both the in-person conference and virtual webinars, scholars and practitioners have offered examinations on innovative ways of teaching resistance, power, and social justice through sports, examining life after college sports, career development in Black male student-athletes, intersectionality, and mental health. The emergence of more contemporary issues around identity and athletics, particularly name, image, and likeness (NIL) policies, opens up further opportunities for discussion and critical dialogue at the intersection of race and athletics.

For more information about NCORE, visit ncore.ou.edu.