For most of my life, I have tried to use the power of sports as a platform to address serious social issues. Much of this was influenced by my experiences as a child with a father who was the first NBA coach to sign an African-American player. So, as I reflect on the most recent NBA season, I find myself so pleased to see the league and so many of its players stand up and speak out on social justice issues that face our nation today, including racism, gun violence, police/community relations and mental health issues.
What I find most inspiring is that the leaders of the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association are supportive of players when they speak on issues that are important to them. Commissioner Adam Silver, on a number of occasions, has voiced his support of players and encouraged them to use the platforms they have to voice their opinions. The NBA is fostering real change by helping develop the next generation of Muhammad Alis and Billie Jean Kings.
Additionally, NBA Voices was launched over the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend. It is a platform meant to address social injustices, bring about positive social change, and help mend divides in our communities. The initiative is intended to continue the league's efforts to bring people together and use the game of basketball to demonstrate the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion.
So, it is no surprise that in a time when strained racial tensions and gender inequality seem to dominate the headlines, the NBA forges its own path in an attempt to break these trends. It challenges these issues by showcasing talent that is overwhelmingly African-American and by constantly pushing for opportunities for women and people of color to lead its teams in business and basketball operations. Though there remains real room for improvement when it comes to the representation of women working for NBA teams, the NBA remains the most progressive league in men's sports.
The 2018 National Basketball Association Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) was released Tuesday, and, as was the case also in 2017, confirms the league's continued leadership in sports. Published by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, the report gave the NBA an A-plus for racial hiring practices and a B for gender hiring, with an overall A.
After reading the new report card, Jemele Hill, senior correspondent for The Undefeated, shared with me that, "The NBA has become a progressive model for other sports leagues and shows there is tremendous value in investing in gender and racial diversity. Not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because it's profitable. As the league continues to expand its worldwide brand, it's vitally important that the league strengthen its diversity efforts and not be satisfied where things stand right now, even though they've already established a high standard."
The 2017-18 season was a remarkable season of opportunity for people of color in the NBA. The league earned 98.7 points and an overall A-plus for racial hiring practices. There were only two positions in which the percentage of people of color in these roles did not increase. NBA players of color decreased from 80.9 percent to 80.7 percent in the 2017-18 season, whereas the percentage of head coaches of color at the beginning of the season remained the same as the previous year -- at 30 percent. However, because of coaching changes, at the end of the season, the percentage of people of color in those positions increased to 33.3 percent. The NBA leads all men's professional leagues in this position.
This year's report saw increases in the people of color holding team vice president positions (25.4), team management positions (31.2), team professional staff positions (39.5 percent), assistant coaching positions (45.7 percent), CEO/president positions (9.8 percent), general manager positions (20), and professional staff positions at the NBA League Office (36.4 percent). Most notably, the representation of people of color in general manager positions doubled from last season. The NBA also leads all men's professional leagues in this position.
As for ownership, representation for people of color is getting better. Michael Jordan is the majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Vivek Ranadive, who is from India, is the controlling owner of the Sacramento Kings. Marc Lasry, who was born in Morocco, is an owner of the Milwaukee Bucks. They were the first three owners of color to lead their teams simultaneously in any of the major professional sports leagues.
Delise O'Meally, the executive director on the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, commented on the report card. "The NBA as a league, and in particular the league office, has taken a dedicated and consistent approach to inclusion. While numbers may fluctuate each year based on market and other factors, their overall commitment for the long term ensures that diverse voices are not only in the room, not only around the table, but integrally woven into the decision-making process. The importance of this commitment cannot be overstated. The value of inclusion goes beyond social acceptance and helps to frame the future of any organization through engagement of voices and opinions that result in the best overall business decisions. The NBA, as a barrier-breaker, has led the way in all professional leagues with the first female referee, the first openly gay referee, the first female assistant coach -- these firsts don't occur in a vacuum and are instead the result of an inclusive business model that works."
The teams need to do much better on getting more women in leadership positions. Though the NBA continues to outperform all other men's leagues in their inclusion of women, the representation of women at the team level from the season leaves room for improvement. The categories in which the representation of women decreased were team vice president positions (23.5) and team professional staff positions (37.2). The categories in which the representation of women increased were team management positions (31.6) and professional staff positions in the NBA office (39.6).
Despite the decrease of the representation of women at the team level, there were a number of who women held high ranking positions this year. For instance, Cynthia Marshall (Dallas Mavericks), Maureen Hanlon (Brooklyn Nets), Matina Kolokotronis (Sacramento Kings), Jeanie Buss (Los Angeles Lakers), Gayle Benson (New Orleans Pelicans), Gillian Zucker (Los Angeles Clippers), and Julianna Hawn Holt (San Antonio Spurs) held the role as CEO, president, or majority owner of their respective NBA franchises. Kathy Behrens is the president of social responsibility and player programs, and Amy Brooks was promoted to president of marketing/business operations and chief innovation officer. Both of these women are two of the highest-ranking women in the league office in men's professional sports.
The NBA league office has the best record for people of color in men's professional sport. In fact, professional staff positions at the NBA office had the best representation of women out of all of the graded categories in this year's report.
The NBA has also been a leader in hiring women for coaching positions. For the third straight year, there were two women in assistant coaching positions. One of those women, Becky Hammon, was the first woman to interview for a head-coaching position in the NBA when she interviewed with the Milwaukee Bucks at the end of the season. I look forward to the day when a woman is finally hired as the head coach of a men's professional team. I am confident it will be for an NBA team.
Another area that got my attention was international players. Following a record-setting year in 2016-17, it was surprising to see the percentage of international players drop sharply from more than 25 percent to less than 20 percent.
While the NBA demonstrated great strides in the inclusion of people of color even with its impressive history in doing so, there is certainly ample opportunity for improvement in the inclusion of women. Nonetheless, the NBA has remained steadfast it its commitment to diversity and inclusion as illustrated with its superior grades to other men's professional leagues.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of Rainbow PUSH and longtime civil rights icon, observed that, "The NBA continues to be the standard-bearer for justice, fairness and equality on and off the court. The league as a whole is consistently making diversity and inclusion a priority and a reality through its hiring practices as observed in the most recent report card issued by Dr. Lapchick and his team. I commend commissioner Adam Silver for his leadership in providing opportunities for women and minorities, as well as creating programs such as NBA Voices to ensure that the league, the teams and the players are collectively given the means and support to 'keep hope alive.' The environment the NBA has created also allows stars like LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and others to passionately and confidently use their platforms to address societal injustices and refuse to just 'shut and dribble.'"
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual racial and gender report card and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook. Chelsea Stewart contributed to this column.