Sally Jenkins: NCAA hiring policies need drastic overhaul

I’m going to suspend my usual derision when it comes to NCAA presidents and athletic directors in order to pose a serious question to them: How do they square being members of that organization with being American? The reason I ask is because in looking at their demographics and hiring practices, for a moment I mistook them for a litter of rare Chinese albino kittens.

The NCAA just spent a week floating airy platitudes about inclusiveness versus discrimination at the NCAA Tournament in full shameless view of the public, over a potentially discriminatory Indiana law. Yet no one in the candor-flinching organization so much as skipped a shrimp buffet or returned a gift bag in a fit of social conscience over the fact that 87.7 percent of its Division I athletic directors are white. Or that 90 percent of them are men. Meantime, just 22 percent of college basketball coaches are black, while the hiring of female coaches is plummeting across all sports.

The NCAA is a small secure circle in which no one has to feel a moment of disquiet that they will have to meet anyone other than another version of themselves. Their most socially challenging moment is saying hello to Donna Shalala.

The NCAA needs a Rooney rule. Or two – one for women as well. Each year the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport issues a report card on the hiring practices of all the major sports leagues and entities. This year its NCAA report came out on March 5, just as tournament madness was underway, and frankly, the NCAA was probably relieved to be talking about gay pizzas and cakes. Because what the report showed is that the NCAA trails every single professional sports league in hiring diversity. Racially, it’s dead last. In hiring women – get this – it’s tied for last with the NFL.

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“That’s dismal,” says Texas women’s athletic director Chris Plonsky. “Dismal is the only way to put it.”

I thought I was shockless when it came to the NCAA. But the diversity report reveals why change is so slow in college athletics: because the NCAA doesn’t represent the makeup of its own campuses, much less of this country. It’s a small, bleached principality. How is it that NCAA power brokers are so overwhelmingly white male in 2014-2015 when women constitute approximately 57 percent of the people enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, and non-whites about 40 percent?

As the annual report’s main author Richard Lapchick says, these percentages “do not reflect who is playing on college sports teams or the America that we know.”

Mandates are a last resort. You’d like to think it wouldn’t take regulation or a threat from Congress to make universities – which rely on public funds – to interview women and people of color for jobs.

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You’d have thought the same of the NFL. But it wasn’t until passage of the Rooney Rule in 2003 that the NFL even thought about fair job interview practices. And while there have been 13 minority head coaches in the NFL since the rule was passed, there has also been backsliding. In 2012 eight head coaches and seven general managers were hired, none minorities.

Yet the NFL looks like a rainbow compared to the current NCAA.

Collegiate sports need a Rooney rule because nothing will change without it – the self-interest is too entrenched. If ever there was a group that needed arm-twisting and elbow jogging, it’s the NCAA athletic directors and presidents. Lopsided NCAA demographics show they have no intention of releasing their grasp on the sugar cookies without forcibly prying their fingers away.

Look at the gap between those in control of hiring and fiscal decisions, versus the people who actually compete in college athletics.

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In NCAA Division I football, 58.7 percent of the players are non-white. In basketball, 57.6 percent are African-American, while another 3.5 are two or more races. As for women, they make up. 43.4 percent of athletes across all NCAA divisions.

Yet 88 percent of presidents of the 126 universities in the Football Bowl Subdivision are white. The coaches they hire are 88.9 percent white. Their NCAA faculty representatives are 93 percent white. And almost 100 percent of their Division I conference commissioners, 29 of 30, are white. What’s clear is that hosts of qualified people are not even getting interviews for jobs. Ex-athletes are the pool you could reasonably expect new hire to come from, yet they’re only fractionally represented.

These hiring practices are a longtime trend, and they’re only trending worse, not better. You would think that with the growth of women’s sports, especially basketball, it would create jobs for women. Instead, the number of women coaches is declining in all sports. Forty years after Title IX females hold only 38 percent of the head jobs in Division I women’s sports, and also less than half of assistant coaching jobs. Lapchick, who has been collecting NCAA diversity data since the 1980s, calls this “the single most striking and disturbing set of statistics” he has seen. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Why is it important to mandate broader candidate pools? Because the NCAA is choking off talent rather than encouraging it and that’s not a true meritocracy. Female athletes need to see women coaches and athletic directors, “so they can see themselves doing it,” says former Texas coach Jody Conradt. As the saying goes, it’s hard to be what you don’t see.

When current Texas football coach Charlie Strong, who is black, was finally hired for his first head job at Louisville in 2009, he wept at the press conference. Asked why, he replied, “Because you just never knew if it would happen.”

Plonsky says, “How many women feel that way?” She adds, “When people see a competent and pressured woman in any field, be it coaching, service, or administration, they believe you have been through battles, you have survived and have some scars, and you have responsibility because you earned it.”

The homogeneity of NCAA decision makers who control the silos of advancement means women and minority athletes can’t envision much of a future in the field they love. Perhaps the most damning number in the report is that 71 percent of associate athletic directors are white – and just 29 percent are female. What that means is the next wave of NCAA athletic directors will look just exactly like this one. Unless it’s forcibly changed.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at