Sports league execs talk social justice, path forward to internal change

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Largely silent in the past on matters deemed political or related to social justice movements, American professional sports leagues and their players publicly advocated for social change and against racial injustice when returning to play this summer. Whether kneeling for the national anthem, postponing games as a result of player strikes, encouraging people to vote, or covering playing surfaces and jerseys with social justice messages, the actions taken collectively by these leagues were as demonstrative as they’ve ever been.

But while these efforts, for the most part, received praise from those who were critical of the leagues’ silence in the past, questions remain about whether these words have actually motivated internal change within the organizations themselves. Whereas the NBA and NFL are made up of primarily Black players, their front offices and coaching staffs do not come particularly close to mirroring that diversity on the whole.

Renie Anderson, chief revenue officer and EVP of NFL Partnerships, knows that policies like the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least two minority candidates for head coaching positions and at least one for football operations and general manager jobs, aren’t enough on their own.

“The key point is, even on the executive side, we have to begin to train people,” Anderson said during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Thursday. “If the answer is oftentimes, ‘Well, there just weren’t any people that were completely ready or qualified for this position,’ then we need to begin in the junior ranks and focus on training individuals in key areas of focus.”

Both Kate Jhaveri, EVP and CMO of the NBA, and Michele Meyer-Shipp, chief people and culture officer of MLB, reiterated Anderson’s message, with Jhaveri noting that the NBA has started an internal social justice task force focused on “increasing Black representatives across the NBA, both in the basketball side and the business side” and Meyer-Shipp speaking to MLB’s own efforts.

“We know we can do better,” Meyer-Shipp said. “There’s a great pipeline of programs that MLB runs right now to bring in talent at the junior level, but where we really need to double down our efforts is how do we get talent in at that lateral and experienced higher level in our front offices.”

Getting Black, Hispanic, and Latino talent in “key roles on the field” is equally important, she added. “What happened this summer and the attention and spotlight that has been shown on racial justice has made us realize we need to double down and accelerate those efforts.”

Of course, each of the sports league execs said they were proud of the way their organizations and their players have taken advantage of their platforms to advocate for meaningful change and reform.

“When we looked to the restart in general, we knew we had a unique opportunity with this single site to really think about how we could bring attention to these issues,” Jhaveri said of the NBA’s approach. “Then, when Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha, the Milwaukee Bucks did not play their game, and that was a moment for us to step back and think, ‘Are we doing enough? And, how can we continue to further our collective action?’”

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