Lapchick: MLB’s diverse hiring practices don’t quite match stated commitments to social change

  • American leader of the sports boycott of South Africa from 1975 until the end of apartheid
  • Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida
  • Author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card
  • Directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport
  • Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport

Editor’s note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author. He is president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, chairman of the DeVos Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

Six months ago, it seemed the biggest storyline going into the 2020 major league baseball season would be a cheating scandal featuring one of the league’s premier teams, the Houston Astros. In reality, things are incredibly different than any of us could have imagined. Between the long and difficult path to starting a season amid the COVID-19 pandemic and making the intentional decision to join the global movement for social justice during the racial reckoning, this is a season and year unlike any other. With these added challenges, it is important that decision-makers throughout baseball seize this unique moment to enact real change on the field and in front offices to make the sport better moving forward.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States in March, MLB was in the middle of spring training throughout Florida and Arizona, two future hot spots for the virus. As in all other sports, this forced a temporary but long-lasting shutdown and delayed the start of the unique 2020 season by months.

After things shut down, there were tense, long-lasting and at times public negotiations between club owners and the MLB Players Association aimed at finding a safe and economically viable way to get back on the field. Both parties eventually came to an agreement. This helped begin the healing process for Americans with major league baseball becoming the first of the big four men’s sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NHL, NFL) to return to regular-season action, on July 23. The league’s plan included a 60-game schedule, a 16-team postseason, 30-man active rosters and 60-man player pools for teams to pull from in the case of COVID-19 outbreaks, among other new safety precautions put in place by the league and teams to protect players and coaches.

On May 25, the year took another sharp turn when George Floyd was killed in a blatant instance of police brutality in Minneapolis, sparking the racial reckoning and the largest mobilization of people in history with an estimate of between 15 million and 26 million people marching in the streets across the United States and around the world, according to polls. This came in addition to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. After Floyd’s death, the Minnesota Twins made multiple statements in support of the racial and social justice movement and removed a statue of the team’s former owner Calvin Griffith, who made explicitly racist comments in the past. The Twins also donated $25 million to the racial justice movement in the Twin Cities. Through these actions, they helped pave the way for major league baseball as well as its players and teams to use their platform to fight for social justice in America.

The flames of the racial justice movement were again fanned this week after Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was shot seven times in the back by police, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. A white teenager described as a vigilante shot three protesters, killing two of them. This sparked louder outcries for change.

The Milwaukee Bucks announced they would boycott their playoff game with the Orlando Magic, which led to the NBA and the NBPA agreeing to call off all the playoff games Wednesday. Similar to when the NBA suspended the season early in the pandemic, leading to America shutting down, the NBA again led the way. It was the most important power-of-sport moment in more than 50 years, making me think of John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the victory stand in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and Muhammad Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam.

The NBA/NBPA announcement was followed by the postponement of all Wednesday WNBA games, as well as many games in MLS and MLB. The NHL completed three playoff games that night, which drew criticism, and the NHL later postponed all of its Thursday and Friday playoff games. Two-time major tennis champion Naomi Osaka announced Wednesday that she would not play her semifinal match Thursday in the Western & Southern Open. The tournament later announced it would pause play for a day.

The Milwaukee Brewers led the way for baseball Wednesday, refusing to play their game against the Cincinnati Reds to send a message that they are united for change and outraged by the events that took place less than an hour outside their city. The Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres followed suit, refusing to play in the wake of a movement far more important than sports. The words “Black Lives Matter” were displayed on the scoreboard screen after the postponement of the game between San Francisco and L.A.

In the past three-plus months, team social media accounts have shown support for the racial justice movement. Some efforts have stood out more than others. The Tampa Bay Rays have been consistent on this front. On Opening Day, the Rays tweeted about the need for justice for Taylor, a young woman who was shot and killed by three police officers in her Louisville apartment in March. After the police killing of Floyd, the team pledged $100,000 each year to social justice efforts while providing a strong statement condemning systemic racism and the senseless killing of Black Americans by police. Although other teams have shown support for these issues, none has been as forthright as the Rays.

On-field demonstrations of support have also been evident since the season began last month. All Opening Day games featured a pregame message narrated by the legendary Morgan Freeman that included the statement “Equality and unity cannot be until there is empathy.” During this message, players on both teams in each game kneeled in unison while holding a black ribbon. Multiple prominent figures across the league, including 2018 MVP Mookie Betts, now with the Dodgers, and Giants manager Gabe Kapler showed support by kneeling during the national anthem. Kapler drew criticism from President Donald Trump. Many white players across the league also kneeled in support. Players had the option of wearing “Black Lives Matter” or “United for Change” patches on their jerseys for their opening games, and teams could elect to stencil an inverted MLB logo with “BLM” or “United for Change” on the back of the pitcher’s mound during opening weekend games.

Commissioner Rob Manfred and those at the central office have worked hard to expand the platform of MLB players so they can express themselves and show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and other issues. Do the league’s diverse hiring practices match its stated commitments to social change?

Today, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its 2020 Major League Baseball Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC). This date was designated by MLB as Jackie Robinson Day for the 2020 season because of the cultural significance that Aug. 28 holds to the Black community. It commemorates both the famous 1963 March on Washington — where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech — and the day that Jackie Robinson first met with Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey and was told he would become the face of integration not just in baseball but in American society.

MLB showed significant improvement in some important areas but continues to have glaring weak spots that need to be addressed. The league earned a B+ for its racial hiring efforts, a C for gender hiring, and an overall B grade in the 2020 RGRC.

Every year, TIDES analyzes diverse hiring efforts in the league’s central office and for important positions on each of its 30 teams. The 2020 report card demonstrates that although the league’s stated commitment to diversity holds true in the central office, there is plenty of room for improvement at the team level. The overall grade for the 2020 MLB RGRC is 80.7 points (a B), increasing from 79.5 points (a B-) despite a more difficult grading scale due to grading team CEO/presidents and team vice presidents beginning this year.

As is the case with other professional sports covered by TIDES reports, MLB’s central office set the pace with 37.5% of its employees being people of color and 40.1% being women. These numbers are on par with the NBA, which is a consistent leader in the diversity and inclusion space. I was also pleased to see that, earlier this month, MLB hired Michele Meyer-Shipp, a Black woman, from KPMG to be its chief people and culture officer starting in October.

The position of team CEO/president was graded in MLB’s RGRC for the first time in 2020. These roles have been held primarily by white men in all leagues. TIDES believes grading this position holds teams more accountable in finding ways to increase diversity within these key positions, which are ultimately responsible for developing and executing the overall strategy and operations of the clubs within each league. MLB earned an F for racial and gender hiring for this position, as 29 of the 30 CEO/presidents are white men, with the lone exception being Derek Jeter, CEO of the Miami Marlins. Teams must do a better job of hiring diverse candidates for executive roles as these numbers are unacceptable.

MLB ownership numbers also remain stunningly white and male. Of the 40 majority owners reported, 39 are white men and just one (Arturo “Arte” Moreno of the Los Angeles Angels, a Latino man) is a person of color. No women are majority owners.

Another area that needs significant improvement is the general manager/president of baseball operations position for teams across the league. MLB earned a C- for this category as there are just four people of color in these roles, equating to 13.3%. This number has stagnated since 2015 and is considerably lower than the peak of 19.2% recorded in 2010. It is imperative that clubs improve diversity at the head of baseball operations level.

Despite strong overall numbers for MLB players of color, at 39.8% of the league, the vast majority of whom are Hispanic or Latino, opportunities for Black or African American players remain scarce as they represent just 7.5% of all players. This information comes from players self-identifying to MLB, which sends the data to TIDES. This is the lowest percentage TIDES has recorded since the first MLB RGRC in 1991 and is far below the peak of 19% reached a quarter century ago in 1995. This persistent and continuous decline is concerning. On the other hand, the Seattle Mariners led the league on Opening Day with nine Black or African American players, representing 30% of the team’s roster.

The league’s efforts to increase Black and African American participation have shown some positive results through the first-year player draft between the years 2012 and 2020. During that time frame, most of the 17.6% of players drafted in the first round have been Black. I am hopeful that this will translate to a positive shift at the major league level.

Baseball continues to be a worldwide sport as 28.1% of players on Opening Day rosters were born outside of the U.S., representing 20 countries or territories. MLB has done a fantastic job of spreading the game beyond America and garnering participation by people of diverse backgrounds.

Club managers essentially serve as the head coaches of a baseball team. They represent the team in news conferences and make crucial decisions about playing time and opportunities made available to players. Most are the face of the club. This position again showed improvement, with six managers of color (20%), up from five in 2019 and four in 2018. The six managers of color include one African American manager, one manager of two or more races, and four Hispanic or Latino managers, which ties the all-time high set in 2004 and matched in 2011 and 2019. This improvement is a good sign but still does not accurately represent the racial demographics of MLB players. It is far below its peak in 2009, when 33.3% of MLB managers were people of color.

The coaching category on MLB teams provided lots of good news. Just like in last year’s Racial and Gender Report Card, well over 40% of MLB coaches were people of color, 32.8% of whom were Hispanic or Latino and 6.3% of whom were Black or African American. The position of coach proves to be more representative of the race of players on the field than that of manager.

Additionally, the number of women with on-field coaching or player development positions in 2020 reached 21, increasing significantly from seven in 2018 and just three in 2017. Early in 2020, the Giants made history by hiring Alyssa Nakken to their coaching staff, then making her the first woman ever to be an on-field coach with an MLB team when she coached first base during an exhibition game against the Oakland Athletics on July 20. MLB’s efforts to create more opportunities for women throughout the sport are showing early payoffs, which I hope to see continue to a greater extent in the future.

Diverse hiring in business operations for MLB clubs, while mostly stagnant, also gave some reason to be cautiously optimistic. At the team vice president level, racial and gender hiring practices showed slight improvement, improving from 14.1% to 14.9% and from 19.2% to 20.0%, respectively. Beyond that, 28 of 30 MLB teams have at least one woman in the role of vice president or above, with the Boston Red Sox leading the way with 12.

Next is the senior management level, made up of jobs including but not limited to directors, managers, general counsel and assistant vice presidents. Racial and gender hiring practices remained mostly consistent with last year’s RGRC here, with people of color and women continuing to represent just over 19% and just under 29% of these positions, respectively.

At the professional administration level, which includes titles such as specialists, technicians, supervisors, analysts, programmers and more, 24% of jobs were held by people of color, which is the highest TIDES has ever recorded for MLB. However, women held just over 25% of these roles, which was a decrease from 26% in last year’s RGRC and earned only a D+ for the category.

MLB has a chance now to become even more involved in the fight for racial justice in America. I admire the league’s recent affirmations of commitment to the cause and demonstrations of support for the Black community in these times of racial tension and much-needed change. The league showed progress this year in many areas, but there is still so much room for improvement, particularly in positions of serious power such as team ownership, executives and vice presidents. The league must also continue to focus on attracting more Black players to get back to the level of representation the sport had in the 1990s.

Major league baseball’s rocky path to its 60-game season, lack of fans in the stands and an expanded postseason format show us all the importance of working together. The MLBPA and owners across the league had many disagreements throughout the negotiation process but managed to put their differences aside and get back on the field while igniting the league’s efforts for justice. Just as the two sides worked together to get the season started, we all must work together to fight systemic inequality and move toward a better world for all.

I often say that athletes are the ones with the platform and power to create meaningful change in society as well as in sport. I am immensely proud of them for standing up to fight racial injustice in America and using their voices to lift the Black community. Showing solidarity with each other now and moving forward is the key to unlocking the potential for widespread change and a better future.

I applaud the commissioner and his team at Major League Baseball for being a beacon of hope and normalcy by finding a way to play during these difficult times. I anticipate even more positive results to come from the league’s diversity and inclusion initiatives in coming years so it can become a leader in the space alongside some of its sports league counterparts.

David Morrin contributed to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.

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