Racism in American Sports

There has recently been a slew of headlines highlighting racism, harassment, and retaliation in one of America’s favorite sports, football.  

In November 2020, seven former University of Iowa players filed a lawsuit naming head coach Kirk Ferentz, Chris Doyle, and Brian Ferentz in claims alleging discrimination and harassment, failure to provide equal rights and protection, failure to train and supervise staff, and retaliation. Linebacker coach Seth Wallace was added as a defendant on April 8, 2022. The lawsuit alleges that head coach Kirk Ferentz “exacerbated racial disparities within the Program by hiring Wallace,” and that Wallace “discriminated against, bullied, demeaned, and harassed African American football athletes almost daily.” Kirk Ferentz was aware of the “racially discriminatory and hostile culture and environment,” but ignored complaints and took no action to correct the issues.  

Malik Hall, previous head coach of Bates College in Maine, filed a lawsuit against the president and trustees of the college alleging severe racial discrimination during his three-year tenure. Mr. Hall stated that the school fabricated stories that he and his offensive coordinator, who is also Black, committed sexual assault and attempted to arrange for football recruits to have sex with students. The lawsuit goes on to claim that Mr. Hall suffered and continued to suffer loss of reputation, opportunity, and economic damages. His wife and children are also named as plaintiffs alleging that the family was provided housing that was previously established as having black mold issues. Bates College has stated that the school disagrees with the accounts of events described in the media. 

Then there is Bryan Flores, previous head coach of the Miami Dolphins who filed suit against the NFL and was later joined by coaches Steve Wilks and Ray Horton. Flores alleges racial discrimination in the hiring process across the league. The NFL has denied these allegations and has moved to have the courts either force the three coaches into arbitration or dismiss the case without trial. 

According to the NCAA demographics research report, men’s football is currently comprised of 83% White male coaches with 55% of the athletes identifying as non-White. The NFL’s Diversity and Inclusion report reflects that 82% of the coaches are white males and 71% of the athletes are non-White. The numbers are clear, and they reveal a pattern. There are a disproportionate number of white men in leadership roles as compared to the high rates of athletes of color that they lead.  

In addition to the lawsuits, six state attorney generals including those of Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and New York issued a joint statement to the NFL expressing grave concerns over allegations of harassment of women and minorities. The NFL has been warned to take action to address the issues or face full investigations and prosecution where instances of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation are found. 

How both the NCAA and NFL intend to correct course with their policies, procedures, and training regarding, diversity, equity, and inclusion yet to remain seen. The allegations and onslaught of litigation coupled with demographic data suggests the need for profound change. Are these establishments ready to tackle the challenge?