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The annual Racial and Gender Report Card for professional and college sport, which I write, is mistakenly viewed by some as a tool to encourage the hiring of people of color and women. My goal, and the goal of most who work in diversity management, is to push for the best person to be hired, whether that person is African-American, Latino, Asian, Native American or white, and whether that person is male or female.
The problem: We hire white men in overwhelming numbers, while people of color and women often are excluded from the search process itself.
Today, I applaud Delaware State University, a historically black university, for its courage in hiring Chuck Bell, who happens to be white, as its new athletics director in the face of certain opposition. Already, people at the school are saying it's wrong for a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to have a white athletics director.
I am confident Bell will serve the school's mission and vision for its future, but he will have a difficult time overcoming the critics. One must ask the question: Is the university best served by hiring the best people of color, or the best people irrespective of color? It seems in this case, it made the decision to hire the person it considers to be the most talented.
There will be people on Delaware State's campus, as well as at other schools, who hope Bell fails. But based on his previous record, failure seems unlikely.
Some will view him, unfairly, as an "overseer," dictating to his staff. Bell is going to have to consider all of his decisions very carefully, with an eye toward how they will be perceived on campus; and in many ways, that puts him in an unfair situation -- a situation the few African-Americans who have been ADs on predominantly white campuses have also endured.
Bell, who has hired many people of color as head coaches in his previous roles, knows unfair expectations often are placed on people of color who are hired for a high-profile position. I think Bell, who hired Dr. Fitz Hill as head football coach at San Jose State, can work with the table reversed at Delaware State.
Shelly Terry is a former basketball player at Alabama A&M, also an HBCU. She said, "Some alumni, staff and a few students will always resent [Bell's] presence. Of that, I am sure. However, I also know that black people are fairly accepting. We want to cheer for the Asian guy singing country at the Apollo. We want to applaud the poorly dancing white guy at the party. Ultimately, if Bell can show the Delaware State/HBCU community that his vision is aligned with the school's and that his motives are honorable, eventually he will be accepted -- probably even give him a cool nickname."
Please do not misunderstand my point. I am strongly in favor of bringing more African-Americans, other people of color and women into top executive positions in college sports. The reality is that just 3.4 percent of all Division I athletics directors are black, while 95 percent are white. These figures exclude the HBCUs, where it is often assumed that all student-athletes and employees are African-American. Last year, 80 percent of the nearly 3,300 students enrolled at Delaware State were African-American, and 13 percent were white. That is almost exactly the national average for white students at HBCUs.
Current data from the Department of Education shows there are 34,908 whites enrolled at the HBCUs, making up 12 percent of all enrollments. That is actually down from 13.1 percent in 1993.
There are a handful of white coaches and other officials in athletic departments at the HBCUs. However, the schools' athletics director positions have been held almost exclusively by African-Americans. HBCUs have not often been in a position to hire anyone with experience running a Division I-A program, but Bell has led two I-A programs -- at Utah State and San Jose State.
Bell has the support of Delaware State men's basketball coach Greg Jackson.
"When we looked at the candidates, he fit the bill," Jackson says.
And Delaware State's president, Allen Sessoms, says that, "it is about going to the next level. There is no color to a win."
Bell is willing to take the risk and accept the challenge, hoping students, faculty and administrators at Delaware State will view his past record and see he has enormous credibility on diversity issues.
While he was at San Jose State, nearly half of the head coaches Bell hired were people of color, including Hill, who now works with me at the Institute for Diversity and Ethics and Sport at the University of Central Florida. At the time, Hill was only the fifth African-American head coach in Division I-A football.
Hill tells me that under Bell, the athletics department at San Jose State was the most diverse in the Western Athletic Conference and one of the most diverse in the country. Bell had people of color serve as women's basketball coach, men's and women's gymnastics coaches, tennis coach and softball coach. In each of those Division I sports, none have people of color making up more than 9.6 percent of the head coaches nationwide.
Now, Bell is the first white athletics director at Delaware State, and white ADs at HBCUs are even more rare than African-American head football coaches.
Floyd Keith, the executive director of the Black Coaches Association, which pushes hard to improve opportunities for African-Americans in college athletics, said, "Delaware State did exactly what we ask schools to do: Have a real selection process that finds the finest pool of diverse candidates and then choose the best of the group. Chuck Bell is an excellent choice."
Hill, Keith and I dream of a day when we will not notice the color or gender of those hired and fired in college sport. But understanding that we are a long way from that day, we salute Delaware State for choosing the best candidate and having the courage to do the right thing in its selection process.
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. The author of 10 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.