The WNBA leads all sports leagues in diversity and inclusion

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The most recent study released by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) assessed the racial and gender hiring practices of the Women's National Basketball Association . Once again the WNBA is ahead of all the men's leagues in terms of racial and gender diversity and inclusion. The WNBA had a combined grade of an A for race and gender, which included individual grades of an A+ for race and an A for gender, which we have broken down here. This was the 13th consecutive year that the WNBA has received at least A's for its overall race, gender and combined grades.

While athlete activism has received increased attention over the past two months, protests by WNBA players have been going on for much longer and gotten far less consideration. In the 2016 season, the Fever, Liberty, and Mercury were fined under the WNBA's uniform policy after wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. Not ones to stop expressing themselves, these players protested the fines by only talking about the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and other instances of police violence and not about basketball in their postgame news conferences. They were joined by the Minnesota Lynx who wore similar shirts, which caused four off-duty local police working game security details to walk out. The fines all players received were eventually dropped. The 2016 season also saw the entire Fever team take a knee during the national anthem, joined by two players from the Mercury.

The 2017 WNBA season witnessed the Mystics and Sparks locking arms during the national anthem on a nationally televised game in response to the racially-fueled violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the same time, the Liberty hosted a town hall about race featuring athletes, racial justice advocates, and members of law enforcement.

During the first game of the 2017 WNBA Finals, the Minnesota Lynx linked arms in solidarity during the anthem while their opponents, the Los Angeles Sparks, walked off the court and into the locker room. If TIDES was to give a grade for athlete activism, the WNBA players would get an unquestionable A+.

However, the current report card does give grades in all the major professional categories in the league office and on the teams. The WNBA received the highest number of A's as well as the lowest number of grades below an A in all categories compared to men's professional leagues. The National Basketball Association was the only men's league that was comparable with an A for racial hiring practices and a B for gender hiring practices in the 2017 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card. More specifically, the WNBA experienced increases in most of the categories, with the most notable increases occurring in the racial hiring of head coaches and staff at the WNBA league office.

Katrina Adams USTA chairman, CEO and president, shared this after seeing the report, "The WNBA is to be commended for its continuing commitment to diversity and inclusion through all levels of the association. They set a very high bar, and are clearly the industry standard."

The WNBA, closely followed by the NBA, is the most diverse league office in professional sports with 38.8 percent of all professional positions being held by women and 26.1 percent of all positions being held by people of color. There are 39 women and 16 people of color serving as vice presidents in the WNBA team front offices. A particularly encouraging sign was that after four years of a steady decline in the percentage of women in senior team administrator positions, there was a significant 4 percentage point improvement this year, with women holding 27.7 percent of these positions.

Furthermore, it is promising that the WNBA demonstrated increases for women and/or people of color in the key leadership positions of head coach, general manager, team vice president and team CEO/President. As a result of this, I feel confident that the WNBA will sustain the powerful diversity of their league for years to come. Listed below are examples of these results:

● There were five African-American head coaches (41.5 percent), a two-person increase from the 2016 season. There were six women as head coaches in the 2017 season, which was an increase of one compared to the 2016 season.

● There were six women and three African-American general managers. While there was no change in the number of women there was an increase of one for African-Americans in this role.

● There were five women who were CEOs/presidents, the same as in 2016. There were three people of color who held these positions in 2017, which was an increase from two in 2016.

An additional highlight from the report is that the WNBA has done well to offer opportunities to former players. This year for instance, former WNBA players Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever) and Swin Cash (New York Liberty) acquired front office positions at their former teams as the directors of franchise development. Erin Phillips also started the season as the director of franchise development for her former team (Dallas Wings) before being promoted to assistant coach at the conclusion of the 2017 season. Former player Penny Taylor (Phoenix Mercury) was also named the director of player development for her former team.

While the grades of the professional leagues and college sports have improved for racial hiring practices over the years, the area in which the WNBA significantly distinguishes itself is in gender hiring practices. Therefore, I believe the call to action from this Racial and Gender Report Card is that all other professional leagues and college sport must do a better job hiring women. I hope that this report inspires leagues to promote the inclusion of women, and challenges them all to raise their grade for gender hiring practices.

As I stated before, I am sure many critics will respond with, "the WNBA is a women's league," but such gender equality in leadership positions is not always the norm, even when it comes to women's sports. The most recent studies continued to show that more than 60 percent of all women's college teams are coached by men, and more than 50 percent of all assistant coaches of women's college teams are men.

Donna Orender, who was the second president of the WNBA and is now CEO of Orender Unlimited, said, "The WNBA consistently demonstrates that when an organization chooses to embrace diversity as a core value of management, it is absolutely possible."

Despite this exceptional praise for the WNBA, it is imperative that the league continues to push the boundaries of currently accepted racial and gender diversity practices. As the most diverse league, I think the WNBA has the ability to serve as a model for the power of a truly inclusive organization. We have seen examples of this through the social activism efforts of WNBA leadership and players. The way this diverse group stands together on uncomfortable social issues can positively influence and educate our greater society. I am thankful that we have an organization composed of individuals who are not afraid to act on what they believe in and who serve as an example of the power of sport.

Todd Currie and Destiny Orr made significant contributions 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 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.