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NBA remains industry leader for racial and gender hiring practices

Magic Johnson's resignation leaves Jeanie Buss with difficult decisions to make about the front office and coaching staff. Allen Berezovsky/WireImage

As racial tensions continue throughout the nation, the NBA shows a different path. By showcasing incredibly talented players -- who happen to be overwhelmingly African-American -- while also pushing hard for opportunities for women and people of color to lead their teams in both business and basketball operations, the NBA is an industry leader for change. They are surely not perfect in the latter areas, but they are a model for America.

In an era where isolationism seems to be gaining ground, NBA stats on the number of international players warmed my heart. More than 25 percent of the NBA's players were international during the 2016-2017 season. That was the highest percentage in NBA history. These players came from 41 countries and territories.

The NBA remains the industry leader among men's sports for racial and gender hiring practices. I have been writing Racial and Gender Report Cards on all the men's professional sports and college sports for more than 25 years. While the other leagues have made good strides from where they were in the late 1980s, none have caught up to the NBA whose leadership on these issues started with David Stern and continues with Adam Silver as the commissioner.

The 2017 National Basketball Association Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) was released today, and it confirmed the league's continued leadership position in the sports industry. Published by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, the report gave the NBA an A for racial hiring practices and a B for gender hiring with an overall A-.

Mark Tatum, the NBA's COO and the highest-ranking person of color in any of the men's leagues, reflected that, "Diversity and inclusion are essential to any successful business. Leveraging the mix of talent reflected in this year's Racial and Gender Report Card is vital to our strategy of inspiring innovation and increasing our connection with fans worldwide. While the report refers to a number of areas where we've made progress, it also highlights key opportunities for us, particularly among women in leadership roles. As our league continues to grow globally, we remain committed to recruiting and retaining the best talent who reflect the great diversity of the world we live in."

The 2017 Report Card was based on a new grading scale that better represented America's changing demographics. Any declines in grades were almost totally attributed to the new grading scale. Overall, the NBA actually improved in many areas covered in the report card.

This year's report saw increases in the people of color holding team professional administration positions (32.6 percent), assistant coaching positions (45.4 percent), CEO/president positions (6.9 percent), and team vice president positions (19.5 percent). In addition, the percentage of NBA officials of color increased to 50 percent.

Michael Jordan was the majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Vivek Ranadive, who is from India, was the controlling owner of the Sacramento Kings. Marc Lasry, who was born in Morocco, is an owner of the Milwaukee Bucks and is the NBA's third owner of color. They were the first three owners of color to lead their teams at the same time in any of the major professional sports leagues.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, the founder and leader of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said, "The NBA has been a leader in this area for many years. Their overall record is outstanding, but there are some key positions where there can be improvement including team presidents, general managers and even coaches." There were a few positions in which the percentage of people of color in these roles decreased. NBA general managers of color decreased from four to three (10 percent) in the 2016-2017 season. The percentage of people of color who held team senior administration positions decreased by 0.1 percentage points from 23.5 percent in 2015-2016, to 23.4 percent in 2016-2017. At the NBA League Office, 35.1 percent of professional staff positions were held by people of color, a slight decrease from 35.3 percent at the end of the 2015-2016 season.

The NBA has also outperformed all other men's leagues in their inclusion of women. For instance, Kathy Behrens, president of social responsibility and player programs, is the highest-ranking woman in a men's professional sport. Matina Kolokotronis (Sacramento Kings), Jeanie Buss (Los Angeles Lakers), Gillian Zucker (Los Angeles Clippers), Irina Pavlova (Brooklyn Nets), and Julianna Hawn Holt (San Antonio Spurs) held the role of president or CEO for NBA franchises as of the beginning of the 2016-2017 season. This was more than in any other of the men's professional sports for each of the past two years.

Regarding increases of women in positions examined in this report, there were increases in the number of women in team vice president positions (24.2 percent), team senior administration positions (29.3 percent) and team professional administration positions (40.1 percent). In fact the only decrease recorded in the number of women in a graded position in this study was in the NBA League Office (38.8 percent), which was a very slight decrease from 39.6 percent in the 2015-2016 report. However, the 24.2 percent of vice president positions at the NBA team level held by women, despite setting a record high, was graded as a D. The 29.3 percent at the team senior administrative level was a C-.

Those grades for women in senior team positions leaves significant room for improvement.

Deborah Antoine, the CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation which is the leading advocate for women and girls in sports, appreciated the overall record of the NBA but pointed out an area of need. She told me, "With an overall A- on the Racial and Gender Report Card, the NBA sets the standard for a diverse workforce in men's professional sport leagues. While this is certainly reason to celebrate, there remain areas for improvement including working to increase the number of women, especially women of color, in senior level positions on NBA teams."

Although there were slight declines for people of color and women in professional positions, the NBA League Office continued to have the highest percentage of people of color and women who held professional positions among all league offices of American men's major professional sports that TIDES covers.

The NBA has also been a leader in hiring women for coaching positions. There were again two women assistant coaches in 2016-2017 with Becky Hammon with the San Antonio Spurs and Nancy Lieberman with the Sacramento Kings. No other men's professional league has ever had a female assistant coach for a full season.

Many NBA teams across the league have made a significant commitment to racial and gender hiring in their vice president positions. As of the start of the 2016-2017 season, there were 22 teams with more than one vice president of color. Twenty-one teams had three or more women as vice presidents.

Diversity initiatives are a major priority for the NBA as well, and they had an outstanding variety of diversity initiatives impacting a number of areas including employee training and development, employee recruitment, vendor diversity and community relations, as outlined in our report. In addition, in June 2015, the NBA hired Oris Stuart as chief diversity and inclusion officer.

While there is certainly ample opportunity for improvement for the NBA, overall, I think it is noteworthy and a testament to the NBA's commitment to diversity and inclusion that within this report there are only a limited number of decreases in the employment of women and people of color across the league. And most categories showed increases. As America struggles with race relations and fights an incomplete battle for the equality of women and xenophobia, the strong example that the NBA continues to set can give us hope.

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. 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. Todd Currie and Destini Orr contributed to this column.