U-M experts explore increasing social responsibility, diversity in professional and college sports

April 29, 2024


Sports is big business—as well as big entertainment and big culture—so it stands to reason that what happens on the field and in the front offices of teams and leagues reflects on or resonates with broader society.

Two University of Michigan experts—Chris Rider, the Thomas C. Kinnear Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at the Ross School of Business, and Stefan Szymanski, professor of sport management at the School of Kinesiology—appeared on the latest episode of the podcast Business & Society to discuss the wide world of sports.

In addition to topics like the economic impact of the NFL draft or the changing connection between fame and athletics, the major subject of the episode is the increased emphasis on social responsibility and diversity, equity and inclusion across professional and college sports.

Rider said one consideration for increasing diversity and equity is implementing inclusive hiring practices and DEI strategies at entry- and mid-level career stages. His research shows that this will create more opportunities for coaches of color and women to gain the experience they need in assistant and coordinator positions—opening the door to more diverse team leadership.

“Some of the best innovations in terms of DEI policies come from the world of sports,” he said. “Arguably, the world’s most prominent DEI initiative is the Rooney Rule, which is a diverse candidate slate policy that was started in the NFL in 2003. The challenge in saying if the Rooney Rule or any other sort of gap-closing policy is effective is that they aren’t typically implemented in the way that a good social scientist would want to evaluate their effectiveness.

“The research that I have done suggests that if we want to be effective, many of the policies or strategies that we see in place would likely be more effective if they were implemented at lower levels—that is, the early career stages.”

Szymanski said the NFL is one of many sports organizations struggling to adopt effective DEI strategies. He studies the English soccer industry, particularly the Premier League, and finds similar challenges of inequity in their hiring and promotion practices.

“We need to figure out exactly where the bottlenecks are in the process,” he said. “The current research I’m working on is looking at a pool of players or former players and seeing three steps: At what stage do they end up in the management process, how are they promoted within coaching, and when they are fired—and coaches are always fired—at what stage are they fired and why are they fired?

“We need to gather more information about this in order to understand better, and also, frankly, to persuade more people that there is a real problem here.”

Business & Society is co-produced by JT Godfrey of the Ross School of Business and Jeff Karoub of Michigan News, and hosted by Karoub. The audio engineer is Jonah Brockman.