Ideas About Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives for Our Student-Athletes

Q: I work in the athletics department of a University that is a small, white liberal arts school. What strategies do you recommend for diversity and inclusion initiatives for our student-athletes, who are the most diverse group of students on campus? Thank you.

For a number of colleges and universities across the nation, the athletic department represents the most diverse group of students, staff, and administrators on campus. Athletics is sometimes touted as the “Front Porch” of the university, intimating that the student-athletes and their sport endeavors present a visual connection point for internal and external communities alike. The challenge for these (and all other athletic departments) is to not rest on obtaining the diversity that exists within the department, but to celebrate, value, and support the diverse individuals through active inclusion.

Strategies that support inclusion are implemented with the purpose of leveraging diversity to successfully achieve organizational goals. Success goals specific to student-athletes center around academic progress, holistic wellbeing, and the higher education experience. To value diversity, one of the first agreements that has to be made is the understanding that difference does not mean difficience. Celebrating and integrating groups of diverse individuals finds purposeful ways to acknowledge that differences and similarities can come together to create positive outcomes if leaders mitigate negative experiences and proactively provide support.

Diversity practitioners will often talk about using a “lens” as a strategy for practicing inclusion. Whether it is called a DEI, Equity, or Racial Justice Lens, it essentially represents a framework for analysing a situation. An equity lens toward athletics helps us to understand if members of the athletic community are having negative experiences and detrimental outcomes based on factors related to their diverse identities, both seen and unseen. 

The following are some of the questions that can help us begin to identify issues that may be interfering with positive outcomes: 

  • Are members of our community having a negative experience? (How do we know?)
  • In what areas do we notice a difference in success, wellbeing, and experience outcomes based on group identity?
  • What support systems could we put in place to mitigate the areas of concern? 

Upon using methods to ask and answer these questions, the work begins in creating strategies to: 

  • dismantle systems and policies that are enabling the problematic practices and behaviors; 
  • identify and repair past harms and lapses in accountability; 
  • create trust-based relationships and communities; and
  • implement solutions that seek to eliminate discrimination, bias, and inequity before student-athletes even arrive on campus.

Campus athletic communities are as unique as the diverse makeups of the individuals that live, work, and play within them. There are no one-size-fit-all initiatives to fill the needs of athletic departments across the country, so my main recommendation for programs is to spend time in intentional dialogue in administrative meetings and in direct communications with students to both identify problem areas and to design the strategies to improve them. For example, if the retention of students of color due to feelings of isolation is an area of concern, the department might be able to mitigate and reverse a negative trend by ensuring a welcoming experience through:

  • establishing affinity support groups,
  • creating community mentoring partnerships, and
  • ensuring that communication channels exist for reporting bias or discrimination (with responsive and appropriate accountability standards to follow).

Ultimately, the first strategy is to begin. The awareness and understanding of a problem is the first step into developing a solution for it.


Sonja N. Robinson, Ph.D. is a lead consultant for Thrive Mind Solutions and 122 Consulting Group, firms that assist athletic departments, non-profit, and mission-driven organizations in strategically aligning justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion in their cultures, operations, and goals. | 


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