West Coast Conference to be applauded for new "Russell Rule," race and gender report card

The West Coast Conference became the first to adopt the "Russell Rule," which requires each school to include a member of a traditionally underrepresented community in the pool of final candidates for leadership positions within athletic departments. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As the world of sports tries to deal with the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and the racial reckoning at the same time, the West Coast Conference stepped forward with an unprecedented move Monday by requesting a racial and gender report card for its league.

I applaud the West Coast Conference and its commissioner, Gloria Nevarez, the first and only Latinx commissioner in Division I, for their boldness and leadership. It has made me even more determined to get other conferences to adopt their own racial and gender report cards and take other measures to lead to a more inclusive world of college sport.

The West Coast Conference report card will examine each school in the conference and who holds the following positions: athletic director, senior administrators, head coach of all WCC sports and assistant coaches in men's and women's basketball. They will be categorized by race and gender to measure the scope of the diversity of the department. Grades will be issued for each category, for the member school and for the conference as a whole.

The report will be prepared by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), which for decades has published annual racial and gender report cards for the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the WNBA and college sports. While the institute decided to do those reports and subsequently got the cooperation of those leagues, this is the first time that a sports organization has requested we do a report card. I do not think it is an accident that the WCC commissioner is Gloria Nevarez. Being a member of the Latinx community, her perspective is a broader view on what diversity, inclusion and equity truly looks like.

The report card will use the College Racial and Gender Report Card as a model. We will look at the racial and gender makeup of the conference office in addition to the positions listed earlier at each member institution. When we publish the traditional report cards, no individual team is cited -- it is leaguewide aggregate data. This makes the WCC report even more dramatic as it makes the records of each member institution transparent.

The WCC went even further and became the first conference to adopt what it is calling the "Russell Rule," named after the legendary Boston Celtics player and coach Bill Russell, who went to the University of San Francisco, which is a WCC member. He helped the team win two national championships. The "Russell Rule" requires each school to include a member of a traditionally underrepresented community in the pool of final candidates for every athletic director, senior administrator, head coach and full-time assistant coach position in the athletic department. The searches will be reported on in the WCC racial and gender report card, with a notation of the racial and gender makeup of the final candidate pool.

"Our goal is that the diversity of our student-athletes is reflected in those that lead and mentor them and provides a holistic and inclusive education during their time at WCC institutions," Nevarez said.

Russell challenged other institutions to follow.

"It is my hope the West Coast Conference initiative will encourage other leagues and schools to make similar commitments," Russell said in a league statement. "We need to be intentional if we're going to make real change for people of color in leadership positions in college athletics. I'm proud to assist the WCC and Commissioner Nevarez by endorsing this most important initiative."

As people who know my work understand, since 2007 I have advocated for the NCAA to adopt a version of such a rule, and to call it the Eddie Robinson Rule, named after the great Grambling State football coach. The rule would be modeled after the NFL's "Rooney Rule," which was updated this spring to require teams to interview at least two external minority candidates for open head-coaching jobs, and at least one minority candidate for a coordinator position. But the NCAA has consistently said its member institutions will not agree. Therefore, I worked with Floyd Keith, former head of the Black Coaches Association, and Sam Sachs, an activist who founded The No Hate Zone in Oregon, to adopt the Rooney Rule for the state of Oregon as part of Oregon House Bill 3118, which passed in 2009 and took effect in 2010.

When the House Bill 3118 passed, there were no Black athletic directors and no Black or Latino head football coaches. Since passage:

  • There have been two Black athletic directors, one of whom is a woman (Western Oregon University hired Curtis Campbell in 2017 and Portland State hired Valerie Cleary in 2016). Curtis resigned from WOU this past spring to become AD at Morehouse College.

  • There have been two Black head football coaches (Oregon hired Willie Taggart in 2016 and Portland State hired Nigel Burton in 2010) and a Black track coach (Oregon hired Robert Johnson as its head track coach in 2012).

  • There has been a Latino head football coach. Mario Cristobal succeeded Taggart in 2017.

We decided we would try to convince conferences to adopt their own rule and the West Coast Conference is the first to do so.

"The West Coast Conference is committed to providing a diverse and inclusive environment that ensures equality and respect for everyone," said University of San Diego president James T. Harris, chairman of the WCC Presidents' Council. "The WCC is a leader in establishing a diversity hiring commitment that speaks to the conference's core values of inclusion. The conference has been committed to this work for many years, including the hiring of our commissioner, Gloria Nevarez. ... Thanks to her leadership and the great work of the WCC Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the Presidents' Council unanimously approved this groundbreaking new initiative."

History is moving fast. Athletes, coaches, administrators and others are seeing that supporting the right side of history by fighting against racism and for equality will be good for sport. When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016, many fans, team front offices, leagues and corporate sponsors did not support him. I told my wife, Ann, that day, "This will be his last season in the NFL but he will be this generation's Muhammad Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos. His action will lead to change."

That can be seen recently at almost every sporting event where it is news when a player stands for the national anthem. Last week, Nielsen published the results of its first report "Promoting Racial Equality in Sports." It was a survey of American sports fans' attitudes on racism. Bottom line: Sports fans outpace the general population in terms of support for racial equality and related movements.

According to Nielsen's report, fans are backing the players:

  • Nearly seven in 10 sports fans indicated support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, nearly one in three sports fans have personally contributed either time or money to Black Lives Matter.

  • 72% of sports fans believe athletes are an important influence on Black Lives Matter.

  • 59% expect athletes to help advance the Black Lives Matter cause.

But sports are big business, so what follows is huge:

  • 70% indicate teams and leagues should support athlete protests and initiatives on race.

  • 70% believe teams and leagues should develop marketing campaigns supporting diversity.

  • 64% expressed increased interest in brands engaged in the fight against racial inequality.

  • 77% believe brands are more powerful when they partner with sports organizations to drive social change.

"Brands and rights-holders that authentically align with these critical issues as they engage sports fans can drive positive social change while also achieving business objectives," said Lyndon Campbell, senior vice president and head of sports leagues and rights-holders at Nielsen Sports. "This is the definition of a win-win situation."

So the West Coast Conference has jumped way out in front. I know I will watch more of its games. I am betting that the league will be able to recruit student-athletes at a higher level because many will want to be at a school that is perceived as anti-racist. More fans in the stands. More students applying to the schools. As Campbell said, this "is the definition of a win-win situation."

I am going to redouble my efforts to get more conferences to do racial and gender report cards and more conferences to adopt a policy such as the Russell Rule. And lots of other changes.

But it took the boldness and courage of Gloria Nevarez to lead her presidents and athletic directors to be the first. Nevarez had served as senior associate AD at the University of Oklahoma. Other conference commissioners are working hard to shape their leagues to be more diverse and inclusive, and I expect great change in the months ahead. The racial reckoning demands it, and now we see sports fans want it. But my prediction right now is that Nevarez will be not only be remembered because she was the first Latinx conference commissioner but because she was the first to initiate powerful systemic change in her conference. Thank you, Commissioner.

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 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.