For 14 years Clayton Pottinger had tremendous success as a basketball coach, his teams winning nearly 80 per cent of their games.
But an opportunity to coach at the next level never came.
As a Black head coach, he often wondered why.
“I don’t know a 100 per cent the reasons behind it. I don’t know that it was race related but I don’t discount that,” Pottinger told CBC Sports. “I was interviewed for three positions but overlooked — not even granted an interview dozens of times. It got to the point where I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Pottinger’s story may sound like a tale often told south of the border, but his is a Canadian story.
Last March, he finally broke through and landed his first job at the Canadian university level when UBC-Okanagan named him head coach of its men’s basketball team.
Pottinger, 49, joined a small group of Black coaches who have reached the highest leadership positions in Canadian university sports.
For decades, North American professional sports leagues have been castigated for the dearth of Black and people of colour employed in key leadership and coaching positions.
An investigation by CBC Sports reveals that the issue is prevalent across Canadian sports.
A visual audit conducted by CBC Sports examined hundreds of key positions at all 56 Canadian universities that compete under the umbrella of national governing body U Sports, including the school’s athletic director and head coach of football, men’s and women’s basketball, hockey and soccer, and track.
Of the nearly 400 positions examined, only about 10 per cent were held by Black, Indigenous or persons of colour (BIPOC). Only one of the 56 schools has a non-white athletic director.
“You could go to any website at any university and you’d see one of the five principles or objectives is diversity and inclusion, yet you see the numbers in our studies, you see the [CBC’s] numbers,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, founder and director of the Institute For Diversity and Ethics and Sport. The institute, based at the University of Central Florida, was the first to begin compiling racial breakdowns of hiring practices in the United States.
Lapchick said filling athletic leadership positions on North American college campuses is not always a result of overt racism, but rather a persistent old boys’ network.
“If you have a white athletic director and a white [university] president and they’re making the key hires in your athletic department, the people they know are more than likely to be white,” Lapchick said. “So they’re going to turn to them in that selection process as opposed to who [else] might be out there.”
The recent killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May has refocused the lens on racial inequality in everyday North American life. Hundreds of thousands of people have filled city streets demanding an end to systemic racism.
Many companies and organizations, including the CBC, have been forced to acknowledge both a lack of diversity among senior leadership, while addressing systemic racism in the way they conduct business both internally and externally.
The world of sports has not escaped this scrutiny.
Leagues condemn racism
In wake of Floyd’s death, professional leagues across North America issued statements condemning racism and promised to do better. Players demanded change. Leagues like the NFL, where 70 per cent of the players are Black or persons of colour, promised more would be done to reflect that in its coaching staffs and leadership. And after years discouraging outward signs of protest, like kneeling during the U.S. national anthem, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell came full circle and encouraged players to express themselves.
In Canada, the recently hired Pottinger says there is still a long way to go. UBC-Okanagan is one of only three universities in Canada to employ both a Black men’s and women’s head coach. He points to an undercurrent of bias when it comes to how leadership positions are filled.
“People of colour aren’t necessarily looked at as people with those abilities. We can shoot hoops, we can make baskets, we can make defensive plays,” Pottinger said. “But if you ask us to lead a team, then I think there’s always some question marks around whether or not you can do it.”
CBC Sports presented its findings to officials at U Sports and the four conferences that govern Canada’s university sports system.
None of the groups rejected or disputed the findings. But at the same time, it appears little has been done to formally track who is being hired and why.
The NCAA, governing body of college sports in the U.S., does maintain a database that tracks demographics for student-athletes, coaches and administrators. U Sports does not.
Most of the responses pointed to strides made in the area of gender equity but acknowledged little has been done to promote and encourage more BIPOC candidates and hirings.
Everyone involved in the upper reaches of Canadian university sport acknowledged there’s work to do when it comes to diversity in leadership positions.
At the same time, U Sports officials contend that, for the most part, they are powerless to change things.
“One of our key principles is institutional freedom and as such hiring is based on member universities’ human resource policies in compliance with provincial labour laws,” the organization said in its statement.
Atlantic University Sport (AUS) executive director Phil Currie called it a balancing act.
“The hiring of athletics directors or sport coaches/assistant coaches is done under the policies and practices of our member institutions and as such the AUS has no direct control of that process,” said Currie, who oversees athletics in the Atlantic provinces.
“CBC’s summary on the number of BIPOC head coaches demonstrates that, and we acknowledge that those numbers are not where they need to be,” he said.
The lack of diversity in leadership is equally stark among Canada’s key Olympic institutions. CBC Sports looked at the board of directors at the Canadian Olympic Committee and seven among the country’s largest national sport organizations: swimming, athletics, hockey, skating, basketball, volleyball and soccer.
Across them, around 100 board members are tasked with representing thousands of athletes. Only seven of these key positions are held by BIPOC. For example, the COC’s 17-member board is composed of 16 white directors and only one BIPOC.
“Our reflection following the events of the past month has reinforced that while we have made important strides in diversity and inclusion, we need to do more,” the COC said in a statement to CBC Sports.
“Though our board of directors reflects diversity in a number of important measures, including gender, LGBTQ+, language, etc., there’s no denying that we have considerable work to do in addressing BIPOC diversity on our board.”
The COC vowed to change the makeup of its board by instituting a number of measures, including no longer simply relying on a public call for board nominations.
Across the board, national sports organizations contacted by CBC Sports acknowledge major shortcomings in the racial makeup of their key leadership positions.
Athletics Canada said it’s “probably the most inclusive sport in Canada in terms of racialized participation,” but said its board must “better represent what the sport looks like on the field of play.”
Basketball Canada also acknowledged a large gap between players and decision makers.
“Our Canadian national basketball teams are some of the most ethnically diverse in our country. However, we acknowledge that, off the court, our organization still has some work to do at a leadership level,” it said in a statement.
For some, change has been elusive. Hockey Canada said it’s been “working at various stages over the past few years to address areas of diversity,” but its 11-member board was comprised of 11 white males as of July 1.
CBC Sports also looked into 500 leadership positions across professional ranks and found that for the most part, they mirror the above findings.
CBC Sports compiled data that included team ownership, team president, general manager and head coach across seven major leagues: NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, CFL, WNBA and the NWSL.
Only the NBA, where more than 80 per cent of players are BIPOC, according to research by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, approached close to 25 per cent of leadership positions filled by people who look like the majority of its athletes.
In MLB, where 41 per cent of players are BIPOC, only seven of 100 leadership positions looked at are filled by people of colour.
In the CFL, only about 10 per cent of the league’s key leadership positions are filled by people who aren’t white, a sharp departure from the league’s on-field racial makeup.
One of the league’s two Black head coaches is former quarterback Khari Jones, who has been head coach in Montreal since June 2019.
After a stellar career in the CFL, he worked as assistant coach for a decade in Hamilton, B.C and Saskatchewan.
Jones said he doubted whether he would ever be a head coach.
“You see so many African-American people play the game but not having the chance to coach and have lead roles,” he told CBC Sports. “It’s never deterred me. It’s just a sad thing, even when I knew I wanted to get into coaching and I knew my goal was to be a head coach.”
Jones says until more BIPOC people own teams or fill leadership roles with authority to hire, change will be difficult.
“All the owners are white, so you tend to go that route when hiring,” Jones said.
“It becomes really disheartening when you don’t think you have a real chance, or you don’t have an opportunity to get a job that other people seem to be getting.”