Teaming up to level the playing field - RED - Relevant. Essential. Denver.
Anthony Grant, Ph.D., director of athletics and vice-chair of the NCAA’s Minority Opportunities and Interest Committee (MOIC); Erin Hiltner, associate athletic director for student services and MSU Denver’s SWA, and Michael Bazemore, associate director of athletics and active member of the Minority Opportunities Athletic Association.

Teaming up to level the playing field

Athletics leaders discuss advocacy, representation and the difference between diversity and inclusion.

February 8, 2018

By Cory Phare

Imagine a basketball game where the rules are different for your team: Instead of two points, each shot you make is worth one. And while your opponents get to play all five positions, you’re limited to three.

It’s not a fair matchup, but that’s the way the rules have always been.

So what does it tell the young fan sitting in the stands who wants to play someday, but doesn’t see a place on that team for her?

From paving the road to become a Hispanic Serving Institution to dedicating a center specifically to advance equity and student achievement, MSU Denver is dedicated to building a place for everyone. And as a public face of the Roadrunner community, our athletics programs play a key part in this commitment.

With the recent report of the NCAA’s Optimization of the Role of the Senior Woman Administrator (SWA), we sat down to chat about representational athletic leadership and equity efforts with Anthony Grant, Ph.D., director of athletics and vice-chair of the NCAA’s Minority Opportunities and Interest Committee (MOIC); Erin Hiltner, associate athletic director for student services and MSU Denver’s SWA who recently spoke on an NCAA Division II panel at the organization’s national convention; and Michael Bazemore, associate director of athletics and active member of the Minority Opportunities Athletic Association.

MSU Denver women's basketball team

What is the current state of representational leadership in college athletic departments across the country?

Anthony Grant: There’s a lack of diversity in senior-level positions, which is a trend that’s been fairly consistent for a long time. Ethnic minorities comprise less than 10 percent of athletic director jobs across all three NCAA divisions. And though we’re starting to see more women ascending to these roles, the number is still significantly disproportionate to white men.

The NCAA is doing what it can through efforts like their Office of Diversity and Inclusion, MOIC, Committee on Women’s Athletics, Board of Governors’ diversity and inclusion subcommittee and implementation of the Presidential Pledge and Commitment to Promoting Diversity and Gender Equity in Intercollegiate Athletics, but it’s still taking time to see their effects. In order for change to occur, there must be an improved commitment to diversity and inclusion practices at the institutional level.

Erin Hiltner: There’ve been inroads, but there’s a lot of work to do – I can speak personally to being the only woman with a title of assistant or associate director in the three athletic departments I’ve worked in. When you look at the numbers, it’s not proportionate, especially among women of color. It’s important that we build avenues and opportunities to become more inclusive at all levels.

One of the statistics that comes to mind is that 65 percent of women surveyed want to move into leadership roles in athletic departments, so it’s incumbent upon us to ensure they’re able to do that – and for those who don’t want to, ensuring their voices and backgrounds aren’t discounted.

Could you give us a little background about the SWA role and takeaways from the recent report?

EH: Back in the 1980s, athletics departments were split into separate women’s and men’s designations; this merged with the passage of Title IX (which required equal representation) and folding of other leagues into the NCAA. The positions that had existed were absorbed by the men’s divisions, so the SWA emerged as a designation intended to ensure women were present as decision-makers. It goes beyond just fielding women’s sports – it’s a role to make sure there’s parity and equal opportunity across the department.

Michael Bazemore: Thinking from a policy and procedure standpoint, the document helps create a baseline of why day-to-day practices are put into place. The research gives teeth to things people have felt for a while – it’s concrete substance to ensure intent is informed by data.

AG: The attempts to clarify the SWA designation and department role is positive and needed. It points out the discrepancies for departments and institutions to review; we’ve made progress, but obviously still have more work to do.

MSU Denver women's volleyball team. Photo: Geoff Ziegler.

Societally, there’s a lot of focus on addressing cultures of sexual harassment and assault. What’s the role of athletics in this?

AG: Abusive behavior has to stop now. The student athlete population is reflective of the general student body, and these issues need to be addressed with a more global approach, which includes athletics. And it’s clear when we look at the reports that things can’t just be dealt with in-house; it’s when programs try to handle things themselves, on an island that you see a lot of problems arise.

EH: Those broader movements spark conversations that are really relevant in any field or industry. It’s not exclusive to college athletics, but it’s important to have them here as well – and to build environments where everyone feels like they can speak up, where they can have a voice.

MB: In terms of student athlete safety and welfare, it’s an issue that’s been on the docket for years. We’re focused on teaching individuals to be mindful of their choices and to speak up if they see teammates doing something; you have to be able to have those tough conversations. Collectively, we need to create an environment where no one entity is bigger than what is right.

What are some of the efforts MSU Denver is doing to address equity and representation issues right now?

AG: The University has a foundational commitment to inclusive excellence. And there is difference between diversity and inclusion – it’s not just quantitative and having a certain number of people of color, women, LGBT individuals, etc. Inclusion is valuing those respective differences and incorporating them into the fabric of what we do everyday. That’s the difference at a place like MSU Denver.

As a society we’re looking at how we go about navigating these issues from a broader perspective. That requires us to look at the systems we engage in and how we build opportunities for people to advance in whatever profession they’re in. When we do that, it allows more equitable representation that happens organically.

EH: There’s a lot of great work going on here on campus – Dr. Grant on the MOIC; Mr. Bazemore’s background in compliance; and John Kietzmann [associate director of athletics], who’s on a national committee for women’s athletics – it’s important to have men involved in the gender equity conversation, and we’re starting to see that more. Overall it’s really a great representation that fits with our campus culture and mission.

When you look to the future, what are some of the priorities for the road ahead?

EH: One of the reasons I came to MSU Denver was because of [former athletic director] Joan McDermott – I wanted to work for her and find out how you were able to balance having a family with being a successful woman in this profession.

I still stay in touch with her, and though I haven’t figured out all of her secrets, I’ve gained the importance of communication, setting high expectations and developing a network of mentors from her. I plan to continue doing that and help others along the way.

AG: In general, the reason there’s a lack of diversity at higher levels of athletics leadership is not because there’s a lack of diverse candidates – institutions need to be intentional and make it a priority. Diversity within teams and leadership fosters better ideas, which enables the entire organization to move forward more effectively because of it.

That doesn’t just happen by itself, though; we can’t just throw out a posting and hope. It involves the networks we build – and if that network is all white males, that’s who’s going to be in the candidate pool. We have to actively recruit, provide resources and build a culture that appreciates retaining diverse individuals in all senses of the word.

MB: We need to keep knocking down the barriers that are in the way, as well as understand that the job is continuous – change doesn’t happen overnight. We’re more aware than ever of our place within a larger society; as faculty, staff and students, we need to hold each other accountable and resolve to do the right thing.

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