Can sports teams be role models for inclusivity?

A few years back, I had the honor of speaking on the mainstage at the 8th annual Green Sports Alliance Summit. It was my second time speaking. The first time, the topic was what you would expect from WeSpire at a sustainability conference. We spoke about inspiring people to save energy and prevent waste. My second round focused inclusivity.

The title of my talk was: “Inclusive Culture: How to Create Safe and Empowered Workplaces and Fan Zones.” As I sat on the stage with the first-ever head of diversity for an NBA team Nzinga Shaw, I reflected on how much convergence has taken place in the sustainability and diversity and inclusivity fields, which has directly influenced how WeSpire has evolved to meet these needs.

Alignment Amongst Business Practices

The Green Sports Alliance Board member who facilitated the panel said they added diversity and inclusivity as a focus to the Summit because “our ability to improve the environment is intrinsically linked with our ability to include all members of our community. The Green Sports Alliance wants to set the leaders of the sports industry up to win for now and the future which means focusing on both social and environmental impact.”

We have seen similar expansions at other major sustainability conferences like Greenbiz and Sustainable Brands. What links these two disparate topics are similar underpinnings: urgent need for changes in practices and behaviors, a rapidly changing culture, the need for alignment amongst business practices, and the ability for the “right thing to do” to also be the “smart thing to do” in terms of ROI.

A Compelling Journey

I found the journey of the Atlanta Hawks to be incredibly compelling. What inspired hiring a Chief Diversity Officer was a crisis driven by racially disparaging remarks made by a now former owner and coach. What emerged is a playbook for how a professional sports team can be a role model for inclusivity.

As the CEO of the Atlanta Hawks said: “We don’t see ourselves as a sports team. We see ourselves as a cultural touchstone for Atlanta. We see ourselves as a unifying force… Everyone can agree on wanting a great sports team in Atlanta. So the ownership changed, the culture has changed, and we’re just in the infancy of it.”

When Shaw first arrived, the team had never participated in the Atlanta Pride parade. In the first year, a couple dozen people joined the group. Soon after, over 150 employees participated. Other initiatives include a day of service and a Unity Game with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They have also expanded sponsors to include more women and minority owned businesses.

Sports teams, leagues, and fans clearly have a very checkered track record related to equity. But there is no denying the power of sports to bring diverse people together. When that influence demonstrates equality, equity, respect, belonging, and inclusivity, the teams, the leagues, the fans and the community they operate in are stronger for it.

— Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder and CEO of WeSpire

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