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Symposium panel addresses need for more diversity and inclusion in sports and sports media industries

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Joe Deacon
Panelists, from left, Joshua Dickhaus, Guy Harrison, and Mia Long Anderson discuss inclusion and diversity in sports and sports media during the Charley Steiner Sports Symposium last week at Bradley University.

Many employment fields and industries across the country are striving for improved diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and sports is no exception.

The issue of inclusion and diversity in sports management and sports media served as a topic for one of the panel discussions during last week's annual Charley Steiner Sports Symposium at Bradley University. The panelists acknowledged there’s no quick fix for better diversity and inclusion in sports, and the first step needs to be getting a better understanding of the problem's scope.

Guy Harrison, one of the featured speakers, pointed out there's more to diversity and inclusion than just the demographics around race, gender, sexual orientation and disability issues.

“My understanding of it is making sure that we have as many types of voices as possible,” said Harrison, an assistant professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, whose research explores diversity, equity and inclusion in sports and the new media.

“There’s the textbook definition of diversity, which tends to be the definition that academia and sports media tend to use, which is numerical based: ‘Well, if we have 50% of this group and 50% of that group, then we're diverse,’ or ‘if we have 33%, 33 and 33, then we're diverse.’ But none of that necessarily means anything if those groups don't have equal voice or equal power.”

Harrison was joined on the panel by professors Mia Long Anderson of Sam Houston State and Bradley's Joshua Dickhaus, director of the Charley Steiner School of Sports Communication. The two co-authored the book, “The United States of Sport: Media Framing and Influence of the Intersection of Sports and American Culture,” along with University of Alabama professor Kenon Brown.

Anderson said diversity is a fairly simple concept in an educational setting, but it’s much more complex away from campuses.

“When I think about it from a higher ed perspective, I think of diversity as a fact: We are all different when we are all sitting in this room; we all bring different things to the table,” said Anderson. “Where I think it becomes tricky in sports is it becomes not so much a fact because of the incorporation of the inclusion piece, and everybody not being allowed to be in sports. So, you will be in situations where there is not diversity because there is not institutional equity.”

Dickhaus said the terms “diversity” and “inclusion” encompass a variety of issues.

“But if I was going to pinpoint one particular thing, it's that people feel safe and welcomed not to be the same as everybody else,” said Dickhaus. “(It’s) having different opinions and having people who — we aren't all a homogenous group; we're not all the same, and yet you're welcomed into this environment. And by bringing a different perspective, we all learn from a different perspective and it makes us better people overall.

“Our understanding, whether that'd be culturally or sociologically, is enhanced by somebody who feels safe to be who they are if it's not what everybody else is like, and that by bringing different perspectives, we enrich the sports communication field.”

Harrison said one critical piece is recognizing the difference between diversity and true equity.

“I know the concept of diversity is important, but you'll also see some people call into question the validity of diversity, from both spectrums,” said Harrison. “We know we have sort of a right wing spectrum that says, ‘Well, diversity isn't necessary.’ But then there's also, I would say, legitimate questions about prioritizing numerical diversity over structural diversity. I think that's the difference between diversity and equity or inclusion.”

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Professors Joshua Dickhaus, left, of Bradley University, Guy Harrison of the University of Tennessee, and Mia Long Anderson of Sam Houston State University, and moderator Sitong Guo, await the start of a panel discussion on inclusion and diversity during the annual Charley Steiner Sports Symposium last week at Bradley.

Anderson said, while there's much to be done, some strides already are being made.

“I'll say one improvement for me that has been very important to me, because I'm raising a daughter, is with all of the networks, the different conferences, having network sports,” she said. “I watch the SEC Network all the time. I'm able to sit down with my daughter and watch gymnastics and watch volleyball and you know, watch women's sports, whereas that's not something I had growing up. So to me, that is a major improvement.”

But Anderson pointed out only the five biggest NCAA conferences have their own cable networks, so the increased visibility of women’s sport is still limited. She also noted the discrepancy in pay, particularly between male and female pro athletes. remains a major obstacle.

“If you look at Steph Curry, who is the highest-paid player in the NBA right now, he makes upwards of $40 million a year. If you look at the highest paid, the three highest paid WNBA players, they made $228,000,” she said. “So that's, that's an astronomical difference.”

She said that disparity explains why WNBA star Brittney Griner was playing in Russia during the offseason when she was arrested in February for having medical marijuana paraphernalia and eventually sentenced to nine years in prison.

“When I see Brittney Griner on the news and her story on the news, it’s like ‘why was she even over there?’ Well, she's over there because she's supplementing her income because the income of people in the WNBA is nothing compared to people in the NFL or the NBA. So I think that is one of the areas that I still see as a major challenge,” said Anderson.

Noting that 47% of NFL fans are women, Dickhaus said it's short sighted for leagues and teams not to seek more race and gender equity. He hopes the ongoing conversation on diversity and inclusion in sports will lead to an ultimate goal.

“Creating an environment where it's made clear that this is for everybody,” said Dickhaus. “Guys aren't (the only) sports fans; Americans are sports fans, people are sports fans and it's a really exciting industry to work in. So if you don't develop an inclusive environment where you're like, ‘not only is this for you, but it's a place where you're going to succeed,’ then you would turn a lot of people off.

“If you say, ‘Well, there's not enough people who are like me,’ (then) you have to have the people that are going to be the trendsetters saying that, ‘We're going to make sure it is for people like us.’”

Harrison said the evolving news media landscape has led to a focus on redefining sports journalism while also creating more opportunities for diversity.

“So much money is invested in sports media and sports journalism, so as sports journalists or sports media personnel, you are telling stories and the stories that are told in sports are a microcosm of what is happening in society at large,” said Harrison. “So the more diversity or diverse voices we have in sports media, the better able the industry is to tell those stories with nuance, and nuance is important.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.