Editor’s note: The volume of conversation around diversity in popular culture hit fever pitch in 2015 â but besides more talk, what was really accomplished this year? One in Mashable’s five-part series examining strides made in 2015 in movies, television, online video, gaming and sports.
Beacons of hope and optimism amid a largely bleak backdrop would be one way to summarize the state of diversity in the sports world in 2015.
Before we can get to a final grade and a reference point for tracking future progress, let’s take a look back over the past 12 months as filtered through the respective prisms of race, gender and sexuality.
Race: Tapered at the top
Sports teams are heavily populated with minority players. But the more you climb the food chain of sports business â from coach, to general manager, to owner, and all the ancillary companies that revolve around teams and leagues â the more you see a space controlled by white males. This is not new, but the lack of progress toward changing it in 2015 isn’t encouraging.
In college sports, we see the same dynamic exacerbated. Especially in 2015, with broadcast and licensing rights through the roof, games are dominated at first blush by minority athletes while an overwhelmingly white and male cadre reaps all the financial rewards.
Charles Grantham, a sports business expert and former executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, wrote an exhaustive look at how minority athletes are taken advantage of in college sports this May.
All of this reflects a larger business world where racial integration is more readily apparent in the rank-and-file workforce than the executive level. But if 2015 reinforced the notion of sports reflecting the society they inhabit, we’ve also seen new examples of how sports can impact that same society.
Perhaps the most powerful: Missouri football players vowing not to play until university president Tim Wolfe stepped down amid widespread protest about the treatment of black students on campus. “Black Football Players Lend Heft to Protests at Missouri,” shouted The New York Times headline.
“Everything you need to know about using your platform as an athlete to advance a political cause or fight an injustice can be learned from the University of Missouri football team,” former NBA player and longtime activist Craig Hodges told Dave Zirin recently. “They recognized their value and withheld it until justice was served on campus and the president of the University resigned. They hit the university in the pocketbook, stood up for what was right, and won because they were united.”
Gender: Literally an uneven playing field
The U.S. soccer Women’s National Team in 2015 is perhaps the best example of the contradictory opportunities and challenges that females athletes face. The team captivated a nation and shattered ratings en route to winning the World Cup.
Yet it recently had to cancel a match on its “victory tour” across the U.S. because of a dangerous artificial playing surface â a problem the much less successful U.S. men’s team never has to deal with.
â Hope Solo (@hopesolo) December 6, 2015
“I think it’s hard because no one’s really going to protect us but ourselves,” star forward Alex Morgan said in early December. “So we’re put in a very hard position, because obviously we want to play in front of these fans and we want to train before the game, but injuries happen when you don’t protect yourself and when you’re not protected from those higher up from you.”
The hype and interest surrounding MMA sensation Ronda Rousey â even after her defeat to Holly Holm in November â also signified an elevated status for some female athletes this year, and revealed mixed martial arts to be perhaps the most progressive sport in terms of gender equality. But by and large, women are still given meager opportunity relative to their male peers.
Meanwhile, the rising tide of vitriol directed at female sports reporters with the advent of social media hasn’t slowed in 2015. Female reporters of every age and outlet are still subjected to ugly, sexist abuse from self-described sports fans.
Edward Kian, a professor of sports media at Oklahoma State University, called this behavior “laughably pathetic” in an interview with Mashable last year, and attributed the dynamic to sports being a historically masculine, testosterone-dominated space.
“Until there is a critical mass of women doing this profession on every platform and it becomes the new normal, it will be seen as a novelty for some people who, if they don’t like it, will try to stop it,” Wendy Thurm, a freelance sportswriter, told Mashable this month.
But hey: At least ESPN no longer has a “dislike female commentators” option on its website for viewers who want to complain â so we’ve made some progress over the past few years.
Sexuality: Questions in the shadows
When U.S. national team star Abby Wambach was shown on live TV running to the stands to embrace her wife, Sarah Huffman, minutes after winning the Women’s World Cup, she simply wanted to be with her partner. But the moment was seen by many as one in which sports represent something larger.
Nine days prior, the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down gay marriage bans as unconstitutional, legalizing the love of Wambach and countless others nationwide. But Wambach is a rare high-profile homosexual athlete.
Some of Wambach’s U.S. national teammates are also openly gay, and similar examples aren’t hard to find in women’s sports. But on the men’s side, even with the recent courageous stand of NBA ref Bill Kennedy, a code of secrecy seems to prevail.
NBA journeyman Jason Collins came out in 2013, but no one has since followed his lead. Derrick Gordon of UMass became the first openly gay major men’s college basketball player the following year. Robbie Rogers in Major League Soccer is the most successful openly gay American male athlete in team-sport history.
But Gordon and Rogers, too, are lonely in their respective sports. In the NFL, Michael Sam was drafted in 2014 but is now out of the league, which still doesn’t have an openly gay player.
On the male side, in particular, little visible progress was made this year relative to the previous few.
How many others would like to do as Rogers, Gordon, Sam and Collins did, but remain fearful of the impact that coming out would have on their lives and livelihoods? We have no way of knowing â and that’s the point.
You could argue that gay athletes, male and female, are more visible and openly accepted now than ever before. But that’s a relative statement that actually says little; many still live and play in the shadows of a judgmental business in a judgmental society. One study published this year found the U.S. to be the least inclusive nation for gay athletes among the six countries it analyzed.
But Jim Buzinski, co-founder of the website OutSports.com, says he has noticed a trickle-down effect of players like Rogers and Collins inspiring more younger athletes to feel comfortable coming out.
Still, Buzinski says, “it remains frustrating that, when you look at the percentage of openly gay pro athletes, it’s zero. At some point you wonder, when is that going to change?”
White kids idolize black athletes as their role models. But those black athletes exist in systems controlled by white men.
Elite female athletes are exalted, with no mention that they have wives and girlfriends. But homosexuality is still taboo in men’s sports.
Some female athletes enjoy unprecedented opportunity today. But every day, female athletes and reporters alike are reminded both blatantly and subtly that they exist in a world still dominated by men.
Taken together, it all makes for a muddled, unfathomably complex picture â just like analyzing diversity gains and losses in society at large.
So what’s the final grade? With so many contradictions and disparate strands, it’s impossible to give one letter. So we’ll give an incomplete here, noting there’s a long, long way to go before sports reach anything resembling true equality.
But this is, after all, a work in progress â at least, one hopes. Check back next year, and maybe we’ll have some more substantial and encouraging gains to report.
FINAL GRADE: Incomplete
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