Published September 24, 2021
Episode 19 features Helen Drew, Professor of Law, and Marissa Egloff, a third year JD candidate, in the University at Buffalo School of Law. Professor Drew and Ms. Egloff discuss their research examining the number of women and minorities in executive or coaching positions in professional sports. They are exploring why, even with proactive policies such as The Rooney Rule in the NFL, women and people of color find it difficult to obtain these “front office” positions. They are also exploring how nondiverse work environments can become toxic.
Keywords: professional sports, DEI, sports law, employment discrimination.
"We need to make sure that we are opening pathways for people who have been underrepresented to get them to the place where they can be on a level playing field and be the most qualified candidate.”
—Helen Drew (2021 Podcast)
The Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy
Podcast Season 3, Episode 19
Podcast recording date: July 16, 2021
Host-producer: Edgar Girtain
Speakers: Helen (Nellie) Drew and Marissa Egloff
Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org
Podcast transcript begins.
Edgar: Hello, and thank you for listening in to the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy podcast, produced by the University of Buffalo. I’m your host, Edgar Girtain. Today we’ll be speaking with Helen Drew and Marissa Egloff about their forthcoming publication on diversity, equity, and inclusion in major sports leagues. Helen Drew is professor practice and sports law and Director for the UB Center for the Advancement of Sport at the University at Buffalo School of Law. Professor Drew teaches a variety of courses that incorporate topics such as drug testing in professional sports and professional player contract negotiation and arbitration. Drew is especially interested in the evolving research and litigation concerning concussions in both professional and amateur sports. A native western New Yorker, Drew is a lifelong Bills, Sabres, and Bulls fan. While attending the School of Law, she developed an independent study research project on alternative dispute resolution in the NHL with Gerry Meehan of ‘82 who was also in-house counsel with the Sabres. Drew was instrumental in negotiating and drafting contracts for Pat LaFontaine, Dominik Hasek and Alexander Mogilny, among others. She also was part of the legal team that handled numerous NHL transactions, including the Anaheim MIghty Ducks, the Ottawa Senators, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the San Jose Sharks.
We will also be joined today by a student of Professor Drew, Marissa Egloff, who is a current J.D. candidate at the University at Buffalo School of Law.
Edgar: Welcome very much to everyone who's listening and a special welcome to Marissa and Nellie. I read a paper here that you had sent me, it's called Examination of Diversity, Equality, Inclusion in Major Sports Leagues. At the top it says Marissa's name. I'm a little curious about the nature of your collaboration. How do you two know each other?
Nellie: Oh my. So, this is one of those classic Buffalo stories. I think it was December of 2019, my older daughter needed a car and so we went down to Hamburg to purchase a used car from Marissa's parents. How do you like that one?
Marissa: And the second she walked in the house I knew I was meant to major in sports law. I was thinking about it before she walked in, but then, when she walked, in I was like this is just a sign.
Nellie: Very fortuitous. So, I had Marissa, the stellar student, now for several semesters and she had expressed an interest – which I very much share – in advancing equality for everyone in the sports space. So, you know, confession of age here, I’m pretty sure I was the first woman to sit in NHL board of governors meeting back in the late 1980s, and I am absolutely positive I’m the first pregnant person to be in an NHL board of governors meeting and they were very, very nervous to put it mildly. So, it's something that's near and dear to my heart and when Marissa expressed an interest in it, I was like, this is good stuff.
Edgar: To backtrack a little bit, what exactly is diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Nellie: So that's the problem, right? Being able to define that is a large part of the problem. One person might say one thing, one person might say something else. And it varies league to league, it varies from the professional sports to the amateur sports, and it changes over time. So you know, one of the pieces of the research we have yet to delve into is a comparison of professional sports leagues with amateur sports, and it's a very well-known fact that as the profile of women's collegiate athletics began to rise, you saw the number of women coaches decline for women's sports because the position of being the coach of a woman's team suddenly became a more attractive position, so men started applying for those jobs and it became no longer the province simply of female coaches.
Edgar: Because your paper deals with such a specific sector of the sports industry I was actually curious to hear a little bit about what is the work culture, or the professional culture like in the major leagues. What is the office environment? You know, what are your perceptions there?
Marissa: Well, it kind of seems like it's the rest of America in a way. It seems like it's usually dominated by white males and there's a lack of females and minorities, and that's where we need to see the change.
Edgar: Why do you think that is?
Marissa: I think honestly it's a problem of society as a whole. I think, as Professor Drew said, sports is a microcosm of society, and I really think that that rings true. In our research you can see that even though the NFL and the NBA and all these other leagues have all these wonderful programs to get women and minorities in front office positions, there's still an issue, and I think that comes back down to society as a whole.
Edgar: So, why do you think diversity, equity, and inclusion are important to the major sports leagues?
Marissa: I think it provides an equal opportunity for all, and I think that is where we really need to equal the playing field, because diversity is a great business decision no matter what field you're in. And that will really open the doors and it will help the company solve problems that it didn't see were there before. So, if they can bring diversity, you'll get different ideas and then you'll get a more equal society in general, and then honestly, as a whole, sports fans will be better off, regular civilians, the owners of the team, everyone will be better – just benefited by this great experience that diversity brings.
Nellie: And if I can just be pragmatic here, as a practical matter, we know the population of the country is changing. So, it's important for the league's profit margin to recognize that their fan base is changing as well. And so, you know, as Marissa said, we've seen some acknowledgement of this, we've seen the NHL’s hockey is for everyone, the idea of recognizing that it's important to embrace everybody. Everybody should enjoy, it's a great game, and everybody should the capacity to enjoy it. And similarly, everybody should have the capacity to be employed in it.
Edgar: That's fascinating. Either of you could give me a description of this paper that you had said what is this paper about?
Marissa: Sure. I went through all the organizational charts of all the teams in every league – so, in National Basketball Association, the NHL, the MLB, and the NFL – and I went through all of their organizational charts and determined which positions were, vice president and higher is what I consider to be front office positions, because I was really curious how many women are in these front office positions. Because I was curious to see, well, am I going to be able to achieve my dream of working in a front office of a team or in the league. So, I went through and I determined that in all of the leagues – so, the NFL has 21.1% females, NHL has 21.84%, MLB has 22.17%, and the NBA has the most with 25.09% females in front office positions.
So, then I went through all the leagues and then I discussed the different programs that each of the leagues has to bring women or minorities into the league positions in the front office, and then we examined the leagues as a whole to see which team had the most females in front office positions. And it was actually the Atlanta Hawks with, 30 females in the front office, and that we had a second place of the San Francisco Giants with 26 women in front office positions. But it was very interesting that when we got to CEOs, this is the part that just like was mind-boggling to me.
Edgar: How many people are we talking about, you know, in this industry?
Marissa: So, in vice president or higher we have about 5,000 rows of data, which is about 5,000 people.
Edgar: Wow, so it's a sizable number of people, enough to that you would expect in an equitable organization, or an equitable organizational model, that there would be more representation and women would be more strongly represented.
Nellie: And this is despite, as Marissa mentioned, multiple policies that have been instituted across the various leagues and programs in an attempt to address these issues. So, for example, one of the most famous of these is the Rooney Rule, which the NFL instituted some time ago, and that was an attempt to ensure that a person of color at least be considered for a head coaching position. And, so, that mandated one, at least one of those interviews, and that has had mixed success.
Edgar: Yeah, there was a Forbes article in there that I saw, the very nice illustration of how ineffective the Rooney Rule has been applied, and I think the example they had in there was with the Detroit Lions when they hired Dan Campbell, who was a protege of Bill Belichick, but there was a clear disparity between him and there was another man of color who had applied for the position who had much more experience – it was like a night and day difference in the level of experience – yet they went with the with the white guy.
Marissa: And if you think the Rooney Rule, this past season, there was only two non-white males that were hired for seven vacant coaching positions, which I think is a huge indicator that there's a problem. Especially if they're passing over females and other non-white individuals who are much more qualified. That's where we see this problem that they're having in all areas of sports, in all areas of society in general.
Nellie: Yeah. It's especially troubling because, recognize that that particular league, is substantially, uh, comprised of players of color.
Marissa: Seventy percent, I believe, are African Americans in the NFL.
Nellie: So, if you're drawing from that pool as your potential source for coaches and scouts, why aren't there more, right?
Edgar: It just rings, to me at least, of an echo of chattel slavery, honestly. I mean the white boss and the people of color that are doing the work, you know, basically being exploited for their labor. Although that – I think they’re paid well in sports, better than in music at least.
Nellie: Well, again, looking at the contracts, the NFL does not have a guaranteed contract. So if you don't make the grade you're cut, you're not paid. And the average life, I believe, in NFL running back right now is like 2.3 years, they're essentially disposable. They don't even draft them high anymore because they don't expect them to last. Of course, they're all the ramifications of, you know, you've heard about CT, there's some discussions around that, but certainly, you know, potentially lifelong health consequences for playing a very dangerous game. And so, that's part of it as well. I mean, this wasn't part of Marissa’s study, but it's certainly, you know, recognizing that if you look at the ownership of each of the major sports leagues it's substantially significantly white male. I believe the NFL has one person of color in an ownership position at this point.
Marissa: And they only have six teams with female owners, but all those owners are either wives or daughters of the owner.
Edgar: Wow. So, where's the push coming from for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in the industry? Is it coming from players, is it coming from fans, is it coming from government regulators?
Nellie: So, the NFL is a private entity, as are the other sports leagues, all the four of them are private associations, which means they're not subject to federal regulation beyond what any other business entity would be, right? And certainly, there's pressure. Each of those four major sports leagues is monopoly, Major League Baseball does have an anti-trust exemption, which is a whole different podcast, but the other three do not. So, there's – there's certainly some pressure on them from congress to, you know, clean up their act on various issues, as we saw with steroids and baseball and other things as well, but the pressure is societal. It's coming from sponsors.
For example, the Washington Football Club recently changed its name. It used to be called the Washington Redskins and that is a term that was very, very offensive to a number of people, and the owner had maintained he was never going to change the name, and he didn't until the naming rights sponsor said, you know what we don't like that. And so, the sponsor, I’m sure, was reacting to pressure from society. People are now acknowledging, recognizing, and protesting against the things they believe are inappropriate, and so he finally stepped back and it's now the Washington Football Club for a period of time. So, when we were seeing the Cleveland Indians, uh, retired a mascot that was offensive to many, that type of thing. So, that's part of it.
Certainly the players associations, particularly the NFL, have voiced their support for some sort of opportunity for former players to find career paths that transcend their playing days, so that's part of it as well. And I think the leagues, again, are coming to recognize that in order to have long-term success, it is imperative that they embrace everyone. And you can't do that when you don't look like everyone.
Marissa: And the fan base, I think, is also a huge push for diversity, equity, and inclusion because the fan base itself is so diverse. You think about, you have fans from all over the world, and they want to see people like themselves working in these sports positions or on the field coaching the team.
Edgar: So then, what kind of benchmarks do you have? Or are there any benchmarks for progress? What does mission accomplished look like to you in this field?
Marissa: I would say whenever they figure out a way to select the most qualified candidate no matter what their race, sex, age, whatever it is. Once they have constantly done that, I think we say we have succeeded.
Nellie: I'm gonna hedge on that a little bit, because I think that part of the challenge is bringing it to a point where women and people of color can be often in that category of most qualified. Because, sometimes the hurdles to getting there are the biggest problem. So, giving them, you know, for example, like the Bill Walsh Diversity Fellowship.
Edgar: What's the yardstick that they use to measure qualification? Is that a yardstick that has an implicit bias against women or people of color?
Nellie: Well, I think what it is, is that sometimes or – many times – the people who are interested in these positions – I’ll give you the example of the NFL. The player who may have starred in the field may not have come from a privileged background, may not have been especially successful in a traditional academic path, we know, for example, SAT scores are completely – or I shouldn’t say completely – but almost entirely tied to cultural identification, and so, assessing someone's capacity to do a job well, in a traditional sense, may not – may perpetuate the problem that we already see. So, I think, in order for us to be successful in this regard, we need to make sure that we are opening pathways for people who have been underrepresented to get them to the place where they can be on a level playing field and be the most qualified candidate.
Edgar: So, your paper focused on the representation of women. I’m curious what guided your thinking in choosing that focus and not, for example, you know, the representation of another gender.
Marissa: Well, I will say that we're expanding our research, so we're bringing it also to look at race and to see how well minorities are represented, so that will be a definitely an interesting portion of the research. But I think we started with women because we noticed that there was such a large problem, and also from our own points of view, I guess we were just kind of curious, like, to see how women were represented in sports, especially since they're not very well represented in the rest of society as a whole.
Edgar: So, what advice would you have for young girls who want to get into sports management?
Nellie: Go for it. Make them make room. Go for it.
Marissa: Girls are very powerful and we bring a lot to the table, so we just have to get to the table and show them the diversity that they are missing. And just think about all the great things you can do. If you put one foot in front of the other, there you go. You just need one person to believe in you and then you can succeed.
Nellie: It only takes one person to make an opportunity, and Marissa knows this because I’ve told my story before but, the reason I was able to move forward in my position, which was, again, very unusual back in the late 80s, was because one man, who had no reason to do so, was kind enough to give me the opening and allow me to work with him, and do some research, and publish a paper, and get out there and get a job.
Edgar: Yeah, I think a big part of it must be tailoring the message for the people who are going to receive it. It's easy for us to have this conversation because we're all in academia, we're all in a fairly, you know, progressive place even though, I mean, what we're talking about isn't progressive, it should be, like, normal, like you said, like it's crazy that we're even having this conversation. Yet – yet, I’m sure that there are many people who are not ready to have this conversation. I mean, how do you reach those people?
Nellie: Sometimes they come around. I’ll tell you, this story is 10 years ago now, and we fought to get girls varsity hockey established at the high school level in Western New York. And this is like 2008-2010. I was astounded at the perspective of people sitting on school boards, okay, school boards, in Western New York, who ask questions like, well, why do they want to play anyway? It's like, hmm, why do you want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or anybody? I mean, why? And there are some who were afraid the girls were going to get hurt, and they were going to embarrass us, like you want to try and skate with them? You know, but that's the kind of thing you're dealing with. A lot of it's just lack of exposure. Some of it is, you know, old-fashioned chauvinism, and I think the only way you beat that is to demonstrate that it's not accurate.
Marissa: And you show them the benefits of diversity. I think that's really where it's going to come down.
Nellie: And honestly, again, the sponsorship piece, you can't over emphasize that. Marissa mentioned in passing domestic violence, there was a seminal moment there was Adrian Peterson from the Minnesota Vikings, had this very, very upsetting incident of child abuse and domestic violence, and there was this back-and-forth situation where the Vikings took him off their active roster and then put him back on. And when they put him back on before the whole thing had been completely investigated, he was in front of one of those traditional backdrops that has the team logo on it, but interspersed with the team logo was the Radisson logo, which was the team's sponsor, and this woman CEO of Radisson called the Wolf brothers who own the Minnesota Vikings like take it down now. So, okay, and things changed. And as soon as she did that, the CEO of Pepsi, who also happened to be female, jumped on board, and other people followed suit.
So, I think you're going to see that drive coming from society as a whole, expressing their interest. I will tell you, when I started in the business, however many years ago, sponsors shied away from taking any kind of position that could be considered to be affirmative. You always wanted to be, kind of even-handed. Now that's entirely different. My favorite example was when the US women's soccer team won the world cup, and Procter & Gamble took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, celebrating their win and saying we are giving the money to them to make up for the discrepancy and pay that USA Soccer is not giving them. I was like, wow, I mean, I was just in tears when I saw that. Hooray, this is a massive moment for women and for women in sports. You see that kind of impetus, things are going to change.
Edgar: Well, thank you very much. This has been, um, an education for me and it's been fascinating to hear about your work and your perspective.
Nellie: Well, thank you for the opportunity to share it, and thanks to Marissa for all the hard work that's going into compiling all this incredible detailed data, and I look forward to moving it forward into next steps.
Marissa: Well, thank you both, I really appreciate it, and Professor Drew has just been an absolute angel has truly changed my life, so I have to give her lots of credit. And also, thanks to you Edgar, for allowing us to share what we found. I really appreciate it.
Edgar: Thank you so much for taking the time today. Thank you so much for the work you do. Thank you for being here.
Edgar: That was Professor Helen Drew and JD candidate Marissa Egloff, and this has been the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy podcast produced by the University at Buffalo. Let us know what you thought about this conversation on our twitter @baldycenter. You can also learn more about the Center on our website buffalo.edu/baldycenter. The theme music for this season’s podcast was composed University at Buffalo composer Matias Homar. My name is Edgar Girtain, and thank you very much for listening in. Until next time, take care.
Helen Drew teaches a variety of courses that incorporate topics such as drug testing in professional sports and professional player contract negotiation and arbitration. Drew is especially interested in the evolving research and litigation concerning concussions in both amateur and professional sports. Marissa Egloff is a third-year JD candidate with a career focus on sports law and professional sports executive leadership.
Edgar Girtain is host/producer of the 2021-22 Edition of The Baldy Center Podcast. He is a PhD student in the music department at SUNY Buffalo, where he studies with David Felder. Girtain is a director of the Casa de Las Artes at the University of Southern Chile (UACh), and president of the Southern Chilean Composers Forum (FoCo Sur).He is an eminent composer, pianist, and writer of his own biographies. Girtain's diverse areas of work are often collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and international in ambition if not in practice.