Editor’s note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author.
Seventy-four years ago today, Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. A little more than a year ago, the pandemic disrupted our world and forever altered the sports landscape. Less than a year ago, the killing of George Floyd started a national racial reckoning that led to significant changes in the United States — and in sports. It’s simply clear that, nearly three-quarters of a century after his first game, Jackie Robinson may be more relevant today than ever.
And just as the season started, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced that the 2021 All-Star Game would be moved out of Atlanta in response to a new Georgia law that civil rights groups say will restrict access to voting, especially for people of color. MLB’s unprecedented move reflected another major outcome stemming from the 2020-21 racial reckoning. In addition to that historic move, MLB also achieved several milestones in its racial and gender hiring practices.
In November, the Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng. She is the first woman to serve as a general manager of an MLB team, and the first among any major league professional men’s team in North American sports since the San Jose Clash of the MLS hired Lynne Meterparel in 1999. Ng’s hiring may be the most important diversity hire in recent MLB history.
In December, MLB said it was officially “correcting a longtime oversight in the game’s history.” To do that, it recognized the players of the Negro Leagues as major-league-caliber players by including their statistics and records as part of MLB history. That was huge — and long overdue.
In February, the Atlanta Braves formed the Henry Aaron fellowship program in honor of the late Hank Aaron. Like Jackie Robinson, Aaron was a trailblazer for Black baseball players and one of the greatest to play the game. He was a true champion for diversity and equity, which he carried with him even after his playing career as an executive with the Atlanta Braves. The fellowship creates a pathway allowing participants to get experience working in a front office to open up diversity opportunities in those positions.
Today, our team at The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida (UCF) published the 2021 MLB Racial and Gender Report Card. The report reveals how far MLB has to go to achieve an entirely diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace. However, at the same time, it highlights MLB’s key advances over the past year during these challenging times.
MLB earned a B+ for racial hiring and C for gender hiring to notch an overall grade of C+. It missed a B- by a fraction of a point. Although MLB’s point total in each category slightly decreased from 2020, the key advances and milestones involving Ng, the All-Star Game and the Negro Leagues leave me optimistic — and hopeful.
Like many people directly involved with MLB, I have been waiting for a team to hire Ng as general manager. Back in 2008, I remember then-commissioner Bud Selig telling me that Ng will be a great GM. Ng served as the youngest assistant GM in MLB history with the New York Yankees, vice president and assistant GM for the Los Angeles Dodgers and senior vice president of baseball operations for MLB. Derek Jeter, MLB’s only team CEO who is a person of color and who played under Ng, gave her the opportunity she obviously more than earned.
Additionally, MLB changed its leadership lineup by hiring Michele Meyer-Shipp as the Chief People & Culture officer and Justin Reyes as Vice President of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Together they launched MLB’s refreshed diversity, equity and inclusion mission, vision and strategy. Still, for continuous progress, it is crucial that athlete activism supports their new strategy and that they continue to shift attention toward hiring practices.
Notably, MLB displayed its support for The Players Alliance, with a $10 million grant set to be paid through 2024. The Players Alliance is precisely that, a coalition of former players who have come together in an effort to improve the representation of Black Americans in all levels of baseball through education, training, counseling, internships and recruitment programs.
On the club side, historic diversity milestones were also achieved. One of the organizations leading the way is the Boston Red Sox. After ridding the club of part of its racist past in 2018, renaming Yawkey Way back to Jersey Street, the Red Sox hired Bianca Smith in January as the first Black female coach in professional baseball. Smith is one of 22 women who are either on-field coaches or in player development roles in MLB this season. And the addition of LeBron James and his longtime business associate Maverick Carter as part-owners helps set the stage for baseball to potentially attract more diverse ownership groups moving forward.
This is ultimately why we decided to count the grade for ownership toward the overall grade for the first time in report card history. While leagues will not score well when it comes to ownership, it is a critical racial and gender category that needs to be addressed.
Still, in light of the league’s efforts to diversify the game, some of the most recognizable and noteworthy positions still need improvement.
For ownership, Arturo Moreno, who is Hispanic and owns the Los Angeles Angels, remains as the only majority owner of color for an MLB team. Similarly, Derek Jeter is the CEO of the Marlins and is the only person of color in such a role. Both categories have no women.
Additionally, people of color held 12.9% of C-suite positions, while women held 22.6% — both of which need considerable improvement. Team vice presidents saw similar numbers, with 15.3% being of color and 22% being women. For president of baseball operations or general manager, the number remained at just four persons of color, or 13.3%.
Like vice presidents, general managers and other key decision-making positions, women remained underrepresented in administration roles as well. Only 28.5% of senior administration and 25.5% of professional administration roles were held by women.
And MLB’s struggles go beyond the front office and even onto the diamond, where the representation of Black players on Opening Day active rosters was only 7.6%. This continues to stand as one of the ironies of Jackie Robinson’s importance to MLB. However, it should be noted that MLB has witnessed solid increases of Black players in the draft over the past decade — which should move the needle.
Knowing the turmoil faced last season, I commend Manfred and MLB for returning to play in traditional fashion this year on April 1, while concurrently setting industry standards in new diversity initiatives and milestones. I am hoping the season goes well so fans can possibly begin to feel a sense of normalcy and optimism for the health of our country in the coming months.
Brady Johnson-Schmeltzer and Spencer Ewing contributed to this column.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.