Ben Johnson is the new men’s basketball coach at the University of Minnesota, and he is Black. Before he was hired, article after article outlined why the university should hire a person of color, especially considering that so many men’s basketball players are Black. Presumably, Black coaches can better relate to players who resemble them. Also presumably, former players make good coaches because they understand the complexities and speed of elite men’s basketball.
Then again, other articles — sometimes by the same writers — celebrate coaches who meet none of those criteria: female coaches.
Consider Becky Hammon, the first female coach in the NBA. She clearly knows basketball as a four-time WNBA all-star, and her coaching routinely has earned praise from her players and colleagues. Earlier this season she was even lauded as a pioneer by then-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Hammon is a great coach by all accounts, and she’s inspiring a new crop of female coaches in men’s leagues.
But Hammon has never played in the NBA, of course. And she does not resemble her players — at all. Weren’t we told these things were important?
The contrast is summed up by a simple hypothetical: Instead of Ben Johnson, what if Becky Hammon had been hired to coach at Minnesota? Sportswriters probably would have done what they did when she was hired in the NBA: suspended their interest in race just long enough to praise the hiring of a woman (even if she’s white). Graphs displaying the racial compositions of coaching staffs likely would have vanished before the next news cycle. The goal of “diversity” would have been met, somehow.
Why the confusion about what “diversity” means? It’s because, for a long time, our need for diversity has been so obvious that we haven’t needed a clear goal — “more” worked just fine. For fear of sounding complacent, we haven’t stopped to consider what “enough diversity” would even look like.
In coaching, though, “enough” might finally be on the distant — distant — horizon.
A look at nationwide numbers reveals that white men are still overrepresented in high-level coaching by any reasonable metric. But has anyone ever outlined a goal for diversity by any metric? We could continue trying to match the demographics of coaches and players, but then female coaches like Hammon would be the first to disappear, presumably, which seems unfair. Or we could measure the coaching pool against the population at large, but only 13% of that population is Black. About a quarter is Asian or Hispanic. Half is female.
(And we haven’t even mentioned women’s sports.)
Which metrics should we use for diversity and why? More specifically, what mix or mixes of demographics in the coaching ranks might satisfy us enough to keep race or gender from dominating the news coverage of every new coaching search? One can wonder: Does such a mix even exist?
Defining “diversity” out loud would be a bold first step toward achieving it. Our current calls for poorly defined “diversity” are little more than jeers from the cheap seats.
Believe it or not, our coaching ranks are becoming more diverse. The University of Minnesota has perfectly alternated between Black and white basketball coaches since hiring Clem Haskins in 1986. Four of the Big Ten’s 14 men’s basketball coaches are Black — a low percentage compared to Black players but a high percentage compared to Black Americans. Women also continue to join the men’s coaching ranks.
That’s all well and good. But before we hire the next coach, let’s think hard about diversity. Let’s dare to think less about “more” and more about “enough.”
P.A. Jensen of Duluth writes about politics, sports, and rural life at RuralityCheck.com. He wrote this for the News Tribune.