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Op-Ed: Leveraging Grad School to Close the DEI Gap in Sports & Entertainment Business

By: Kellen Williams (UMass McCormack M.S. ‘15)

There is an institutionalized lack of equal access to opportunities according to race across industries. The ills that plague sports and entertainment are no different than others. However, sports and entertainment are uniquely positioned to affect change more rapidly due to their proximity to the pulse of society. We’ve seen many firsts throughout the years that challenge convention, whether that’s Jesse Owens dominating the Olympics as a Black man in Nazi Germany, Jackie Robinson integrating MLB as the Rookie of the Year and MVP, or Bill Russell doubling as the all-time winningest player and the first Black coach in the NBA. Each of these accomplishments served as lead dogs in the DEI Iditarod, and it is imperative that we continue the race today.

Simply put, there are not nearly enough Black and Brown people working within the sports and entertainment industry, especially in positions of leadership. Sure, there have been strides over the years, but we have a ways to go, as current change is measured in inches rather than feet. We hear baseless comments like the CEO of Wells Fargo saying this past summer that there is not enough Black talent when questioned about the bank’s low diversity numbers. Despite the many layers of appalling and lazy, this antiquated excuse is a view still commonly held by too many people. And what’s most frustrating is that the “D” in DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion – is the easiest prescription of the three to fulfill, yet hurdles still remain.

In response to these sobering realities and the continued need to provide equitable access, Sports & Entertainment Equity Network (SEEN) is at the forefront of driving change. SEEN was created due to the dearth of Black and Brown professionals in the business of sports and entertainment. We are a community that’s committed to leveling the playing field so that everyone has equitable access to opportunities and growth. We align our steps according to three key pillars: Advancement, Community Building, and Giving Back.

SEEN aims to be a leader and make a significant impact on the lives of the diverse professionals we serve by leveraging our resources and collaborating with established institutions. One of those institutions is the UMass McCormack Department of Sport Management. There are two members of the SEEN Leadership Team who are graduates. Melcolm Ruffin – SEEN Co-Founder – is an undergraduate alumnus, and I am a graduate alumnus. Even more, Trinity Montiero is a current senior who doubles as a SEEN volunteer intern and mentee to Melcolm. It is truly a family affair. More on this in a bit …

Mark McCormack was a maverick businessman who blazed a trail because he was unafraid to take chances, he trusted his intuition, and he was often in pursuit of eggs to nurture because he saw opportunities to leverage potential. With this symmetry in mind, it is exciting to make a tangible impact for talented Black and Brown students by way of a partnership with the sport management program that’s named in his honor. We want to elevate through diversity, equity and inclusion and serve the underserved through the creation of a platform meant to leave a lasting impact.

In support of this mission, SEEN and McCormack are joining forces to introduce the SEEN-McCormack Graduate Fellowship. This multi-year fellowship will provide underrepresented candidates from the SEEN community a fully-funded one-year MS or two-year dual MBA/MS degree from a world-renowned sport management program housed within a business school. This fellowship will be the connective tissue that drives the long overdue change within the industry we all want to see.

Some may say low racial diversity is a matter of chicken and egg – suggesting the industry wants to increase diversity, but is unsure how to make the first step. However, that’s nothing more than a hollow excuse. Action speaks louder than words and we believe in putting our money behind our words. I am thrilled to see SEEN partner with my alma mater to plant the seed for what we hope is the beginning of a generational shift. We are bringing the chicken to the egg so that it hatches. What’s hatching? Hope. Dreams. Opportunities. Access. Community. Diversity. Equity. Inclusion.

We will pour into their cup until it runneth over – expose ambitious Black and Brown professionals to world class instruction, a supportive student and alumni community, and real-world problem-solving project-based learning that offers translatable experience for transition into jobs after graduation. This skill development and relationship building will drive self-confidence and remove any doubts by employers that there is a limited supply of diverse talent from which to choose.

For many years to come, more Black and Brown professionals will be SEEN. Now let’s get started!

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