As part of this year’s Postgraduate Rankings, SportBusiness is highlighting some of the most important and impactful research to have been produced and published by the institutions we survey. Professor Nefertiti A. Walker is Associate Professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Mark H. McCormack School of Sport Management, as well as UMass’ interim vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion and its chief diversity officer.
Through my research, industry partnerships, and teaching, my goal remains the same: to leave the culture of sport better than how I found it.
For much of the past decade, my research has centered on sport culture. I have conducted research in collaboration with espnW and Dr Nicole Melton in which we examined the role of inclusion in college athletics. We concluded that college athletic departments that are both inclusive and diverse perform the best in terms of overall department success (a combination of wins and revenue). This research is important because it demonstrates that it is not enough to hire people from diverse demographic groups, but that sport managers must also work to develop inclusive organizations where employees feel a strong sense of belonging. These findings were shared at the espnW Women + Sport Summit in California.
The next theme of my research examines sport cultures and the role of gender. Specifically, I examine the treatment of women working in male-dominant spaces such as men’s college basketball or the front office of men’s professional sports. I was intrigued as to why there were so few women working in men’s basketball. Over the years I have interviewed both women who have coached in men’s basketball at the collegiate and professional level, as well as men who have worked with women coaches of men’s basketball. The findings from these various studies suggest that women are just as capable and effective at coaching men’s basketball as their male counterparts.
However, even though women were rated just as high on items such as competence to do the job, they were rated significantly lower on hiring recommendation – thereby providing evidence of gender discrimination. I have presented this research to numerous front office executives of men’s sports leagues and teams. When I began this research a decade ago, there were no women coaching in the NBA and only Nancy Lieberman coaching in the G-League.
Now, at least 11 women work as a coach or basketball operations executives in the NBA. Upwards of 40-plus women work across the NBA with various teams in basketball operations. This is a significant shift in culture. Therefore, my next research project will examine how behaviors, policies, and processes have changed, to allow for the inclusion of women in the NBA. Certainly, having an NBA Commissioner in Adam Silver who, per the New York Times, says, “We are very focused on a woman being a head coach in our league,” has helped propel the NBA towards the inclusion of women. But I intend to investigate other factors that have led to this significant change.
Finally, my most recent research comes from collaborating on projects led by McCormack Graduate Student and PhD candidate Lauren Hindman. Lauren and I have spent the last few years examining sexism in sport. One project explored the experiences of women working in professional sports. Our results suggest that all women who participated in our study experienced significant levels of sexism. Some women dealt with subtle forms of sexism, like being left out of networking opportunities or being nudged out of the ‘old boys’ club’ lunch dates. Others experienced overt verbal abuse and harassment. In another study we examined the culture of professional cheerleaders. In this project, we found that cheerleaders were verbally abused, forced to dress in revealing clothes even when not performing, held to unreasonable fraternisation standards, and were grossly underpaid, even compared to the team mascot. Again, this suggests that sexism is deeply entrenched into the culture of sport. However, with the increased attention on gender pay equity and the #MeToo movement, sexism in sports is overdue for its reckoning.
Overall, my previously mentioned research coupled with industry partnerships has led to the incorporation of students on much of what I do as a professor. For example, my students have worked with executives from ESPN, MLS, and NCAA. Every course that I teach incorporates aspects of industry research and partnerships, related to the shifting culture of sport. Therefore, students leave my courses understanding the ways that sport culture is shifting and develop the inclusive leaderships skills needed to lead this shift. McCormack students graduate being better prepared to lead the future of sports.