CEO Insider

Promoting Diversity As A Sports Business Leader Is Crucial To Moving Sport Forward

Phil Andrews, Chief Executive Officer, USA Weightlifting
Phil Andrews, Chief Executive Officer, USA Weightlifting

Sport usually brings people, cultures, and businesses together from all walks of life.

Ironically, at the heart of the global sports industry, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) are often neglected by organisations who treat them as little more than keywords as part of compulsory corporate training.

However, when you understand the value of DEI, and the benefits of representing a variety of cultural characteristics, every department of your business profits.

At its crux, DEI is about widening involvement in an organization and opening the door to a more diverse demographic. However, creating a diverse organization alone is insufficient. Leadership that reinforces a sense of unity and belonging and mandates a culture of fairness among these groups is critical. This is just as important in establishing a successful and dynamic organizational culture.

The inclusion of highly diverse individuals, which goes far beyond gender and race, can be a key differentiator among companies, leading to industry-leading profitability. The advantages of openly celebrating differences are abundant. When people feel included, empowered, and respected, it creates trust and a feeling of belonging within your organization. From a business standpoint, this leads to increased creativity, innovation, and productivity.

In the case of large sports organizations, DEI translates to the membership and participation of marginalized athletes, who should all be given equal opportunity, regardless of race, sex, or gender identity.

While there are plenty of corporate-related reasons for sports business leaders to advance DEI, they must do it for the right reasons. This is no more so the case than in the debate over transgender equality in sports.

In what currently represents a globally polarizing issue, trans athletes have been widely criticized due to alleged physical advantages when competing. With both sides of the debate citing accusations of discrimination, a consensus on the matter looks harder and harder to achieve.

In such instances, it is important to consider the wider relationship between sports and human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of association, health, rest, and leisure, and to participate in cultural life, of which sport is a fundamental pillar.

Likewise, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and UNESCO’s International Charter of Physical Education and Sport, both identify sport as a fundamental right for all.

These mandates represent the core values of DEI and are why, in my position as the CEO of USA Weightlifting (USAW), I was a prominent supporter of transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, and her right to compete as an Olympic athlete at Tokyo 2020.

Sports business leaders should not be concerned because one trans participant is argued to gain an advantage by competing against cisgender women. Rather, in this instance, we should primarily concern ourselves with the principle of inclusion, when advocating our support to marginalised athletes.

Although a highly complex issue, Laurel Hubbard abided by all the applicable rules, entitling her to compete in Tokyo.

Another key aspect about diverse athletes, that should be heavily considered when making leadership decisions surrounding their inclusion in sport, is their status as role models.

‘If you can see it, you can be it.’

To promote DEI as a prominent leader in sports, it is critically important to help cultivate strong visual role models for developing generations. This applies to every department of a sport, be that administration, officiating, coaching, and most importantly of all, to athletes. Paying acute attention to media outlets and social networks is vital in this regard.

At USAW, we have strived to become more inclusive and diverse as a business. As a result, we are proud to be bringing more individuals from black and ethnic minority backgrounds into the sport, with our female representation extending to more than 50% of USAW membership.

It is up to my team and I to ensure our athletes receive equal support and opportunity to enter the sport, irrespective of race, sex, or gender. Individual outreach from senior leadership is vitally important, as those from marginalized communities are more inclined to need that direct encouragement by way of personal communication. We want to do everything we can to help create a more robust pipeline of athletes from underserved communities and give them the most inclusive experience possible while representing our organization.

That’s why, as part of our commitment to continuous improvement, USAW proactively requested a culture assessment by the nationally recognized consulting firm, Vestry Laight, focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion; athlete safety; BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities; veterans; and adaptive athletes.

By facing and responding to hard truths, we eliminated barriers to participation and built an environment that contributed to the evolution of our sport. Increasing women and BIPOC coaches, enhancing diverse recruitment within our organizational structure, improving education on DEI topics, and positioning us to better retain and engage with LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities.

Addressing DEI challenges in this manner has enabled us as an organization to realize our vision of ensuring the sport is accessible, safe, and welcoming to ‘Anyone, Anywhere.’

That all said, it is important to remember that sport has a vast social, cultural, and global presence and therefore provides a platform to highlight inequalities in a way few other industries can.

Diverse athletes such as Laurel Hubbard, and those from LGBTQIA+ community and minority backgrounds, represent wider societal values that transcend sport itself – it is crucial to empower these role models, not marginalize them.

It is clear that empowering differences is an essential administrative goal that should energize all corporate leaders and motivate them to grow organizational value.

The time is now to summon the power of collective resolve to galvanize diversity as a core of business operations.


Written by Phil Andrews.

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Phil Andrews
Phil Andrews has established himself as one of the leading sports administrators in the United States. As CEO of USA Weightlifting, he has transformed the sport’s governance and reputation beyond recognition, attracting record participation levels and sponsorship. Born and raised in England before moving to the U.S., Phil has a global perspective and a vast array of experience in sport and business. He has worked in professional ice hockey for British Champions Coventry Blaze; the FTSE 250 student hospitality business Unite Group PLC; and David Lloyd Leisure.


Phil Andrews is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.