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Congress wants to know how the NCAA is making its diversity pledge a reality

More than a year after the NCAA’s pledge, Congress has questions.

Balance Of Power At Stake As Midterm Elections Draw Near Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Over a year ago, the NCAA began asking member schools to get behind a pledge developing better hiring practices that promoted diversity and equality. Without an answer on any progress on that pledge in a year, Congress is now asking questions.

Led by Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, lawmakers have sent correspondence to Mark Emmert, the head of the NCAA, to demand answers on the organization’s progress toward increased hiring diversity.

Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana and the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Maxine Waters, a black Democrat from California, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a black Democrat from Washington, D.C., Frederica Wilson, a black Democrat from Florida, and Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, also signed this letter to the NCAA.

According to the letter, which was sent to the NCAA on Thursday and is included in full at the bottom of this article, the congressional collective requested updates about diversity participation from member schools in the NCAA. They also want to know what further actions the organization is considering to improve diversity in hiring from coaches to athletic department liaisons, and evidence that the pledge, as the NCAA vowed, is actually translating to “more diverse and inclusive athletic departments.”

Bonamici, the leader of this effort, made waves in the state senate of Oregon in 2009 for co-sponsoring legislation making a “Rooney Rule” in Oregon. By the time she made it to Congress, Oregon had its first black head football coach in school history, Willie Taggart. The rule in Oregon required state colleges and universities to interview candidates of color before hiring athletic representatives.

“We’ve really seen that make a difference in my state of Oregon,” Bonamici told SB Nation last month. “We wanted to follow up if, in fact, the pledge is working or is there more that can be done. After seeing the results in Oregon we wanted to see them in a broader scale.

“There’s much more that can be done,” she continued. “From what I know, there’s room for improvement.”

The original legislation passed in 2009 when a constituent, Sam Sachs, came to Bonamici, then a state senator, and asked her and a few other Oregon politicians to take charge on the issue.

Lawmakers in other states had attempted to do the same thing in recent years, including Florida and Alabama. New Jersey has a resolution repeatedly filed in its state senate that urges the NCAA to adopt a Rooney Rule, but Oregon’s push is the only legislation of its kind to pass at this time.

Last year, when the NCAA originally announced its pledge, Sachs contacted Bonamici and asked her if there was anything more they could do. Following that conversation between Sachs and Bonamici, the drafting of a letter to the organization ended up taking months before it was sent to the NCAA on Thursday.

Sachs’ other line of attack was to figure out if a bill like Bonamici’s from the Oregon statehouse would fly in conferences around the NCAA. Sachs thought the progressive-minded Pac-12 would be the perfect breeding ground for a diversifying rule aimed at colleges.

“It’s not the Rooney Rule,” Sachs told SB Nation. “If we get it passed we want it to be called the Eddie Robinson rule, but what the difference is is in Oregon there’s no penalty. In the NFL if you don’t follow through then you get $500,000 fine that’s the difference. In Oregon, which is the only state that has it, there’s no penalty.”

The Pac-12’s commissioner, Larry Scott, is on record saying he would support it in 2015. But since then, there has not been much in the way of public progress by the league. Multiple requests for comment by SB Nation to the Pac-12 were not returned.

“They can adopt it themselves and make some very simple changes to their hiring process, their affirmative action processes and it would be successful,” Sachs said. “So I think the hesitance is they feel like possibly — and I’m just assuming — that they feel that they don’t have the power to enforce anything and I don’t think they’re really familiar with how they would implement it in college.”

An official with knowledge of the negotiations between the Pac-12 and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the group that originally made the Rooney Rule, said that any conversation about adopting a type of rule for the league has fizzled. The official said it’s been “months” since there’s been any contact about a rule or thoughts for it.

The official also said that one of the reasons the Pac-12 was chosen was that some of their schools, including Oregon State and Oregon, were already bound to the legislation in the state of Oregon.

The consensus is that there is no real way, currently, to force the NCAA and member schools to interview or even hire coaches of color. There is no framework for how oversight of a procedure like that would take place at this time.

More than anything else, Bonamici said, her original bill and this letter to the NCAA is about representation. If many collegiate teams are predominately of color, shouldn’t there be a moment where more people who look like them are in positions of power?

“When I saw what happened in Oregon, I mean, we have African-American coaches now at University of Oregon, Western, and Portland State. That’s tremendous progress in a state like Oregon,” she said.

“What we found with the bill in Oregon and the intent, of course, of the Rooney Rule is you get someone in to interview,” Bonamici continued. “It doesn’t say you have to hire them. But, getting people in and helping get that connection has resulted in positive change in Oregon and can result in positive change across the country. So, when players of color are on their team they can see they have a coach of color. That really makes a difference.”

Below is the letter in full:

Dear President Emmert:

Last fall, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began asking its member institutions to pledge to develop hiring practices that promote “ethnic and racial diversity, gender equity and inclusion.” We support this effort, and we write today, nearly a year after the introduction of that pledge, to ask about what progress has been made. We respectfully request that you provide us with an update about participation in the pledge and inform us about what further actions the NCAA is considering to improve diversity among coaches and athletic department administrators at its member institutions. We hope to see clear evidence that the NCAA’s pledge is translating quickly to more diverse and inclusive athletic departments. In addition, we ask that the NCAA consider options for identifying, disseminating, and enforcing effective standards for equitable hiring practices among its member institutions.

The NCAA’s pledge has received broad support from institutions and conference commissioners across the NCAA’s three divisions. Yet people of color and women continue to be significantly underrepresented in coaching and athletic department leadership positions. In fact, roughly 90 percent of coaches at the NCAA’s member institutions are white. Coaches who are men far outnumber those who are women—even among women’s teams. People of color and women also make up only a small fraction of athletic directors in the NCAA.

Although we understand that the lack of diversity among coaches and athletic department administrators will not be corrected overnight, we know how important it is to take strong action to improve diversity. To that end, we ask that you inform us about the extent to which the NCAA’s member institutions have implemented new hiring practices and what those practices are, the extent to which those practices have improved diversity within intercollegiate athletics, and what support and resources the NCAA is providing to help schools in this effort.

We know that you share our belief in the power of inclusion. We look forward to supporting you and the NCAA in efforts to make sure people of color and women are no longer underrepresented among coaches and leaders of intercollegiate athletic programs. And we look forward to learning more about the measurable effects of the NCAA’s diversity pledge and any additional steps the NCAA is considering to turn the pledge into action.

Thank you for your attention to our request.

Steven Godfrey contributed reporting to this story.