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A VCU professor has researched the barriers staff members face when trying to advance DEI in and beyond their departments. (Getty Images)

DEI administrators face five barriers to effective action in intercollegiate sports, research finds

Overcoming these barriers is crucial to successfully advancing diversity, equity and inclusion.

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As sport organizations increasingly hire staff to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, a new study from Virginia Commonwealth University identifies five specific levels of barriers these employees will face.

A portrait of Yannick Kluch
Yannick Kluch, Ph.D., an assistant professor and the director of inclusive excellence at the VCU Center for Sport Leadership.

“DEI-specific staff positions are a fairly new phenomenon in sport, and this study is one of the first looking at the barriers these staff members face when trying to advance DEI in and beyond their athletic departments,” said Yannick Kluch, Ph.D., an assistant professor and the director of inclusive excellence at the VCU Center for Sport Leadership. “Knowing what the main roadblocks can be is crucial for setting these DEI professionals up for success and, in turn, empowering them to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in and through their work in the athletic department.”

In “‘It’s Like Being on an Island by Yourself’: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Administrators’ Perceptions of Barriers to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work in Intercollegiate Athletics,” published in the Journal of Sport Management, Kluch and his co-authors identified five main barriers sport administrators face:

  • Structural barriers: Systemic barriers woven deeply into the institutional fabric of the university and athletic department, which made them arguably the hardest to overcome. Example: Many of the administrators felt that athletics was isolated on campus, making it hard to engage in cross-campus collaboration. They also lacked resources such as funding and staff to drive DEI.
  • Cultural barriers: Barriers referring to the culture created in the spaces the DEI professionals operated in and examined to what extent that culture hindered the participants’ endeavors to drive DEI action. Example: Administrators felt a lack of buy-in from key stakeholders, such as leadership, was a huge barrier to DEI work.
  • Conceptual barriers: Barriers rooted in a lack of consistent DEI industry standards as well as institutional and industrywide history of DEI positions in athletics. Example: Because the job field is fairly new, administrators felt that a lack of DEI standards across the industry made their job harder.
  • Emotional barriers: Barriers that negatively affected participants’ mental and emotional well-being and, as such, posed challenges to successful DEI work. Example: Administrators talked about being overworked due to not being able to take time off from DEI work.
  • Social/relational barriers: Barriers that jeopardized participants’ feelings of social connectedness and affected their ability to form relationships that can benefit their work related to DEI. Example: Because staff often felt like they were tokenized — e.g., as the only Black person on senior staff — it was harder to develop meaningful relationships in the department and the broader campus community.

“It is important to understand that these are all related, and one contributes to the other,” Kluch said. “For example, some of the DEI administrators felt exhausted — an emotional barrier — because they had no additional staff working for them — a structural issue — and lacked the support system to continue doing their work — a social/relational barrier.”

The researchers culled data from interviews with 23 athletic administrators to identify barriers to efforts for driving DEI action in the context of intercollegiate athletics, he said. While the findings have important implications for staff with DEI responsibilities in college athletics, the study can provide valuable insight for any organization invested in removing barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion.