Perspective: What We Can Learn From NCAA Diversity

April 6, 2016, 12:30 PM

Editor’s Note: The author of this post is a partner at an international law firm.

By Joseph K. West, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Duane Morris LLP

This year’s NCAA Final Four basketball tournament will likely be remembered as one of the most intriguing ever. In addition to the buzzer-beating shot for the ages, giving Villanova University victory in the final game, it featured a couple of interesting historical twists that can teach us something about the value of diversity. One of this year’s semifinal games featured Khadeem Lattin, a sophomore player for the Oklahoma Sooners, who was returning to his hometown of Houston in an effort to win a national championship. Exactly 50 years earlier, his grandfather, David “Big Daddy D” Lattin, was the starting center of the relatively unknown Texas Western Miners, which won the 1966 college basketball national championship against an overwhelming favorite, the vaunted Kentucky Wildcats.

That Texas Western team fielded, for the first time in finals history, an all-black roster. This was in an era where racial segregation was systemic, and discrimination against blacks was both endemic and codified. Over the course of that season, the team endured withering racial ugliness and threats of violence that were, unfortunately, common in that era. As the writer Pat Forde noted in an article published 30 years later: “In the spring of 1966 the nation was about midway between the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It had watched Watts burn and witnessed the backlash against integration in Mississippi and elsewhere.”

Moreover, Texas Western’s opponent, the Kentucky Wildcats, were led by famed coach Adolph Rupp, who had espoused racist beliefs and had vehemently and publicly stated that he wanted only white players on his team — as reported by Sports Illustrated.

Just before heading to the arena on game day, Texas Western coach Don Haskins gathered his players in Lattin’s hotel room and told them that Rupp had bragged on a radio show that there was “no way five black players could beat [his] all-white team.” Haskins then told his team, “It’s up to you.” The team went on to earn a hard-fought 72–65 victory. Historians believe the publicity the game received helped dispel the notion that blacks were somehow incapable of performing at such a high level on the basketball court, and elsewhere, and helped hasten the end of overt segregation. Future NBA coach Pat Riley, who was a member of the losing Kentucky team, later said that although it was the worst night of his life, he was proud to be a part of a moment of history that “dispelled the absurd illusions that too many people in this country held to be true.”

The legal profession, of which I am a member, remains the least diverse of all white-collar professions.

Fifty years later, the ranks of college basketball contain tremendous diversity; however, many of the nation’s most powerful professions still struggle to provide opportunities for minorities to display their talents. The tech sector’s absence of meaningful diversity is well-known. The financial services industry is still an old boys’ club. The legal profession, of which I am a member, remains the least diverse of all white-collar professions, and the recent Academy Awards telecast underscored the lack of diversity in the entertainment media. Some contend there is a “pipeline” issue wherein too few “qualified” minorities exist to fill the need. My own experiences tell me otherwise. Over the course of a lengthy legal career, I have witnessed an extraordinary array of diverse talent in both law firms and corporations; whether I was trying a complex case to a jury or evaluating RFP responses for the world’s largest company.

I would challenge the powers that be in each of these industries to expand their recruiting scope.

Much like the college sports world in the 1960s, a wealth of diverse talent exists in each of the aforementioned disciplines and is particularly prevalent in the legal profession. Part of the problem is that, like the relatively unknown Texas Western Miners, so much of that talent goes unnoticed because they may not attend the “right” institutions or have a certain pedigree. I would challenge the powers that be in each of these industries to expand their recruiting scope, cast a broader net and shed their preconceived notions about what the right “fit” might look like.

The juxtaposition of the 1966 tournament with this year’s game contains one final lesson: After the 1966 title game, even Kentucky eventually recruited and won championships with black players, such as Tony Delk and Anthony Davis; and the team was led by a black coach, Tubby Smith. The infusion of talented African-American athletes and coaches has propelled college teams and sports franchises in every major sport.

Fast forward to this year’s tournament and the title game. The Oklahoma team with David “Big Daddy D” Lattin’s grandson did not make it to the final and was eliminated by the eventual winners, the Villanova Wildcats—mainly as a result of the superb ball-handling and lights-out shooting of junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono. It was Arcidiacono who skillfully drove the ball downcourt and dished it to teammate Kris Jenkins for Villanova’s championship-winning shot. Arcidiacono was named Most Outstanding Player for the tournament. He happens to be white.

The combination of these two factors proves definitively that recruiting a more diverse talent base benefits every organization as a whole and does not in any way dampen the prospects of those who happen to not be minorities.

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