Amherst College pushes for diversity in its athletics programs

Amherst College pushes for diversity in its athletics programs
Amherst College campus. Photo: Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The youth sports economy has doubled in size over the past decade to more than $15 billion, ushering in an era of private coaching, travel teams and summer showcases.

The state of play: This prices out young athletes from low- and even middle-class households, which might explain why college sports teams are increasingly lacking in diversity, especially when football and basketball are excluded — forcing Amherst College to find a way to fight back.

  • According to a 2018 NCAA survey, nearly 70% of its athletes competing outside of football and basketball were white. The disparity was even greater at the Division III-level, where that number was almost 80%.

Driving the news: Roughly three years ago, Amherst, a small liberal arts college in Amherst, Mass., embarked on a mission to make its sports teams (23% students of color) look more like its overall student body (45% students of color).

  • “Amherst coaches, with a slightly augmented recruiting budget, have since looked beyond the most popular, suburban-based youth sports tournaments and frequently taken the less-traveled path to far-flung locales,” writes NYT's Bill Pennington.
  • “They have beat the bushes with blind calls, targeted distinct youth clubs from mixed neighborhoods and expanded an existing program that flies prospective minority applicants to the Amherst campus to substantially include recruited athletes.”
  • The school's most recent recruiting class was 32% athletes of color, a 21% increase from what it was in 2002.

The big picture: While it's worth acknowledging that Amherst's deep pockets and ability to give financial aid ($2.4 billion endowment) may have helped, it's not like this can't be replicated elsewhere. After all, the school simply made diversity a priority in recruiting — and coaches put in the work to accomplish that goal.

“In terms of resources, we're talking … tens of thousands of dollars, but we're not talking millions of dollars. What matters more than money to travel is the effort, the awareness and the commitment.”

— Amherst President Biddy Martin, per NYT

The bottom line: The current youth sports model shuts out far too many Americans, and that's a problem that needs to be addressed.

  • But in the interim, colleges can, and should, make an effort to counter that imbalance from the top-down, rather than waiting for a broken system to fix itself from the ground-up.

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