Culturally Responsive Approaches in College Sports Leadership

Reviewed by Nick Spragg

As college sports associations like the NCAA reckon with decades of white male dominance, scholars analyze literature in gender, race, and sports leadership to imagine a path forward. 


Pervasive issues of inequities, inequalities, and discrimination have long hindered the successful establishment of diversity and inclusion in United States college sports. These issues are underpinned by factors like implicit bias, toxic masculinity and patriarchy, and colorblind racism. 

Despite efforts to improve leadership styles and change athletic policies over the years, problems in gender and race representation, mobility, and retention remain. In response to these persistent issues, the authors propose a transformational leadership approach integrating anti-racism, anti-sexism, and culturally responsive practices.

In order to develop this approach, they rely on the anti-racism and culturally responsive leadership framework that draws upon diverse individual experiences to pursue equity and inclusivity. 

Joseph N Cooper is Professor in the UMass Boston department of Counseling & School Psychology whose research focuses on the intersection between sport, education, race, and culture. Ajhanai C I Newton (Keaton) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health & Sport Sciences whose research focuses on how race and gender (in)equity inform organizational leadership, processes, and experiences. Max Klein is a doctoral student in Learning, Leadership, and Education Policy at the University of Connecticut. Shannon Jolly is a doctoral student studying Sport Management & Policy in the University of Georgia Department of Kinesiology.

Methods and Findings


The authors review evidence for barriers faced by women aspiring to leadership positions in sports. One study argued that dominant gender ideology and societal trends contribute to women internalizing self-limiting beliefs about their capacity for leadership in sports. Another study identified barriers at micro- (interpersonal), meso- (institutional), and macro-levels (association-wide and societal), emphasizing the systemic nature of sexism, both implicit and explicit, in sports leadership: 

  1. “The macro-level factors included institutional practices, political climate, and stakeholder expectations.” 
  2. “The meso-level factors included prejudice and discrimination, exclusionary leadership prototypes, and organizational cultures of diversity.” 
  3. “The micro-level factors include head coaching expectations and intentions and occupational turnover intentions” 

The authors then review studies about leadership styles necessary to address the micro, meso, and macro barriers and implement proactive diversity strategies: 

  • Transformational leadership focuses on inspiring and motivating followers for personal growth and organizational success, emphasizing vision and collective benefits. 
  • Transactional leadership incentivizes follower behavior through exchange of benefits for performance outcomes, prioritizing organizational productivity over individual development. The predominant leadership style in Division I college sports is transactional, aligning with individualistic interests and systemic oppression, necessitating assimilation for marginalized groups seeking leadership roles.
  • Servant leadership, while beneficial for smaller organizations with shared core values, may also be limited in larger, heterogeneous groups like college sports. In this context, where white people dominate leadership roles, servant leadership might struggle to address the diverse needs, preferences, and demands of underrepresented groups. 


The authors argue for the adoption of transformational leadership in college sports and other industries to embody culturally responsive and multicultural orientations. They contend that individuals from racially and gender-oppressed groups should not be compelled to assimilate into transactional leadership approaches. Instead, adopting transformational leadership norms can surpass the colorblind and patriarchal limitations of transactional leadership. In sum, the authors define transformational leadership with the following principles: 

  1. Culturally Responsive: intentionally incorporating cultural characteristics, experiences, worldviews, and insights of ethnically diverse people as conduits for effective leadership.
  2. Commitment to Diversity: beyond diverse leadership, a diversity of ideology and approach is necessary to deconstruct the transactional leadership precedent.
  3. Anti-ism Approach: identifying and acknowledging historical oppressions, inequities, and inequalities stemming from ideologies such as white racism, sexism, and capitalism. 

Additionally, the authors propose the formation of advocate committees to address a persistent issue in college sports — gender and race discrimination. The committees should have formal organizational power to enforce and monitor systematic changes. For example, the NCAA Office of Inclusion could collaborate with organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or the National Urban League (NUL), which are dedicated to racial and gender equity. The shared expertise of such organizations would help inform NCAA policies, practices, and evaluation methods to address systemic racism and sexism.

The authors also suggest broadening leadership development efforts. This could involve mentorships, internships, job shadowing, and professional development activities, particularly in partnership with sport leadership programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Policy recommendations for surface-level diversity involve incorporating inclusion hires, similar to practices in the entertainment industry. This approach includes revising position descriptions to value multicultural skill sets and talents, intentionally updating descriptions, and involving third-party entities in the review process. 

Ultimately, the authors recommend a culturally responsive, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and transformational leadership approach. This involves: 

  • situating scandals within larger cultural contexts, 
  • empowering Title IX offices, 
  • embedding anti-sexism in campus culture, 
  • enforcing policies to protect individuals from abuse, and 
  • establishing trust and compassion with survivors of abuse.


Transformational leadership in NCAA sports will enable a long-overdue shift toward an anti-racist and anti-sexist organization. Three foundations of transformational leadership — cultural responsiveness, commitment to diversity, and the anti-ism approach — must underpin the NCAA’s future policies and practices in order for the organization to achieve its potential. 

The author’s cite Cunningham’s (2010) stance in their final remarks: “Change is possible. But, it takes a collective effort—a unified endeavor to transform the institutionalized systems in place, ensure a political environment where diversity is valued, eradicate decision makers’ prejudices, stereotypes, and discrimination, create and sustain university workplaces characterized by diversity and inclusion, and transform the coaching profession into one where opportunities for African Americans abound.” 

A successful adoption of this transformational approach will be evident when a) there is equitable treatment for career advancement and mobility, and b) all underrepresented and marginalized groups in the NCAA gain access to leadership positions in college sports.


Thank you for visiting RRAPP

Please help us improve the site by answering three short questions.