Shifting the Leadership Paradigm – The NFL Demonstrates Why Representation Matters

By: Dawna Callahan

All In Sport Consulting

Over the last couple of weeks, I’m sure many of you heard or read about Brian Flores, the former Miami Dolphins head coach suing the NFL for discrimination. One related storyline that I think is particularly interesting and has relevance in our industry focuses on leadership representation. If 57.5 percent of current NFL players are Black, according to 2020 data from Statista, doesn’t it make sense that NFL leadership, or head coaches in this instance, also reflect and mirror the majority of the league’s players? Yet, Brian Flores was only one of three Black head coaches in the league in the 2021-2022 season.

The story surrounding Brian Flores’ lawsuit raises some important questions related to leadership representation within sport organizations, including those in the adapted sport industry. If we’re looking at the adapted sport industry, and 100 percent of program participants have a disability, shouldn’t we also see more leaders with disabilities in key leadership roles throughout the industry?

Why is this leadership representation paradigm so upside down in adapted sports? What will it take to shift the paradigm, for leaders with disabilities to actually be in positions to lead the movement?

Do people with disabilities not realize they can be industry leaders because there are so few examples to see that it’s possible? The adage “If you can see it, you can be it” is pretty much nonexistent in the adapted sports industry.

Right now, it seems there are more questions than answers or solutions, but I scratch my head wondering how this particular disability movement is not led by leaders with disabilities.

The adapted sports industry abounds with retired Paralympians who have developed leadership skills in their training and competitions and now want to give back to the movement that supported their athletic endeavors all the way to the podium. We know past, present, and future Paralympians are not only phenomenal athletes, but also incredible leaders.

Beyond athletes, our industry also includes many injured former military leaders who put their lives on the front lines and built teams, strategies and adapted on the fly as part of their years of military service. As Forbes contributor Jonathan Kauffman recently wrote, “Entrepreneurs with disabilities are masters at adaptation, resilience, and patience, and it is these characteristics that are the essential ingredients for success.”

Is the solution to achieving appropriate representation to turn over as many rocks as possible to find these leaders? Is it creating a movement that embraces finding nontraditional talent? Is it developing mentoring and leadership development programs to prepare future leaders? Again, I don’t yet know the solution nor have the silver bullet, but I’ll continue to ask the questions in hopes of moving things forward and making progress.  

I imagine there are NFL players that are hopeful that one day team leadership reflects the player community. Similarly, I am hopeful that one day the disabled sport movement will be led by those with the lived disability experience. Imagine just how powerful and impactful that would be for the entire movement!

What do you think the missing piece is to close this gap?

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