Blog Post

Navigating DEI Backlash: 5 Takeaways from the World of Sports

By Michael Nicholson
March 28, 2024

Are you concerned about the recent rise in anti-DEI rhetoric? Feeling overwhelmed by the current climate and need guidance? We’ve got you covered. To help navigate current challenges, we recently sat down with four DEI leaders from the world of sports:

  • Esu Ma’at, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Orlando Magic
  • Courtney Moore, VP, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Los Angeles Dodgers 
  • Jennifer Vasquez, VP, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Golden State Warriors
  • Karen Wilkins-Mickey, VP, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Seattle Seahawks
navigating DEI backlash: the sports industry playbook

No one knows building inclusive brands, empowering historically excluded talent, and engaging diverse fan bases like DEI leaders in the sports industry. From actionable strategies to overcome resistance, increase investment, and manage through multiple perspectives to timely tips for communicating the value proposition of inclusion and aligning DEI initiatives with business outcomes, dive into their powerful playbook for leading through DEI backlash.

Read on for transferable takeaways from the MVPs of inclusion, including reframing the DEI conversation, connecting with Gen Z, building effective ERGs, and leveraging the power of data-driven approaches to inclusion. Discover the keys replicating their winning plays in your own organization!

1. Risks of Divesting and the Importance of Inclusive Leadership

Q: How does the current resistance compare to past challenges you’ve experienced in the space? What are the risks of abandoning DEI efforts now, and why is inclusive leadership in this space crucial in an uncertain market?

Esu Ma’at: In 2007 the New York Knicks reached a $11.6 million settlement relating to the culture of the workplace. In 2012 the Atlanta Hawks sold the franchise related to several issues that I’d classify as what happens when DEI is not in the room. In 2014 another team sold their franchise, and the owner received a lifetime ban. In 2017, another highly publicized lawsuit involved the US Open. I could go on all the way to 2023, when the Washington Commanders had to sell their team. The reason I start here is because, in sports, there’s lots of lists that we want to be on. But that’s not one of them.

The Opportunity Cost of Doing Nothing

What’s the opportunity cost of doing nothing? What does it look like when DEI is not in the room? When that happens, organizations and brands pay the price for blind spots that could have been mitigated. I often use a previous Seramount report that outlines the workforce risks, reputational risks, legal risks, culture risks, productivity risks, and loyalty risks associated with not driving the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

DEI Now: “This Is Our Time”

While some of this is cyclical, we need to commit to staying the course, or what I like to call “riding the wave.” Post George Floyd, when roughly 8 billion dollars were invested in DEI initiatives and many of us including myself were hired into these roles, it was popular for folks to say, “This is our time.” But I respectfully disagree. 

Post George Floyd, I’d argue we’re in a time where we could be focused on, to use a tennis reference, breaking serve as opposed to holding serve. I think in this cycle, we’re in a season where holding serve makes a lot of sense, but it’s cyclical. That’s why I say this is our time. This is where the fight we inherited is, and we accepted the responsibility. This is the work, and it’s real work, not a passion project.

This is the work, and it’s real work, not a passion project.

Esu Ma’at, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Orlando Magic

2. Evolving Strategies and Reframing the Conversation 

Q: How do you see DEI work evolving in the coming year? How can DEI leaders ensure the work remains relevant and inclusive for all employees and the broader culture?

Jennifer Vasquez: One unique aspect of sports is our public-facing forum. Our players are ground zero of these key conversations.

One unique aspect of sports is our public-facing forum. Our players are ground zero of these key conversations.

Jennifer Vasquez, VP, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Golden State Warriors

Authentic DEI: Fan Engagement and Risk Mitigation

We also have what’s called heritage or diversity nights, where we leverage the inclusion piece, engaging fans authentically. If we’re hosting a pride night, for example, we tap our pride ERG to ensure that we’re telling an authentic story, and that’s one of the key parts of our role that we leverage data around. We’re all storytellers, and so we need to think critically about how we tell the story and how we show up with DEI even with all the land mines that surround us today. Building on Esu’s point about risk mitigation, if we’re not showing up authentically, we’re quickly confronted by a state where things can go viral. We’ve all seen it happen; we’ve seen brands and reputations be scrutinized. Regardless of how that shows up, there’s risk.

ERGs and Representation: A Seat at the Table

When we think about the evolution of ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) or BRGs (Business Resource Groups) as essentially think tanks, internal think tanks, we think about showing up authentically but mitigating risk as well. We don’t want to show up only when things are in a constant state of crisis. Thinking about some of the challenges, whenever we may have done a heritage night where something might have been culturally inappropriate, we hear from the fans. We want to ensure that we’re mitigating that risk because we’re having the conversations, we’re having the voices and representation at the table. I’d venture to say that this thinking would apply to all organizations and efforts, not just heritage nights.

The Next Frontier: Gen Z and Inclusion

When thinking about our consumer base, we’re continuing to increase the diversity of our team members. With the rise of the Gen Z workforce, which consists of the most culturally and ethnically diverse populations yet, employees are increasingly asking important questions about what inclusion and representation look like now. How are we setting this next generation up for success? Answering that question effectively goes to the heart of the inclusion piece.

Building Bridges: Beyond DEI Teams of One

Having conversations internally with key stakeholders and bringing in ERGs have been vital to our efforts. When we’ve had to fail fast and learn fast or were called out by our fans, it’s often been because we didn’t have the right voices at the table or the necessary representation. We’re increasingly thinking together across our sports ecosystem, including with fellow DEI practitioners, about how to address this, including leveraging ERGs and BRGs. Given that many of us are on one-person or two-person teams, working together enables us to leverage the intellectual and cultural capital we need to truly move the needle.

3. Data-Driven DEI Leadership

Q: In today’s sports world, data is increasingly used for decision-making. On the one hand, how do you navigate the potential for bias with this information? On the other hand, how do you leverage data to challenge existing organizational assumptions and promote diverse perspectives?

Karen Wilkins-Mickey: I love data; it tells the story and informs the future and what to do. If you don’t measure something, it doesn’t get managed. We all know that, we all say it, and we mean it. With everything that I do, if I don’t have a measurement, it’s as if it didn’t happen. How do I know the impact of an initiative without data?

Establishing Baselines, Moving the Dial: Data and Representation

Coming into this organization, the first thing I remember asking was, Where’s the data? I want to clarify, though, that you shouldn’t only focus on data, and you shouldn’t fall for a simple story of the data directly telling you how much of this or that you need. No, we dig into the data so we can make intentional and informed decisions.

If we have data and can look at the baseline of where we’re at, we can at least know how we’re representing when we look out in the market. How do we represent, and how are we represented in the Seattle market? How are we represented with our fans, and how are we represented with our players? When I look at the data, I can discover where the opportunities are within the organization; the numbers help move the dial. If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going to go.

Sustaining Progress: Mitigating Bias, Focusing DEI Improvement Efforts

If you look at data the wrong way, it can be misinterpreted. For example, you might look at the overall population and think things look pretty good. But when you break it down by business group, department, or area, you might find out that all the diversity sits in the bottom of the organization. The goal of this work is to break the data down and identify the gaps so you can help focus efforts to fill them in. When you know and understand where the gaps are, then you can begin to mitigate bias. But if you don’t understand them, then you might unintentionally do things that set you back.

You can’t commit to sustained efforts if you can’t see where you need to focus. Every year I go back and look at the data, and I ask myself what worked and what didn’t—what had impact? Why did we measure those things? If something isn’t working, I reflect on it. We measure the voice of the fan and make adjustments based on our findings. But what is that voice? What is the fan saying? What does a fan want? Understanding the importance of this process is the first step toward progress.

Broadening Perspectives: Aligning DEI and Business Outcomes

If a business says something is important, align yourself to that goal and make your work relevant to it. Doing so helps people understand your work as critical to what the business is focusing on. Since businesses are always looking at the numbers, aligning yourself to what the business wants means thinking about the data. From the first moment I walked in, I said to the data analytics team: “Okay, let’s sit down. I need a dashboard. Let’s talk about what I need.” Remember to explore on every possible dimension of the data, including generational and tenure differences; don’t focus on gender and race alone. Taking a broader perspective helps you tell the story of who exists in your organization, enabling you to take care of and enrich every employee’s experience.

If a business says something is important, align yourself to that goal and make your work relevant to it.

Karen Wilkins-Mickey, VP, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Seattle Seahawks

4. Empowering Historically Excluded Talent

Q: Can you elaborate on your organization’s strategies for managing through multiple perspectives and empowering historically excluded talent? How do you ensure these strategies translate into tangible career advancement opportunities? Share an example of a specific initiative you implemented and how you measured success. 

Courtney Moore: Each of the four teams represented in this dialogue is structured differently. For example, we have a majority owner, and the Dodgers are one of his many businesses. Mark Walter, who is our majority owner, is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the team. We have essentially four executive VPs, four to five who typically make and structure the decisions of the organization.

Beyond Silos, Toward BRGs: Inclusive Decision-Making and Experiences

The question to address is how to avoid handling all organizational decisions in a silo. How can you bring different voices to the table? For us, it’s been crucial to ensure that diverse voices have been heard. There’s a few ways that we’ve been able to do that. Like Jenn’s, our BRG communities have been critical. We have eight BRGs, and we call them BRGs because they’re also tasked with helping the bottom line of the organization. Empowering them has helped us to interface with the community better and be more diverse in our engagements. We’ve also worked together to bring in awareness training and speakers to enhance our culture of inclusion.

BRGs and the Bottom Line: Driving Growth, Engaging Diverse Fan Bases

How do we help BRGs to drive bottom-line business goals? First, like Jenn mentioned, BRGs are crucial in terms of our heritage nights; the Dodgers have more heritage nights than any other baseball team. We also have the largest fan base; we have a stadium that can hold 50,000 fans, the largest in MLB. Fifty-one percent of our fan base is Latino, and it’s critically important that we continue to attract our Latino fan base and don’t operate from a monolithic perspective. Our fan base includes Mexican, Salvadorian, Dominican, and many other groups. Our BRGs have helped structure how our heritage nights look and feel, maximizing fan engagement.

From a data perspective, we’ve also been able to track how our ticket packs have continued to grow based on BRG involvement. We’ve seen explosive growth from BRG participation. That’s also a model we’ve used to engage our Asian fan base. We’ve had large Korean and Filipino fan bases historically, and today our Japanese fan base has become much larger through recent acquisitions. Our BRGs have been critical in driving bottom-line business outcomes. They act as internal think tanks for the strategic DEI work we’re doing.

Our BRGs have been critical in driving bottom-line business outcomes. They act as internal think tanks for the strategic DEI work we’re doing.

Courtney Moore, VP, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Los Angeles Dodgers 

BRGs: Performance Management and Parental Leave

BRGs have also been crucial in terms of our performance management system. The current performance management at the Dodgers has been around only for a year. Before this time, there were no conversations around advancement, opportunities, or compensation. Now employees have a voice regarding their own career advancement, and they’re empowered with the tools they need to have these conversations with their managers.

BRGs were equally instrumental in putting in play a parental leave policy. We didn’t have a parental leave policy two years ago. It was important that we had a very progressive parental leave policy, from the standpoint that we wanted to encourage men who were part of the organization to take extended leave, which has a direct impact on parity in terms of ensuring that women and men have the same opportunities and can have work-life balance.

Building the Pipeline: Advancing Historically Excluded Talent

When I came on board, I prioritized the importance of talent, putting in play and formalizing a pipeline program. Today we have a five-month fellowship program. We also have a three-month program for interns. These programs are a great way to introduce diverse talent to the organization. We’ve hired on a small percentage of those who’ve gone through those programs, and this is the third year that we’re running the program. It’s been helpful in terms of bringing different voices to the table and having leadership looked at different ways. This work continues to enhance not only the employee experience but also our strategy for growing the organization from a business standpoint, particularly in LA, where diversity is extremely important.

5. League Differences

Q: In your view, how do your respective leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA) differ in their approach to DEI? What particular strategies, challenges, and opportunities do you see as unique to your specific league?

Esu Ma’at: Here’s where we’re all similar. Our diversity statement says we believe sports has the ability to bridge divides and bring people together. Consequently, we’re committed to driving awareness, creating change, and cultivating an inclusive environment where everyone feels welcomed, valued, and appreciated. I think that’s the power of sports in general.

From there, it’s nuanced. For me in Orlando, when I arrived, 60% of the population identified as people of color. We have the fourth-largest LGBTQ+ community in the country and the third-fastest-growing millennial population in the country. We have 75 million people from all over the world on an annual basis. The closest to us is New York, with 44 million last year. If the Dallas Cowboys are America’s football team, then the Orlando Magic must be the world’s favorite basketball team.

The 2020 census showed that Orlando is 11% less White, 14% more Black, 73% more Asian, and 264% more “Other,” which is two or more races, three or more races, Hispanic and Latino.

My question to my team always is, How are we leveraging this information? Where do these demographic shifts show up in our business? I told you a bit about our statement, which is the “why” behind our organization, but the “what” involves intentionally building a workforce that mirrors the demographics of our marketplace.

The fan base of yesterday is not the fan base of tomorrow. We have to make sure that we are successfully attracting and engaging diverse consumers. Where the rubber meets the road is in the kind of experiences people are having, whether on the talent side or the fan side. My colleagues probably look at things similarly, but what the data says in each market is what drives the difference.

The fan base of yesterday is not the fan base of tomorrow

Esu Ma’at, Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Orlando Magic

Jennifer Vasquez: For us, it’s the market base. Across all leagues, we look at the data from our individual market perspectives, because that’s what’s driving not only our talent but also our fan bases coming into the building. For us this has meant recognizing the need for a Filipino heritage night and two to three pride nights  (the Bay Area includes a high percentage of Filipino and one of the largest LGBTQ+ communities in the nation).

Across the leagues we celebrate ethnicities, races, and cultures. For example, we do a huge women’s empowerment month across the entire NBA ecosystem and we see this across the NFL as well. Another way we’re driving interleague connections is by taking a regional approach. For instance, I’m connected to my fellow DEI practitioners at all the Bay Area teams. We’re a united front.

We’re also creating new corporate and industry connections through partnerships, leveraging sports as a public platform to create the discourse to drive key culture changes during a time when DEI is under attack. We work with corporate DEI leads, partnering on heritage nights and becoming a brain trust. We talk about best practices, bring our ERGs together, and host collaborative conversations, networking, and programs. Being in the Bay Area, it’s primarily tech. But this connectivity through partnerships is something that a lot of teams across the NBA emphasize.

Karen Wilkins-Mickey: I want to emphasize the close connections between teams: football clubs compete on the field but do not compete in this space. We all connect twice a month and also with the league office. What one of us has, we all have. If there’s something I’ve learned, I’m going to share it. We’ve all gone through learnings together, which is fantastic. This collaboration is critical; it keeps the conversation relevant, keeps us relevant, and continues to ensure DEI is a top priority. I echo everybody’s comments on ERGs and BRGs. Community is key, and you’ve heard that from all of us. We need to continue to have conversations, whether they’re comfortable or uncomfortable. Across our clubs, across our spaces, we need to keep these conversations going, because we know what happens when they stop.

Courtney Moore: I marvel at what the NBA and NFL are doing, particularly in terms of social justice. The dynamics are so different in baseball. The NFL has 72% Black players, but in the MLB it’s under 7% and the numbers are continuing to decline. I wish there was more representation in the MLB and I wish there was more of a thought process around what we’re going to do to address that. Maybe I’m making an assumption, but in the NBA and in the NFL, the work feels more organic than in the MLB, where you have to be a lot more intentional. Kudos to the commissioners who are working from that standpoint, but there are definitely differences between the leagues.

Conclusion: Raising Our Voices, Building an Equitable World

Jennifer Vasquez: How do we stay optimistic in the current climate? For those of us who have been in the trenches for quite some time before the 2020 inflection point, we have to stay the course during a time when the work will continue to be attacked. It’s been part of the work since the civil rights movement transformed our culture. If we’re not doing the work, we’re not going to see an equitable world. If we think about the next generation, we want to make sure they’re not facing the same challenges that we’ve all faced.

This work matters for a reason. I think it takes all of us as a collective to continue to be loud. We can be louder than that rhetoric that’s out there. We’ve reached a moment filled with a lot of white noise, with a few top billionaires out there saying some things. As a collective—we as many DEI practitioners out there—our voice could be louder.

Ready to future-proof your inclusive workplace strategy? Let’s partner. Listen to the full recording, download our latest research on leading through DEI backlash, and visit us at

About the Author

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Michael Nicholson
Principal, Strategic Research