The Diversity Dynamic: John Singer Teaches Students To Understand and Embrace Differences

Written by: CEHD Communications Staff
Post date: March 04, 2014

What exactly is diversity and why does it matter?

Broadly defined, diversity can be described as differences that exist between and among people in various social and organizational contexts. Differences based on a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, social class, weight or height, among other characteristics, can affect their access to opportunities and how they are treated.

A discussion about diversity, although not always an easy subject to talk about, has the potential to help people who are different with understanding each other and also better relating to one another.  

Dr. John N. Singer, an associate professor in Sport Management and Chair of Diversity and Climate for the Department of Health and Kinesiology, believes it’s essential to put the issue of diversity front and center.

“Diversity discourse should revolve particularly around differences that have real meaning and consequences,” John says. “For example, in most instances, whether a person is right-handed or left-handed will not have the same impact on their experiences and outcomes as it would if they were a man or woman, or a white person or racial minority person. Although certain privileges and conveniences might indeed be tied to being right-handed in certain contexts, given the historical legacy of sexism against women and racism against racial minorities the consequences associated with membership in those groups is often of much greater significance.”

Singer teaches a “Diversity in Sport Organizations” class at both the undergraduate and graduate levels for the Department.

“It is required by students getting their masters and taken by many of the undergrads in the program,” Singer says. “We get into discussions about the ways people differ, and how and why these differences impact all people in organizations, but particularly the historically underrepresented and marginalized groups such as women, racial minorities, and sexual minorities.”

Singer’s research focuses broadly on diversity and social justice in sport organizations, with a particular focus on race/ethnicity in organized school sport contexts. One of the primary questions his research seeks to address centers on how race impacts the organizational experiences of black male college athletes. The goal of this work has been to challenge various stakeholder groups, particularly the athletes themselves, to critically assess how the cultures, structures, and processes within these organizations impact the educational experiences and outcomes of this group.

“Many black athletes often don’t see or acknowledge their true value as one of the most important stakeholder groups in college sport; and some might not fully understand how they are negatively exploited in the process of their schooling experiences,” Singer says. “This is particularly the case in athletic departments at predominantly white institutions of higher education, which of course are organizations that once did not even allow black athletes into their sport programs.”

While race remains a foundation to the diversity discourse and the focal point of Singer’s research agenda, the topic of sexual orientation in the sport industry has become a prominent area of focus in the popular press and academic literature.  The recent public announcements by two black male athletes (NBA’s Jason Collins and NFL draft prospect Michael Sam) that they are gay have further heightened the discourse on sexual orientation diversity and inclusion in sport. Singer explains that students in his classes will sometimes question why it seems to be more acceptable for female athletes to “come out” than it does for males. 

According to Singer, “Because the sport industry is a very hyper-masculine context, where being masculine is the norm and being feminine is not, male athletes who are perceived to be feminine are often viewed in a much more negative light than their female counterparts who are perceived to be masculine.”

One thing that Singer wants students who take his class to understand is that diversity is not a buzzword for affirmative action.

“People often hear or see the word ‘diversity’ and it conjures up in their minds notions of affirmative action, particularly racial preference for what they consider to be undeserving minority groups in the United States,” Singer says. “But one of the things I attempt to convey to students is that in a society that has such an unpleasant history of prejudice and discrimination against minority groups it is actually the historically dominant majority group that has been the real beneficiary of racial preference.”

In his role as Diversity and Climate Chair for the department, Singer will face a myriad of challenges.  

“One of the big things will be to address the apathy that often exists when it comes to discussing and dealing with diversity, as well as the attitude among some people that diversity is more of a headache to deal with rather than an asset that could be capitalized on if properly embraced,” Singer says.   

But it a challenge that John Singer is willing to accept!