Does “diversity” require race-based recruiting in college basketball?

February 27, 2014 | By RALPH KASARDA

There are many factors that college basketball coaches consider when making recruitment decisions.  These may include how well an athlete can shoot, dribble, pass, rebound, as well as how the athlete gets along with other players and coaches.  But if universities and coaches believe the results of a new study, they may also try to recruit on the basis of race.

An interesting article recently appeared in the Sports Journal about a study examining racial diversity on college basketball teams.  The study analyzed the relationship between racial diversity and winning percentage of men’s and women’s basketball teams and their respective coaching staffs in the Atlantic Coast Conference from the 2005-06 season to the 2008-2009 season.

The results of the study showed that as men’s basketball teams became more heterogeneous – more diverse – “they significantly won more games.”  The study’s author concludes the findings “may suggest that it is beneficial for basketball coaches to recruit a racially diverse team.”  However, the study did not examine the relationship between the diversity of just the starting players and winning percentage.  That would seem to imply that for a team’s starting players, coaches should still recruit their star players on the basis of merit.  How refreshing!  Only the supporting cast of benchwarmers need be racially diverse.

The correlation between winning and team diversity wasn’t as significant for women’s teams.  And surprisingly, the results of the study showed that teams with coaching staffs that were less diverse had greater winning percentages.  However the small sample size of coaching staffs in the study may make those results unreliable.

A public university’s use of race is constitutional only if it is narrowly tailored to further compelling governmental interests.  The United States Supreme Court has held that obtaining the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity may be a compelling interest.  But the Supreme Court has never held – nor is it likely to ever hold – that the interest in having a winning basketball team is a compelling interest justifying recruiting players on the basis of their race.

Perhaps diversity is important, because in unity there is strength.  But in the larger picture, government classifications on the basis of race do not unify us as citizens, they divide us.  As Chief Justice Roberts said in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, “It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.”  If coaches want a racially diverse team, they must find race-neutral means to recruit players.