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Sidelined: Concordia coach Tenicha Gittens making change happen 1 hire at a time

Tenicha Gittens finally had the opportunity to take matters into her own hands — and she didn’t let the moment pass her by. 

Tired of not having many Black people in coaching positions in the Canadian university ranks, Gittens, after becoming head coach of the Concordia Stingers women’s basketball team in 2015, made the decision to hire a staff composed of people of colour. 

“Representation absolutely matters. We’re just not in those positions. And it’s almost you don’t see a problem with it. And that’s a problem,” Gittens said. “So for me, I was put in a position where I could hire who I want to. And so I’m going to do my best to give Black people an opportunity. Because they don’t get those opportunities.”

A CBC Sports investigation backs up Gittens’ observation. 

A visual audit done by CBC Sports examined hundreds of key positions at all 56 Canadian universities that compete under the U Sports umbrella, including the school’s athletic director and head coaches of football, men’s and women’s basketball, hockey and soccer and track.

(Illustration by Alexis Allison/CBC Sports)

Of the nearly 400 positions examined, only about 10 per cent were held by Black, Indigenous or persons of colour (BIPOC). Only one school in U Sports has a non-white athletic director, the top leadership position in athletics at Canadian universities.

Gittens says she’s seen a few heads turn when opposing teams see the composition of her coaching staff. She recalls a time when an opposing coach made mention of her coaching staff. 

“We’re talking before the game. And we’re talking it up. And he looks over at my bench and says, ‘Oh, you got all the colours over there,'” Gittens said.

“I looked at him and said, ‘If I don’t hire them, who will?'”

In the Réseau du Sport Étudiant du Québec conference where Gittens coaches, nearly 80 per cent of the 48 athletic director and coaching positions are held by white people.

“It’s not surprising to me. You look at these resumes and wonder what the difference is and I see what the difference is. That’s the system. That’s how it is. It’s always made harder for us to get those opportunities,” Gittens said. 

(Illustration by Alexis Allison/CBC Sports)

Gittens grew up in Montreal and enjoyed an all-star career at Dawson College before heading south to the U.S. She went on to play one year at Eastern Arizona Junior College before moving to Hofstra University, a Division 1 program in Hempstead, N.Y. She played one season with the Pride and graduated from Hofstra in 2007 with a Bachelor of Business Administration, Marketing.

While playing in the U.S. it became grossly apparent to Gittens there was a massive lack of BIPOC representation. She wondered about her own future hopes of one day coaching.

“I never thought it was possible because, one, I’m Black and two, I’m female,” Gittens said. 

She didn’t have many role models to look up to. And so when it came time to apply for the head coaching position at Concordia, there was some fear and trepidation.

“I couldn’t imagine this for myself. I look back and think they were all white,” Gittens said. 

Gittens once thought she would never get an opportunity to coach at the level she wanted because she says, “One, I’m Black and two, I’m female.” (Courtesy Concordia Athletics)

And Gittens is not alone in that sentiment. 

Bobby Mitchell is the head coach of the UBC Okanagan women’s basketball team. 

Despite having great success at the high school level as a head coach, Mitchell wasn’t sure it would ever translate into getting a top coaching spot in the university ranks. 

“I didn’t get a call. Nobody was calling me or anything like that. I sent a lot of players off to post-secondary [schools] through our program,” he said. “And when I speak to some of the Black athletes and people of colour, a lot of them just don’t feel like the door’s even gonna be open for them.”

Concrete policies needed

In the U Sports Canada West conference where Mitchell coaches, more than 90 per cent of the 117 athletic director and coaching positions are held by white people. 

Mitchell says if that number is going to change to include BIPOC representation, concrete plans and policies need to be implemented.

“There will have to be some things that are mandated to help increase funding for community organizations at lower levels to include younger players and staff to have the ability to move up,” he said.

Mitchell says in many cases Black people are filling roles below the head coaching position but never have the opportunity to assume the higher ranks. 

(Illustration by Alexis Allison/CBC Sports)

“Generally speaking, assistant coaches, second and third coaches aren’t earning a lot. But we have to find a way to give them a little bit of opportunity, whether it’s through camps or other means, there has to be more financial opportunity to get that foot in the door.” 

In the backdrop of social unrest over the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer and months of protest that followed, Gittens is now more motivated than ever to create tangible deliverables to level the playing field in the coaching ranks within the sports university system in Canada. 

Alongside a limited group of BIPOC coaches in the country, Gittens has helped form the Black Canadian Coaches Association — a volunteer organization committed to providing a platform for Black Canadians in the sport industry. It includes aspiring and current coaches of all sports, formal and informal sport businesses owners, media and marketing individuals, fitness and wellness coaches, and well as those in senior level administrations of sport. 

“We need policies. Not just conversation. If it doesn’t lead to action, then we’re just talking,” Gittens said. 

There are four key pillars the organization is focusing on to create meaningful and lasting change, including celebrating and supporting Black Canadians in the sport industry, empowering and advocating for Black Canadians, and having a long-term vision for Black Canadians in the sport industry.

‘Now is the time to do this’

“We’re talking about a charter. We want real change. Now is the time to do this. It’s our moment and it’s a movement,” Gittens said. “We have to do it now. Because two years from now people will forget about this.”

Gittens isn’t the only one pushing for structural change within Canada’s sports framework. 

Asher Hill is a former competitive figure skater for Canada. 

At the beginning of June he spoke exclusively to CBC Sports about the racism he faced as a skater and now as a coach. Hill filed an official misconduct complaint with Skate Canada last June, highlighting a number of instances spanning five years where he says a co-worker at a Brampton, Ont., figure skating club was abusive with racist, homophobic and misogynistic language.

Asher Hill, a former figure skater and now coach, is one of the founders of the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance. (Submitted by Asher Hill)

He says nothing was done about it. Hill says he felt alienated and silenced. And then felt rage when he saw Skate Canada post to social media its support of Black community following George’s death.

“They wanted to sweep it under the rug. It’s shocking they didn’t talk to the people. When they came down with their decision, they threatened to suspend me or take away my license after I spoke out,” he said. 

Skate Canada denies Hill’s allegation that he was reprimanded and says it never threatened to suspend him or revoke his license after speaking out.

There is no BIPOC representation on Skate Canada’s Board — all 12 positions are held by white people. 

In an email to CBC Sports, the national sport organization admitted they “have more work to do to ensure that our organization — including the board of directors — reflects the diversity of our community.”

The organization says it’s proud that half of the board members are female but they know “steps must be taken to improve the racial inclusion of our organization.”

Hill says these words continue to fall short of the mark. 

“They don’t get to leave their Blackness at the door. They can’t leave that space where allies or people who jump in to issue flashy statements can retreat back into their lives.”

Hill, along with dozens of other figure skaters, current and retired, have formed the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance. They’re holding video conference calls twice a week to work through a document they plan on sending to government and sport leaders in Canada, including the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Out of the 18 board member positions at the COC, only one is BIPOC. 

COC changing board election process

“While diverse representation on the COC board has been an area of focus in the past few election cycles, it is clear that there needs to be an enhanced focus and intentional steps towards ensuring better BIPOC representation,” the COC said in an email to CBC Sports. 

The organization says it can no longer rely on the public call for nominations process, but rather it needs to be more intentional and proactive in attracting BIPOC candidates to apply for board positions.

“We know through history, the powers that be will not do anything,” Hill said. “The onus is always on the oppressed to make change.”

Change, Hill says, takes shape through six main focuses in the call to action document the Figure Skating Alliance is working on, including equitable representation of employees and board members, policy change, education, race-based demographic data, a media campaign and an overhaul of program accessibility and funding.

Hill says these sport organizations claim they’re ready to make changes but he remains skeptical.

“We have the receipts. We have all these people and groups saying they want to make changes. They’re using it as political capital but we have them on the record,” Hill said. 

“We will hold their feet to the fire.”

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