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Atlanta Braves' Diversity Training More than 'Touchy-Feely B.S.'

November 3, 2000
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Diversity, Featured Article
How’s this for a diversity-training assignment: working with the AtlantaBraves baseball club in the aftermath of widespread racist comments from one ofthe players, John Rocker.

That assignment began this spring training, when consultants and trainersbegan meeting with players who were considered leaders on the team, as well aswith the team’s senior leadership -- general manager and assistant GM.

"Their concern was that they felt like this could happen again,"says Howard Ross, president of Cook Ross, Inc. in Silver Spring, MD, who was oneof the trainers. "They wanted to use this as an opportunity for the wholeteam to learn. They had gotten enough input and advice to realize this was not aunique case of one person [Rocker]."

A melting pot
Ross cited the vast racial differences of American baseball players, coupledby the fact that a great many international ballplayers make up pro baseballteams.

One well-known Latin player was taught not to look an authority figure in the eye. This didn't sit well with his manager.

Ross got help from former Chicago Bears football great Mike Singletary, now aChicago consultant, because it was critical to have someone on board whounderstood the life of a professional athlete.

Miraculously for the Braves, the diversity trainers conducted a one-daydiversity training at the beginning of spring training without the press findingout. At first, players were tough nuts to crack. "They were understandablycynical or skeptical going in," says Ross.

Among the challenges: baseball players, despite participating in a teamsport, are used to being primarily motivated by individual rewards. Groupdynamics aren’t always their first priority. In addition, there was tremendouspressure from the community. African-American players were being asked "Whyare you playing for this team?" and white players were being accused ofsupporting Rocker.

The session explored how diversity impacted the dynamics of teams. Playersgot a chance to discuss the experiences they’d had relating to each other, totheir supervisors (coaches and managers) and to the public.

Most importantly, the training was done not in the context of "we need to be trained to make the team better" but from the point of view of individuals. Players were encouraged to share their personal experiences with racism and being stereotyped, and how it affected their lives in the clubhouse, dugout, or off the field.

Ross said one of theLatin players talked about how he was brought up learning that you don’t everlook an authority figure straight in the eyes. When he got sent to his firstminor league camp, he continually got a "Damn it, look at me when I’mtalking to you" from his manager. The player was continually torn betweenhis manager’s insistence, and the vision of his father’s lessons in the backof his mind.

The training also explored howsometimes expectations become unreasonable. One well-known player had a bad set ofgames during an otherwise outstanding year. When his wife encountered a fan ina grocery store, the fan said, "You’re husband’s a bum."

"There’s a constant sense that people have the right to say anythingto you or your family," says Ross. "Some of the players are quietpeople who don’t necessarily like all the hoopla. They want to be able to gointo a grocery store without being ragged on."

Positive results
Despite the players’ initial skepticism, players apparently appreciated theconversation, and said "several positive things about it," says Ross.

Trainers met throughout the year with the players, and talked regularly withthe GM. Meanwhile, Rocker had his problems early in the year. "I think thatthe first part of the year he was still very defensive," says Ross."You could read that in the press, that’s not a secret."

The tide seemed to explode -- and then turn -- when Rocker had a widelypublicized run-in with a reporter, and was sent down to the minors. The incidentmay have been a turning point. Said one of the Braves players, "I think hefinally realized we’re going to go on without him and baseball is going to goon without him if he doesn’t get his act together."

You can reach anybody if you tailor the conversations to what their concerns are.

"He seemed to really get an attitude shift," says Ross. "Interms of his deportment, he seemed to be more under control."

Ross also adds that Rocker "was never an integral part of the culture ofthe team. The Braves are a professional team. Low key team. He was considered alittle bit of an anomaly. This was a reaffirmation on their part that theirmethod was a better one."

Lessons learned
Ross said the biggest lesson for other trainers and workforce-managementprofessionals is that "you can reach anybody if you tailor theconversations to what people’s concerns are."

In this case, athletes were focused on their public perception, and removingthe stereotypes fans had because of their abilities, their races, and theiremployment in an organization that had become controversial. By addressing teamconcerns in the context of individuals, the Braves managed to become a teamagain, and, yes, make it to the playoffs.

The Braves situation, says Ross, illustrates that diversity is sometimesthought of as "touchy-feely B.S." but really hits the bottom line."The reality is that they [diversity issues] have a direct impact onwhatever endeavor we’re working on."

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