In Bill Russell’s formative years, before he won Olympic gold with the US men’s team and 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics, he led the University of San Francisco to two NCAA championships. All the while, he advocated for racial justice.
Today, the 86-year-old legend remains committed to collegiate sports, diversity, and inclusion, as he underscored after a recent Globe report on the stark racial inequities in athletic leadership at New England colleges and universities.
Russell, in a statement to the Globe, urged those schools and others nationwide to adopt a possible remedy for the diversity deficit: a landmark regulation enacted last month by the West Coast Conference to expand opportunities for minorities in athletic leadership positions. The policy was named the Russell Rule in his honor.
Russell played in the WCC at San Francisco, before his Hall of Fame NBA career as a player and coach in Boston, where his Celtics number 6 hangs from the TD Garden rafters.
“I hope the West Coast Conference initiative encourages other leagues and schools across the country to make similar commitments,” Russell said. “We need these intentional measures if we’re going to make real change for people of color in leadership positions in college athletics.”
The Russell Rule is one of several initiatives developed recently to address the shortage of Black collegiate coaches and administrators. Russell was not available for an interview, but diversity specialists said his advocacy is already making a difference.
Richard Lapchick, a longtime civil rights activist who founded and directs The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, said commissioners of three Power 5 conferences have consulted him about adopting variations of the Russell Rule, which he helped the WCC establish.
Lapchick said the nation’s current racial reckoning has compelled college presidents to embrace social justice initiatives they once considered lower priorities.
"I probably wouldn’t have had cooperation from them as recently as six months ago," Lapchick said. "What the WCC did is really important."
The Russell Rule is the first conference-wide commitment to diversity hiring in Division 1 collegiate athletics. Similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, it requires each school to include minorities in the pool of finalists for every athletic director, senior administrator, head coach, and full-time assistant coach position.
All 10 schools in the conference receive antiracist training and will be subject to an annual review by Lapchick’s institute to ensure they adhere to the Russell Rule.
"It will really create transparency for the first time," Lapchick said.
Schools that fail to meet the hiring standards face remedial measures to bring them into compliance. Other members of the WCC include Gonzaga, San Diego, Pepperdine, and Brigham Young.
WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez proposed the rule to the conference’s school presidents as civil unrest erupted nationwide after a subdued suspect, George Floyd, died as a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee to his neck in May.
"Everyone was putting out great statements and saying the right things, but our presidents really wanted to do something that could bring about meaningful and lasting change," said Nevarez, who played basketball at UMass Amherst in the early 1990s and became the NCAA’s first Latinx Division 1 conference commissioner in 2018.
Once the presidents approved her plan, Nevarez reached out to Russell, whose commitment to racial equity predates his attending the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 and has endured since then-President Obama, in awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, said, “Bill Russell can reflect with pride on helping change the culture of a sport and the course of our nation.”
Russell does not lend his name easily to causes. But Nevarez said her proposal "really struck a chord with him because he has been about social justice for so long."
Russell’s statement to the Globe followed the report that only one Division 1 school in New England employs a Black athletic director: Marcus Blossom at Holy Cross. In total, only four of 112 colleges and universities in New England have Black athletic directors.
What’s more, only two of the 59 college football programs in the region are led by Black coaches, at Division 3 Bates College in Maine and the US Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut.
"It’s a prime example of what institutional and systemic racism look like," Charlie Titus, who served as UMass Boston’s athletic director for 40 years before he retired in June, said in the report.
Titus served on the Bill Russell Legacy Committee that helped to choose the design for a statue at Boston’s City Hall Plaza to honor Russell’s achievements on and off the court.
Titus said the Russell Rule was made possible by Nevarez’s hiring by the WCC.
"When you have a minority in a leadership position who is not afraid to lead, this can be the result," he said.
As for Russell, Titus said, "He has certainly never been afraid to take a stand and speak out."
Another of Russell’s allies in promoting minority leaders is Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker. In 2007, Amaker became the first Black head coach in any sport at Harvard in 16 years, and he has since become a leading advocate for diversity on campus and throughout collegiate sports. He said every athletic conference should adopt the Russell Rule, including the Ivy League.
Racial diversity is especially scarce in the Ivy League, where none of the eight schools employs a Black athletic director and only nine of the league’s 221 head coaches are Black. Princeton and Penn have no Black head coaches, while Harvard has three, the most of any school in the league.
"It’s necessary, and it’s the right thing to do," Amaker said of adopting the Russell Rule.
A spokesman for Ivy League executive director Robin Harris cited a statement she issued in June supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
"Moving forward, it is our pledge to examine and identify structural changes needed to promote a diverse and inclusive culture in all aspects of our operations," Harris said.
Amaker, whose Harvard teams have won five Ivy League titles, serves on the board of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and co-chairs its committee on racial reconciliation. Both the NABC and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association have endorsed the Russell Rule, while Amaker has championed additional initiatives aimed at advancing racial equity.
At Harvard, where Amaker serves as a special assistant to president Lawrence Bacow, he has long convened a monthly Breakfast Club of prominent Black leaders, along with student-athletes, often to discuss social justice. He also has taken players to visit King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where in 2018 they met former president Jimmy Carter.
Nationally, Amaker’s racial reconciliation committee, which he chairs with South Carolina coach Frank Martin, is campaigning to require every college and university to make Black history a mandatory course for graduation.
The committee also is pushing to abolish the use of SAT and ACT tests to meet National Collegiate Athletic Association’s standard for athletic eligibility, calling the tests “longstanding forces of institutional racism."
But the centerpiece of Amaker’s effort to support Russell and others in promoting diversity in collegiate athletics is the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative, which he co-chairs with Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari.
Launched in February and named for John McLendon, who in 1966 became the first black coach at a predominantly white college, Cleveland State, the program assists prospective leaders through mentoring, development, and job placement.
“We talk a lot about the problem,” Amaker said, “but this really is an action item, a pathway, with hopefully a tremendous tailwind for young minority men and women.”
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.