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Why is there a lack of Asian representation in sports coaches?

By Lee Arakawa

A team told Eugene Chung, who is Korean American, that he’s “not the right minority we’re looking for” when he applied for a coaching position. Chung, 51, played guard for three teams after entering the NFL in 1992.

As sports tend to be considered a mirror of society, it is often believed to represent a meritocratic and egalitarian space for which the rest of society should aspire towards. On the contrary, modern sports remain a site of exclusionary practices that operate on several levels. Racism is an issue that pervades all of culture and sports are no exception.

Sports coaching remains as an arena in which interconnecting disparities of race create structured power relations, serving to reinforce patterns of inclusion and exclusion. This is perhaps most prevalent within sporting organizations where it has been well-documented that White men have historically dominated both the administrative and head coaching positions disproportionately; a trend that exists at both the professional and intercollegiate levels of organized sport.

According to the United States Census Bureau (USCB) in 2018, 76.5% of the American population identifies as White, 13.4% as Black, and 5.9% as Asian. These population percentages are similar when compared to proportions by ethnicity in the American workforce, based on data from USCB. However, when it comes to coaching, the proportions differ. Every year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) publishes demographic information on the coaches and athletes from various sports. In 2018, out of 58 total sports across three divisions of men, women, and mixed competitions, 85.5% of head coaching positions were occupied by White coaches and only 1.01% of the same head coaching positions were occupied by Asian coaches.

Perhaps the issue starts with the lack of Asian athletes, given that athletes tend to move on to coaching following their playing careers. If the trend is consistent with the majority of coaches being former athletes, then a lower percentage of Asian athletes could explain a lower percentage of Asian coaches.

According to the NCAA database, here are the percentages of Asian athletes in sports in the U.S. in 2018:

If the low representation of Asian athletes is correlated to the lack of Asian coaches, then it is worth exploring the possible deterrents or barriers athletes of Asian descent face in joining the sports profession.

In regards to cultural views on education and career, the data suggests that Asian Americans prioritize their education and pursue careers that come with higher status and pay.

According to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of the labor force with at least a high school diploma was more than 90% in the following groups: White (93%), Black (93%), and Asian (94%). However, Asians were the most likely of the groups to have graduated from college: 61% of Asians in the labor force had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 40% of Whites, 30% of Black, and 20% of Hispanic. In terms of occupation, 52% of employed Asians worked in management, professional, and related occupations – the highest paying major occupational category, compared to 41% of employed White, 31% of employed Blacks, and 23% of employed Hispanic people.

The median weekly earnings have Asians earning the most ($1,207) followed by White ($971), Black ($710), and Hispanic ($690). When looking at unemployment numbers, Asians had the lowest rate of unemployment of any ethnicity at 3.4%.

According to data from U.S. News, the median annual salary for a sports coach in 2017 was $32,270 or $620 weekly, which is well below the weekly earnings of an average employed Asian American ($1,207). The association could be made that there are so few Asian coaches in sports because Asians tend to pursue different careers for cultural and financial reasons.

Stereotypes also lead to barriers for Asian Americans to join professional sports as Asians are often viewed as being nonathletic, short in stature, and physically weak. These stereotypes not only affect self-perceptions and performance, but also influence the feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors of others. These racial stereotypes, and the way in which the media reinforces them, creates additional challenges for Asians in sports.

Jeremy Lin spoke out in March 2021 about the recent attacks on Asian Americans and opened up about his personal experiences with racism on the court, including being called “coronavirus” during a game. He now plays for the Santa Cruz Warriors in the NBA G League.

Sporting organizations should respond effectively and sensitively to evolving cultural landscapes that exist:

• Are they addressing bias, discrimination, and unfairness that may exist in the organization?

• Are they seizing opportunities to mentor athletes of color on and off the field?

• Are they taking on the responsibility to educate and provide mentoring to students and early career professionals to help them overcome unique challenges and guide them along the way?

Bringing underrepresented individuals into sports can have many benefits as they can serve as role models and offer different perspectives based on their backgrounds and experiences. Such perspectives may be considered invaluable, especially those that continually aim to develop and bring awareness to issues of diversity within the coaching profession.


This feature was written and contributed by Lee Arakawa, a Ph.D. student at the University of Northern Colorado studying the Social Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity. His research interests focus primarily on issues surrounding diversity and culture in sport. Being fully immersed in sport throughout much of his life as an athlete and a coach, Lee noticed a lack of Asian American coaches within the youth, high school, college, and professional ranks. With very little research within the field of sport psychology and sociology being directed towards the absence of Asian Americans in sport coaching, Lee sought to shine some light on the topic and bring attention to it through this paper.

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