Gary Waterman understands the challenges Black, Indigenous or persons of colour (BIPOC) face in Canada’s sports landscape. Waterman has served as head coach of St. Francis Xavier University’s X-Men football team since 2009, and he is one of only three Black head coaches of football in U Sports.
In a sport where one opportunity leads to the next, Waterman said it’s hard to break through and climb the ladder as a BIPOC coach in Canada. Facing biases and a system that lacks diversity at the highest level, it is difficult for candidates to even get an opportunity.
“If you look at it in terms of the decision makers at the highest level, they are often not people of colour,” Waterman said. “That in itself can lead to a challenge because people generally have a familiarity when they hire. And when they think about candidates, they start with people they know and their network. If people of colour aren’t in that network, then they’ve got one leg behind in terms of trying to break through.”
CBC Sports conducted a visual audit last summer that examined hundreds of key athletic positions at all 56 universities that compete at the U Sports level, including each program’s athletic director and the head coaches of football, men’s and women’s basketball, hockey, soccer and track.
The resulting data revealed that only around 10 per cent of the 400 positions examined were held by a BIPOC, and only one athletic director was non-white.
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Waterman said that BIPOC coaches can often find themselves caught outside the network that the hiring committees connect with to find potential candidates, making it impossible for them to gain that edge of familiarity when it comes time to fill a position.
“We all know that people of colour can do this, it’s not that,” Waterman said. “It’s just getting opportunities to get in the room, be interviewed and then get those opportunities to give it a shot.”
An opportunity was all Waterman himself needed, as he has won three Atlantic University Sport championship titles and has been named AUS coach of the year on three occasions since making the move from defensive coordinator to head coach at StFX.
Harder to break through
Waterman has certainly worked his way up, having spent nearly 15 years coaching and teaching at the high school level at Father Michael Goetz Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont. After receiving the opportunity to be a guest coach and then defensive coordinator at StFX, Waterman ran with the opportunity and continued to establish a glowing track record.
It was that crucial first opportunity at the U Sports level that made it possible for him to get to where he is today.
The progression from position coach to coordinator to head coach cannot happen for BIPOC candidates if the door remains shut for so many at the point of entry.
“If you can’t get in on that ground roots level, it’s hard to make those two leaps. Quite often people of colour aren’t getting that first opportunity, so then to go that next step which they might be deserving, it’s harder for that to happen,” Waterman said. “It’s a little bit harder for people of colour to break through.”
‘The data is there’
Waterman said that a real move toward enacting change in U Sports can only be taken once the systemic lack of diversity is acknowledged and accepted. In a country where nearly one-quarter of citizens identified as BIPOC in the 2016 Canadian census, the balance of diversity in positions of leadership in U Sports simply does not reflect the demographics of the country.
“It starts with acknowledgement and acceptance that we’re not where we want to be. If you have a statistical breakdown and you’ve seen where they’ve done analysis, I know CBC has done some reporting on this, the data is there,” Waterman said.
Waterman said that people in positions of power have to be willing to acknowledge their biases and make a concerted effort to look beyond their trusted circle when it comes time to fill a position.
“People on the hiring committees, people in positions of power, the decision-makers in the room have to be open to expanding their network.”
‘Perception that creates the reality’
One obstacle Waterman faced during his own coaching journey was the feeling of being held to a different standard and having to constantly show he deserved to be there.
“It’s not anything that was said, but it’s that feeling that you might have as a coach of saying ‘I have to prove myself,’ that feeling of ‘I’ve got to visually prove this to people.'”
Waterman said that after each promotion up the coaching ladder, Black coaches feel as if they have a shorter leash and must prove themselves all over again despite an established record of success.
Taking that final step and becoming a head coach at the U Sports level can seem unattainable for BIPOC coaches. Until substantial changes are made to the hiring process, Waterman said the best approach for minority candidates is to keep building their resumes to the point where there is no excuse for denying them a head coaching opportunity.
“I can think of a few guys that I know that deserve opportunities, that have been doing it for a long time, and they should be considered for that. Some advice that I would give them is keep going, keep making yourself better. You might be ready, and for whatever the reason you haven’t gotten your opportunity, but you’ve got to keep at it.”
“Everything that’s out there, apply for it, because you need to get in those rooms. Maybe the next opportunity is not the one you get, but maybe that connection you made leads to another one.”