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Inclusion advocate and former NFL executive honored for championing diversity

Scott Pioli works behind the scenes to support careers in sports for women, people of color and the LGBTQ community

Scott Pioli doesn’t talk about diversity and inclusion as abstract values. When he discusses how he has incorporated them into his work and mission, he points to specific individuals from his formative years who opened his eyes and heart.

Scott Pioli, then the assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, spoke in June in Las Vegas at the National Hockey League’s Declaring Our Principles-Advancing Equity summit. Andre Ringuette / NHLI via Getty Images

An African American schoolteacher in the early 1970s in Pioli’s white-flight neighborhood outside New York City. His childhood best friend’s older brother, a gay man who felt like an extension of Pioli’s family. Pioli’s two older sisters, gifted athletes who missed the era when Title IX could have provided the opportunities a college athletics scholarship offered to Pioli.

“I entered this world the way I am, a white male, so I have enjoyed white male privilege my whole life,” Pioli said. “However, since I was a young child, I have been incredibly blessed to have some pretty significant moments in my life that opened my eyes.”

The NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee is honoring Pioli as a Champion of Diversity and Inclusion. The designation recognizes individuals for their work in supporting ethnic minorities and other underrepresented populations in athletics.

Most recently the assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, a position he left in May, Pioli was previously general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs from 2009 to 2012. Before that, he worked with the New England Patriots, who won three Super Bowls during his tenure as vice president of player personnel.

Lesser known, however, is how Pioli has worked throughout his career to leverage his network and create opportunities for segments of society traditionally underrepresented in sports: women, racial and ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTQ community.

“His efforts and impact have gone largely unrecognized — in no small part because Scott does not seek out recognition or even acknowledgment of his work,” said Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state and a member of the board of directors of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality. “Yet he has been doing this work quietly for decades.

“Nearly every day, Scott finds a way to use his network and position to help diversify the sports industry,” Benson continued.

Pioli is also a board member for RISE, an organization devoted to working through the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations. Pioli has been a fundamental leader in a RISE program at Morehouse that educates college and professional athletes about civil rights advocacy and how to use their voice. He also helped launch RISE to Vote, which registers athletes to vote and encourages civic engagement. In addition to working on that program within the NFL, he led its expansion to the MLB, NBA and colleges.

Additionally, Pioli and his family have funded several college scholarships designed to help women and people of color. The Scott, Dallas and Mia Pioli Family HBCU Scholarship is awarded to a graduate or athletics department employee at a historically black college or university. It covers costs associated with becoming a member of Women Leaders in College Sports and attending the group’s national convention. The Scott Pioli & Family Fund for Women Football Coaches and Scouts provides financial assistance to women who aspire to pursue careers in college or professional football.

Pioli also has invested over $200,000 to create two endowed funds at his alma mater, Central Connecticut State, where he competed in football and is a member of the Alumni Athletics Hall of Fame. One scholarship supports first-generation college students at the university, while the other supports grants-in-aid to student-athletes on the football team.

Pioli also earned a master’s degree in communications from Syracuse, where he began his career as a graduate assistant for the football program.

Perhaps Pioli’s biggest contribution to inclusion in sports, however, is his willingness to create opportunities for promising individuals by acting as an advocate. His support has been credited with helping individuals such as Katie Sowers, an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, and Rich Freeman, football coach at Morehouse.

For some white men, Pioli said, stepping up as advocates for diversity and inclusion is uncomfortable because they might have taken part in lewd banter or inappropriate jokes in their younger years. But those individuals are now in position to change the landscape for underrepresented populations in sports, he notes.

“As crazy and counterintuitive as this may sound, there are people who look like me who are afraid to jump in the water. For all of their strength, all of their power, all of their confidence, there is a fear,” Pioli said. “Was I always as thoughtful, as willing to be supportive, as willing to openly be an advocate an ally? No, I wasn’t. Did I engage in conversations or situations at times that I am not proud of? Absolutely. I was very conflicted at times because as a human, you want acceptance from your peers and contemporaries.”

Pioli became an advocate, he says, by just taking the first steps. Those created the ripples of a reputation.

“When you’re elevated to a platform to hopefully make a social impact and make an educational impact, you inject that into your daily life by the way you work in your daily life, by mentoring people that work completely different than you, that look completely different than you,” Pioli said. “Because of the reputation, people in those communities that are marginalized say, ‘Hey, this guy really does care,’ so people will come to me.

“If you allow this work to be exposed a little bit more,” he continued, “it makes other people who look like me ask questions and start to become more comfortable with it.”