Last September, the NCAA started circulating a “presidential pledge” intended to deal with a problem that continues to rankle college sports: diversity in hiring.  

While racial diversity on the sidelines and front offices of professional sports leagues has improved in the past decade, the situation in college athletics, according to NCAA data, remains largely the same: Most of the athletes in the high-profile sports of football and basketball are black, but the overwhelming majority of coaches and administrators are white.

The NCAA’s 147-word “Pledge and Commitment to Promoting Diversity and Gender Equity in Intercollegiate Athletics” is voluntary, doesn’t include any requirements or punishments, and has been criticized as weak.

And yet, in a sign of the struggle the NCAA faces whenever it tries to effect change, nearly 30 percent of the NCAA’s 1,200 member schools have not signed the pledge in the seven months since the NCAA announced it. While in some cases this may have just been an oversight, presidents of two prominent universities — Notre Dame and Boston College — said they purposely declined.

Bernard Franklin, the NCAA’s chief inclusion officer, discussed the pledge — along with a long list of bleak statistics about the dearth of minorities employed in college sports — in a May 1 presentation to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics at the National Press Club. Franklin’s presentation to the nonprofit that researches and discusses perceived problems in college athletics came during a panel discussion on hiring diversity.

In a bit of dramatic flair,  Franklin quoted from the opening sentence of Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” to describe the disparity between diversity among athletes and among coaches and administrators. On the fields and courts, Franklin said, “it is the best of times,” but on the sidelines and administrative offices, “a winter of despair … and utter frustration.”

In Division I, Franklin told the Knight Commission, 82 percent of athletic directors are white, 85 percent of associate athletic directors are white, and 82 percent of assistant athletic directors are white. While blacks constitute a little more than half of FBS football players, and 75 percent of Division I men’s basketball players, about 11 percent of football coaches are minorities, Franklin said, and 25 percent of men’s basketball coaches.

While the NCAA pledge does not come with any enforcement mechanism, Franklin noted, there is an accountability measure: The NCAA published online a list of schools whose leaders signed, making it easy to determine who hasn’t.

Last week, the Washington Post contacted a dozen school presidents who hadn’t signed and asked why.  Nine said it was an oversight. The leaders of Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Tulsa and other schools said they hadn’t seen the pledge and would sign immediately. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. said he had signed and there must have been some kind of glitch; within days, Liberty appeared on the NCAA’s list.

The presidents of Notre Dame and Boston College, however, said their decisions not to sign were purposeful, as their schools already have their own diversity initiatives.  

Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins “feels strongly that principals of such importance should be authored and pronounced by Notre Dame itself and applied university-wide, and not as the product of an association focused exclusively on collegiate athletics,” university spokesman Paul Browne wrote in an email.

Boston College President Father William Leahy didn’t sign, in part, because the pledge wasn’t strong enough, according to university spokesman Jack Dunn, who pointed out the school just hired Martin Jarmond, who is black, as athletic director.  

Leahy would support an NCAA mandate for athletic departments to interview at least one minority for any head coaching or senior leadership position, similar to the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” Dunn said.

“A deep commitment to diverse campus communities already exists. The task is to act,” Dunn wrote. “Many colleges and universities have voiced the same concerns about the pledge. It strikes many of us as a feel-good measure that will not address the issue.”

While Notre Dame and Boston College have their own initiatives — like many colleges and universities — both still have heavily white athletic departments, a review of their staff directories shows. Of the 23 members of Notre Dame athletics administration, there is one black woman, one Asian-American man, and 21 white men and women. The head coaches have a similar makeup: 16 of 18 are white. At Boston College, all 23 sport head coaches are white.

To determine these figures, the Post reviewed head shots and emailed estimates to Notre Dame and Boston College. Boston College’s Dunn did not reply to requests to verify the Post’s figures.

Notre Dame’s Browne acknowledged the school’s athletic department is currently overwhelmingly white, but pointed out three black athletic directors previously worked in South Bend: Florida State’s Stan Wilcox, Stanford’s Bernard Muir, and Buffalo’s Allen Greene.

“The diversity of our current administrative team is not where we want it to be, and that’s being addressed soon,” Browne wrote. “While poaching’s an annoying fact of life, Notre Dame is proud of helping advance the careers of some prominent African-American athletics administrators who are now serving at other universities.”

At the Knight Commission meeting, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Dan Rooney, the longtime owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who died earlier this year, encountered similar pushback from fellow owners when he proposed his minority hiring initiative in 2002.

In an NFL owners meeting, Tagliabue said, two of the league’s 32 owners balked at Rooney’s suggested rule. The two owners (whom Tagliabue did not identify) told Rooney they already made sure to interview at least one minority every time they had a head coach opening. When the discussion ended, Rooney told his fellow owners he was pleased they had unanimously approved his proposal.

“And the two people said, ‘Unanimous? I’m against it!’ … Dan said, ‘You said you’re already doing it … Great, you’re ahead of us, we’re catching up,’” Tagliabue said. “So the vote went down in history as a unanimous vote.”

A committee of college presidents studied this issue last year, and considered a stronger, Rooney Rule-type proposal, before opting for the voluntary pledge, according to Jay Lemons, president of Susquehanna University, one of those involved.

Even though the pledge is likely similar to diversity initiatives already in place at many schools, Lemons said, he struggled to understand why some of his peers would refuse to sign it.

“I do not see a downside,” Lemons said. “The need for change is so incredibly powerful that it’s hard for me to imagine that frankly any of our institutions have made all the progress that any of us would like to make.”

Richard Lapchick, president of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, expressed similar confusion with the explanations offered by Notre Dame and Boston College.

“They’re saying they’re going to go further than [the pledge], well, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t join that public outcry that we need to change things,” Lapchick said.

Lapchick’s institute produces annual racial hiring report cards for sports organizations, including the NBA, the NFL, and college sports. The NBA perennially grades the best, and the NFL has improved since the days that inspired the Rooney Rule; the league earned an A for racial hiring this year.

College sports, according to Lapchick’s grading, has regressed slightly over the last decade. In 2006, college sports earned a B-minus for racial hiring. This year, college sports earned a C-plus.

Lapchick disputes the contention by some there is a smaller talent pool of minorities interested in college athletic jobs, and has proposed what he calls the “Eddie Robinson Rule,” which would essentially be a Rooney Rule for college sports named after the late longtime football coach at Grambling State.

Georgetown Athletic Director Lee Reed, who is black, said a voluntary pledge is as forcefully as he thinks the NCAA can act on hiring practices at individual schools. The NCAA’s difficulty in getting all schools to sign the pledge, Reed said, highlights the limits of the organization’s power.

“A lot of people like to blame the NCAA for the ills of college athletics … It’s a membership organization, and the membership is the schools,” Reed said. “This is up to us.”