Nicole Melton has spent the last four years of her budding career in higher education teaching students the importance of breaking barriers in the intercollegiate sports arena.
A former athlete, she could have steered her career toward coaching, but she chose otherwise.
“I felt the best way to change the landscape of sport and make it more inclusive for individuals was to teach to future sport management people and the future coaches,” she says.
An assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Melton’s roots in athletics date back to her high school years in San Antonio—a place where golfing was both popular and affordable for youth. While it was a very competitive sport, Melton excelled enough in high school golf to earn a scholarship to Texas A&M University.
As an undergraduate student-athlete, she noticed differences in how her peers approached athleticism. While Melton and many of her female teammates used golf as a pathway to earning a degree, she says, a lot of the male athletes focused on playing professionally.
After receiving a bachelor’s in marketing in 2005, Melton got the chance to play pro. While playing on an expert level, she noticed gender differences as well. Most of her female counterparts participated in classes where “they’d give you advice on your hair, your makeup, and different things like that,” she says, adding that the class was not a priority for males.
“So that keyed me into these issues of how female athletes are expected to be versus how male athletes are.”
After a year of playing professional golf, Melton worked in Texas A&M’s athletics department while pursuing a master’s in sport management. It was at this time that she really dove into how gender and diversity issues affect not only players but the entire athletic organization.
“While [my college studies] were generally focused on revenue generation, I had excellent professors who also talked about the social consequences of our actions,” she says. “I think having that socially minded education was very influential to me and now how I teach my own students.”
After earning a master’s in 2009, Melton furthered her education at Texas A&M and received a Ph.D. in sport management in 2012.
After short teaching stints at Seattle University and Texas Technical University, Melton landed at Amherst. Here, she spends 70 percent of her time researching.
In one of her current projects, she interviews women with multiple marginalized identities—such as LGBT women of color—to understand the obstacles they faced as they ascended to the top of their sport organizations.
From previous research, Melton has found that the ability for a person—whether they’re a student, employee, or leader of a team or association—to bring their authentic selves to the arena fuels drive and passion.
“You feel more comfortable taking risks, asking questions, and all of these things combined make you a better worker for your organization,” she says. “So not only are you happier and have a higher job satisfaction and life satisfaction, but it also pays dividends for the organization, in that they have more committed, more productive employees.”
In order to create inclusive environments, Melton says, athletic departments must reinforce university policies against discrimination. “The mission of the university [can be] neglected in their quest to win games and win championships. Even within a very progressive, inclusive university, sometimes the athletic department can look very different.”
In addition to showing that they are accepting of diverse individuals, team administrators should also “give the student-athletes the power to create their own change,” Melton says.
“So if they feel really passionate about having certain initiatives for minority student-athletes, for women student-athletes, for LGBT student-athletes or allies, then they should be comfortable asking for resources and know that they can get those resources.”
In the classroom, Melton translates her knowledge to students through honesty and ratability. “I try to teach students how to realize the privilege that we all bring to a setting and our own implicit biases,” she says.
In realizing this, students will be able to understand that “they might neglect to look at a pool of candidates because they’re not in their ‘in-group’ or they don’t look just like them,” she says. “And then, on the other end, we talk about the best way to approach issues that come up, such as people not feeling like they’re included or coaches saying racist or heterosexist comments—how are you going to respond to that sort of thing.”
What’s often overlooked, she continues, is that inclusive approaches aren’t just for minorities. According to her research, “even your majority group members thrive more in environments that are diverse and have inclusive policies—so it works well for your White male, too.”
As Melton continues to research and teach, she says she hopes to convey that “we’re in this together and we can make sport and intercollegiate athletics this wonderful place for all people.”