The Badger to Oversee University of Washington Intercollegiate Athletics’ Diversity Commitment

The past year gave the topic of equality renewed importance in all aspects of society. It has forced many to look in the mirror and ask whether we are part of the solution or perpetuating the problem that divides us. Collegiate athletics were no exception.

Sheridan Blanford, director of Inclusion and Engagement for University of Wisconsin Athletics Department, pushed others towards getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s the price the university is willing to pay in an effort to create a culture of belonging.

“It surprises a lot of people, but people think that just by the way you look on the field or court that college athletics is diverse. But that’s actually not the truth,” Blanford said. “In the grand scheme of things, up until more recently, college athletics has been behind the ball with regards to DEI (Diversity, equity and inclusion.)”

Noticeable change began when Blanford “to a leap of faith” and accepted UW-Madison’s Inclusion & Engagement Coordinator for Wisconsin Athletics in 2017. A year later, the Aurora, Colorado native was promoted to director, overseeing the development and sponsoring of specific student-athlete support groups, while also encouraging and supporting student-athletes’ participation in campus, community and athletic programming.

“When I first started, Wisconsin was one of three or four departments in the entire nation to have a person and/or department specifically focused on diversity, equity and inclusion within college athletics,” Blanford said. “So, essentially we were just building the plane as we were flying it because there wasn’t a whole lot to model on.

“We were taking best practices from different industries such as higher education, nonprofits and corporate America and combined them and make meaning of it all within the unique space of college athletics,” added Blanford, who led the strategic initiative that developed assessment tools to measure the department’s effectiveness related to DEI.

The need to be heard, the need for others to understand a perspective or experience that’s different from their own, is absolutely essential to an inclusive and high-functioning culture, and to providing leadership for generations to come, Blanford said.

Now, starting in January, Blanford is taking her skills in fostering an inclusive and equitable culture and environment for all members of campus to the University of Washington Intercollegiate Athletics where she will serve as the department’s first Associate Athletic Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The inaugural position in Seattle just so happens to be where she received her master’s degree from Washington’s Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership program.

The new position, which received initial funding from substantial donations from Head Football Coach Jimmy Lake and Head Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Hopkins, will have a dual reporting structure to Director of Athletics, Jennifer Cohen, as well as Rickey Hall, University of Washington Vice President for Minority Affairs and Diversity, according to a news release.

“I couldn’t be more excited to welcome Sheridan back to the Husky family and into this role,” said Cohen. “Sheridan’s passion and expertise in the area of DEI will have a tremendous impact on our student-athletes, coaches and staff. Through feedback from our stakeholders it was clear that adding a senior-level administrator to focus on this work within our department was critically important. Thanks to the generosity of Coach Lake and Hopkins we were able to get this position off the ground and we are looking forward to the impact it will have for the years to come.” 

“I am thrilled that Sheridan Blanford has been appointed as the inaugural Associate Athletic Director for Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion,” added Hall. “I look forward to working with Sheridan as she leads, develops, and implements best practices and programs that advances DEI in Intercollegiate Athletics.”

Blanford received her bachelor’s degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she was a four-year power forward for the women’s basketball team. The coach called her “small but mighty.”

Blanford comes from a family of athletes. It’s no wonder her passion for diversity and inclusion in college sports is so strong. She served as the assistant director for the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), where she worked closely with all stakeholders from Presidents to student-athletes to oversee the conference’s strategic plan. She served as the MIAC’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) advisor and also worked closely with the Gender, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion subcommittee which allowed her to create, purpose and facilitate programs and initiatives that expanded the support and investment of students from diverse, ethnic and cultural backgrounds across 13 different institutions. The program is called DIECE, pronounced dice.

Additionally, she was named as one of Wisconsin’s 49 Most Influential Black Leaders in 2019 by Madison 365. Blanford has attended the Learfield Minority Academy each of the last two years, serving as an alumni ambassador at the 2018 event, as Women Leaders in College Sports selected Blanford as a 2018 Rising Star Award winner in 2018. She also works as a freelance DEI consultant, providing strategy for companies, organizations and departments who are implementing plans that establish inclusive organizational culture. 

Blanford began saying goodbye to her Madison community family. On a recent Saturday, the 27-year-old soprano, who sang Christmas songs with the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Gospel Choir, was enveloped in well wishes.

“Madison has some incredible people,” she said. “I’m going to miss the genuinely great people, like my Mt. Zion family which took me under their wing. And I’ll miss the student-athletes a lot. That was the hardest part, saying goodbye to them. I got to know them and help develop them outside of sports.”