The One On Sports, Being Well-Spoken, and Other Cautions for Allies

Each week, we share five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

Better Allies®
4 min readDec 6, 2019


1. Avoid sports terms

Not everyone grew up playing or watching the same sports as we did. As a result, not everyone is going to be familiar with the sports terminology we might use in everyday conversation or messages. Imagine not knowing basketball, baseball, or American football, and hearing or reading phrases like “on deck,” “knock it out of the park,” “curve ball,” “full-court press,” “slam dunk,” or “sack the quarterback.” If you’re not familiar with cricket, what would your reaction be if you heard someone say something was a “googly?”

Such phrases can be a turn-off or simply confusing. Here’s just one anecdote, from Sam Bail on Twitter,

“Sports examples are very popular in coding tutorials, which makes some of them hard to understand for me.”

Here are some alternatives to consider using instead of their sporting equivalent:

Instead of “on deck,” say “up next.”
Instead of “quarterback,” say “leader.”
Instead of “run with the ball,” say “advance the effort.”
Instead of “step up to the plate,” say “take responsibility.”
Instead of “slam dunk,” say “sure thing” or “proven.”
Instead of “hail mary,” say “last chance” or “last-ditch effort.”

(Many thanks to everyone who chimed in with examples on Twitter.)

2. Don’t tell a person of color that they’re well-spoken

Over on Twitter, we noticed someone congratulating one of the speakers at Amazon’s AWS Re:invent developer conference. It caught our attention because of a problematic “compliment” embedded in the tweet:

“Loved her presentation! Easy to grasp and well spoken.”

We should mention that the speaker is a woman of color.

Here’s the thing. Saying someone is well-spoken can reinforce a negative bias that their demographic typically isn’t well-educated, and they’re an exception. It’s demeaning. Don’t go there.

3. Ask “Why?” when hearing a discriminatory comment

Over the past week, news broke about racism and sexism on the TV show “America’s Got Talent.” One judge, Gabrielle Union, was told repeatedly that her hairstyles were “too Black.” She also faced retaliation for speaking up about issues on the set.

Allies, if we hear someone saying derogatory, discriminatory comments like, “Your hair is too Black,” ask, “Why?” As Celina Caesar-Chavannes, a former member of the Canadian Parliament, explains in an article in Refinery 29, this one-word response “forces people to think about their racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, un-inclusive and/or discriminatory comments.”

4. When hiring or promoting someone, be clear it’s because they’re the best candidate

Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List, shared a great everyday action for allies:

“Don’t tell people you hired or promoted someone because of their ‘diverse perspective.’ If that’s part of it, then they got the job because they have a better understanding of your audience than the other candidates, which means they were the best candidate. Say that.”

He then explained why:

“Saying you hired someone because of their ‘diverse perspective’ is simply code for ‘I’m a good person because I hired someone that doesn’t look like me’ and simultaneously undervalues all the other contributions that person will make.”

Folks, when we hire or promote, be sure to tell everyone on the team that the decision was made because we found the best person for the job.

5. Pull out of all-majority panels

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. If you’re a man, don’t speak on all-male panels. If you’re white, don’t speak on all-white panels.

Fortunately, we’re seeing more and more examples of people doing exactly this.

Last week, software engineer and author Emily Freeman tweeted,

“Three of my male colleagues are pulling out of two conferences after finding out they’re on all white guy panels. That. Is. How. It’s. Done.”

If you’ve seen Karen speak about Better Allies…

You know she loves weaving stories throughout her talk. Want to level up your storytelling game for your next talk, project update, or pitch? Karen and her colleague Poornima Vijayashanker have a brand new course on LinkedIn Learning called “Presenting Technical Information with Stories,” and you can check it out here.

Note: You’ll need to have a subscription to LinkedIn Learning. If you don’t have one, you can start a free trial, and then watch the course. It’s about 30 minutes long — the perfect length for learning during lunch or a coffee/tea break.

Being an ally is a journey. Want to join us?

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Better Allies®

Everyday actions to create inclusive, engaging workplaces. Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies® approach.