The Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab photo by Sydney Long

On the top level of Memorial Stadium, Denise Bradford takes the elevator up to her desk to start a statistical analysis of the Cornhuskers basketball team.

“Working in the Huskers Athletics Department has given me a unique opportunity to combine my love for problem solving and compassion for others into a dream job,” she said.

Bradford, a graduate assistant at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, works in the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab (NAPL) as a sports analytics assistant. As one of the most advanced college athletics departments in the country, the NAPL is devoted to providing all statistical information to coaches, players and administration. 

In her first few years on the job, Bradford said she hopes to contribute to the hard-working culture that Nebraska is all about and encourage more diversity in the department.

“Representation matters. The percentage of athletes or people of color in sports is a very high percentage — around 80%. Our backgrounds create a different perspective,” she said.

When it comes to representation, there is a lack of diversity in the department compared to athletes. There are 10 Black men on UNL’s men’s basketball team. In the statistics department, one person of color is there to represent them — Bradford. She is also one of the only females in the department. 

She said she feels like females are not given access to these careers in sports.

“Most women think I play a sport and that’s it and move on,” Bradford said. “I don’t think a lot of women actually think about being in the space in a different capacity like this.”

Bradford, who received her bachelor’s and master’s degree in applied statistics from Purdue University, said a few of her role models helped show her that sports analytics could be a potential career path.

“Tina Fey and Mindy Kahling are people that I look up to mostly because they kind of forged the space for women,” she said. ”In terms of sports, Kobe Bryant and LeBron (James) for their ability to pivot after the sport in their real lives.”

Though she played and lettered in basketball and tennis in high school, she said she had no idea she could work in sports stats. 

“It is pretty cool that that’s a thing now,” she said.

Before working as a graduate assistant, she interned as a data analyst at Hudl, an organization created for sports teams across all levels, from youth sports up to professional sports.

Bradford compared learning the ins and outs of working in sports analytics to basketball. 

“You keep coming back and trying the left-hand layup, and I think working is the same thing,” she said. “You’re not always going to know how to do everything, but you always have to remember it takes practice to learn.”

Since she is the only graduate assistant in the department, she is able to work with the staff of all 23 varsity sports and primarily focuses on softball and men’s basketball.

As someone who used to work in the same department, Tucker Zeleny, Ph.D., said he knows how much hard works goes into this field. In 2020, Zeleny was the director of UNL’s sports analytics department before he decided to work for Lutz as a data analyst. He received his bachelor’s degree in math with a physics minor and his Ph.D. in statistics.

As the head of the department, Zeleney said it is crucial to a team’s development to have some kind of statistical analysis of the team’s progress.  

“Whether that’s on-field stuff, recruiting stuff, ticket sales or whatever, I think it’s pretty important to have a handle on that data,” he said.

Learning how to do all of these things is what can make you thrive in this sports industry, he said. 

“It is a balance of everything and having kind of that mindset of, ‘Hey, maybe can’t do this right now, but I at least have some ideas on where to start and give me time to research, I can figure something out,’” he added.

The NAPL, where Bradford works, houses the statistics department and the analysis department. Athletes and coaches are given exclusive building access where they can keep track of everything going on with their bodies with machines like a DXA body composition scanner or an Athletic Analysis System.

“In terms of there being an entire lab, I think it’s very unique, if not one of two in the nation,” she said.

Zeleny agreed that UNL’s lab and department are a rarity and most schools have a stats person for certain teams, but UNL has a group of people who work closely with every team to provide team-specific data.  

“I think Nebraska was pretty unique, and we had a kind of standalone department to do it for every sport,” he said.

One of Bradford’s co-workers, Jessica Calvi, Ph.D., said she knows how much of a privilege she has by working in arguably one of the most famous college football stadiums in the country.

“Most college departments say, ‘Hey, we get to do a research study, and you get the benefit of using this technology.’ Whereas here, we just have that in-house in athletics, which is pretty rare,” she said.

A research assistant professor with a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, Calvi’s job is to gather various forms of research, including brain biology and behavior research and the other half is NAPL research. 

Working in a job that involves sports statistics can be unpredictable, she said.

“Never really knowing what the day is going to look like before the end of the day is always how it works,” she said. 

Different types of technologies are used to keep up with athletes and track their physical data.

“Athletes wear these little sensors in the back of their jersey that gives us an idea of what their distances were, how much they weigh and how fast they run,” she said.

Another side to sports statistics would be the live statistics portion. Cavan LaRose worked for the NBA as a statistics auditor for live games and knows about data tracked during professional games. 

With a bachelor’s degree in sports management, his job consisted of him communicating virtually with the league office to people at the live event. 

“I would be assigned a game, for instance the Celtics, and then I would talk with the statisticians from the Celtics,” he said. “I would also look at every single play that came in and I would make sure that the stats were correct for every player throughout the game.”

All of the stats that LaRose recorded would go straight to any national website where the live gamecast was showing. This could be the NBA or ESPN and meant that attention to detail was vital in his job. 

During his time with the NBA, he was able to work closely with multiple teams on various nights and different types of people. One thing that stood is LaRose working with more females than a lot of sports fields seem to see.

“I would probably say around like four or five women out of 15 that were there as statistics auditors,” he said.

As a female, Calvi agreed that diversity is lacking in the athletics department but has faith after the recent hiring of Lawrence Chatters, Ph.D., as UNL’s senior associate athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion. He works to make sure all athletics staff have the proper training to contribute to cultural competence diversity and equity. 

“I think that’s really important to recognize that we work with a diverse population of student-athletes and we need to be able to understand and match that in our staff,” Calvi said.

UNL is the only school in the Big Ten to not have any Black head coaches. With more hirings, representation should increase.

Charlie Foster, Ph.D., and assistant vice-chancellor for inclusive student excellence at UNL, said diversity is still a prevalent issue, and it is important in the development of students to see diversity.

“A sense of belonging is important,” Foster said. “We know that students who have a connection to one faculty or staff person are retained at a greater rate. We work really hard on that to make sure that students find their someone.”

Having these leaders in life, females like Bradford are given the opportunity to gain their confidence in what might be referred to as a “male-dominated” career field. 

Foster hopes to see more people be as successful as Bradford.

“It’s really touching when we’re able to help students through their journey, so it’s important work to many of us because we see ourselves in the students that we serve,” she said.

Trina Creighton, a retired UNL broadcasting professor and certified diversity expert, said she wants to see a change in the world when it comes to diversity.

“We need more change. Diversity brings us into other cultures and helps us learn from other people, so we all can grow together,” she said.

As years go on, there is more and more diversity. By the year 2040, the new minority will be white people.

“I think that the representation is getting better. I still think for Black females in sports, it is still an uphill battle. We’re not used to that representation yet,” Creighton added.

To encourage the trend of diversity in the United States, Creighton said it is important to not let others keep you down.

“It can feel threatening at times because they look at you and say, ‘Stay in your place,’ but I do it because I know it’s the right thing to do to enact change in this world,” she said.

Bradford looks to the future with plans of making her way to the NFL. She hopes the athletics department is able to find a way to have more females like her in the statistics department.

“My hope is that it will change,” she said, “But being able to have the opportunity to support the development of student-athletes at UNL as a member of NAPL will be a story that I will value until my final days.”