Commentary: Sports team owners and the call for racial justice

Steve Luciano/AP
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell claps on stage during the first round of the NFL football draft, April 29, 2021, in Cleveland.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Historically, star athletes of color have taken the burden of responsibility on themselves when it comes to racial justice in sports. The calls for change have not begun in the luxury boxes or executive suites. One reason is obvious: Major league team owners are almost all white; there are only six exceptions in the NBA, NFL, and MLB.

But the pressure for owners to speak up is mounting. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell publicly condemned “racism and the systematic oppression of black people.” Less than a year later, after Daunte Wright was killed by police near Minneapolis, Gregg Popovich, the elder statesman of NBA coaches, spoke up. 

Why We Wrote This

Sports team owners’ silence during last year’s racial reckoning begs the question: Should owners, who are mostly white, add their voices to the calls for justice from their players of color?

Still, a marked split remains between owners and players. Based on a report of 2019-2020 political contributions, team owners supported Republican interests and causes at nearly an 86% clip. Comparable data for players is not available, but the racial justice issues they have endorsed typically find more support from Democrats than Republicans. 

One path forward might be for owners to organize in the spirit of social justice from the outset. That’s what the majority-women owned Angel City FC women’s soccer team in Los Angeles is doing.

It had been nearly two weeks since the death of George Floyd at the hands of police sent shock waves through the United States. The residents of Minneapolis and protesters had their say. Now, the world of sports would speak out. The NFL, long maligned for its actions toward Colin Kaepernick, stunned the public with a commentary from Commissioner Roger Goodell:

We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League[,] admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.

Mr. Goodell’s words came a day after players collaborated on a video that challenged the NFL to take a stand against social injustice. The players were on board, and the commissioner, the primary representative for the owners, was on board. Only one thing was missing – the owners themselves.

Why We Wrote This

Sports team owners’ silence during last year’s racial reckoning begs the question: Should owners, who are mostly white, add their voices to the calls for justice from their players of color?

Historically, star athletes of color have taken the burden of responsibility on themselves when it comes to racial justice in sports. The calls for change have not begun in the luxury boxes or executive suites. One reason is obvious: NBA, NFL, and MLB teams’ primary owners are almost all white; there are only six exceptions.

By comparison, the NBA, NFL, and MLB all have a high number of players of color – roughly 81%, 73%, and 43% respectively. Until very recently, the athletes speaking up were those who felt the sting of prejudice and injustice personally and felt morally obligated to use their power for more than endorsement contracts.

The pressure for that to change is mounting. Less than a year after Mr. Floyd’s death, another Black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by police in Brooklyn Center, about 10 minutes from Minneapolis. This time, when the world of sports spoke up, it was the elder statesman of NBA coaches, Gregg Popovich:

How many young Black kids have to be killed for no ... reason? How many? So that we can empower the police unions? We need to find out who funds these people. I want to know what owners in the NBA fund these people who perpetrate these lies. Maybe that’s a good place to start, so it’s all transparent.

Frank Franklin II/AP
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich (left) talks to Devin Vassell (center) during the first half of an NBA game against the Brooklyn Nets, May 12, 2021, in New York.

Owners’ investments – and actions

The split between owners and players was underlined by a USA Today article last October that reviewed the political contributions of 183 team owners from 2019-2020. The results showed that the majority of owner money supported Republican candidates or causes. The margin wasn’t even close – Republican interests and causes had been supported at nearly an 86% clip. Comparable data for players is not available, but the racial justice issues they have endorsed typically find more support from Democrats than Republicans.

The imbalance in owners’ political contributions leads some players to essentially write them off as potential allies in racial change. Said LeBron James: “I’m not going to give my energy to that, because it’s not surprising. My mom has always told me, control what you can control. And I can’t control that. What I can control is what I’m doing on my side.” 

But an earlier tale of two owners decades ago hints at the potential for a different picture.

Nearly 60 years ago, NBA luminary and legend Bill Russell led a boycott of a preseason exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky, after two of his teammates were refused service at a segregated coffee shop. Eventually, seven players, all Black, participated in the boycott – five Celtics players and two St. Louis Hawks players, Cleo Hill and Woody Sauldsberry.

There was a stark difference in the response from Celtics owner Walter Brown and Hawks owner Ben Kerner. Mr. Brown told Celtics coach Red Auerbach that the exhibition should have never been played after the players were refused service and declared that he would “never subject my players to that embarrassment again.”

Mr. Kerner, meanwhile, traded away two of the Hawks’ three Black players, including Mr. Sauldsberry. After a coaching change, Mr. Hill, the lone Black player on the team, was virtually blacklisted. In 1968, Mr. Kerner sold the franchise to Thomas Cousins and former Georgia governor Carl Sanders. The piece about selling to a Georgia governor is ironic, if nothing else, because of MLB’s recent decision to move the All-Star Game in light of criticisms that state Senate Bill 202 encourages voter suppression.

AP/File
Basketball player Bill Russell (right) signs a contract with the NBA's Boston Celtics in Boston, on Dec. 19, 1956. Seated at left is Celtics co-owner and president Walter Brown; standing behind him is co-owner Lou Pieri of Providence, Rhode Island.

A new approach

The path forward might certainly contain a spirit in ownership that not only protects the right to protest, but promotes it through financial support. Another path lies in understanding the power of ownership that organizes in the spirit of social justice from the outset. 

Last July, Angel City FC, the group working to bring a women’s soccer team to Los Angeles, was founded. Its high-profile owners and investors include actor Natalie Portman, tennis luminary Serena Williams, and more than a dozen former U.S. women’s national soccer team stars. Angel City FC is majority-women owned and will join the National Women’s Soccer League in the spring of 2022. In her first letter as co-founder and president, Julie Uhrman affirmed Angel City FC’s commitment to “think differently about ownership” and “make a positive impact on our local community.”

Founding investor Alexis Ohanian, Ms. Williams’ husband and the co-founder of Reddit, acknowledged that while this is a “business decision,” there are a lot of good “social reasons” for the decision:

The athletes are far more popular and have already transcended the sport and culture. And while I am all for [what] this represents – a generation of athletes who should get paid what they’re worth, who should get treated fairly and equally – I also know this is tracking in the right direction. The free market is actually going to show that this has been undervalued for way too long by far too many people.

It’s promising to think of a world where franchise owners, with the amount of wealth they have amassed, take the lead when it comes to social awareness. Once it happens with regularity, then it won’t just be an issue of small change. The money – and the movement – will start to turn in a way that helps everyone.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.