Category Archives: Sports Leadership

#SayNoToRacism #Emphatically

Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson and GM Danny Ferry. Photo: New York Times

Racism is a hot topic in our sports nation these days with former Clippers owner Donald Sterling and now Hawks owner Bruce Levenson and GM Danny Ferry coming under fire for racist remarks.   As a black businesswoman myself, I personally find Donald Sterling and Danny Ferry’s comments and prejudices deplorable, while I do not find Levenson’s words to be nearly as reprehensible as the others’. The difference? Both Sterling and Ferry made overwhelmingly derogatory statements that insulted and devalued blacks as a whole while also making egregious and erroneous attacks on two exemplary members of the black community. For Donald Sterling to say that Magic Johnson “doesn’t do anything” for black people–a man who has single-handedly transformed black communities and created jobs to propel them forward through real estate investments and movie theater and restaurant ownership– is simply ignorant. Danny Ferry was equally as ignorant, completely degrading African culture and slandering the character of a man who has not been associated with troublemaking or wrongdoing and whose foundation has impacted the lives of children on three different continents. 

Magic Johnson Enterprises serves as a catalyst for driving unparalleled business results for our partners and fostering community/economic empowerment by making available high-quality entertainment, products and services that answer the demands of ethnically diverse urban communities. Photo: Elite Daily
The Luol Deng Foundation uses basketball as tool to give hope to those in Africa, USA and the UK. Photo: Luol Deng Foundation

Levenson, on the other hand, was coming from a very different place. While his comments certainly did reflect stereotypes and generalizations that can also be labeled “ignorant,” his intention was to diagnose the lack of diversity in Phillips Arena. Strictly business, I dare say. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it this way:

“Levenson is a businessman asking reasonable questions about how to put customers in the seats. In the e-mail, addressed to Hawks president Danny Ferry, Levenson wonders whether (according to his observations), the emphasis on hip-hop and gospel music and the fact that the cheerleaders are black, the bars are filled with 90 percent blacks, kiss cam focus on black fans and time-out contestants are always black has an effect on keeping away white fans. … Seems reasonable to ask those questions. Business people should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business.”

Like Kareem, I do not absolve Levenson’s assumptions; however, as a black businesswoman I completely understand Levenson’s intention and would rather see him stay than Ferry. Honestly, I more so question his intention of “turning himself in” than his prejudices; seems more like an exit strategy to me… But I digress.

The real deal is this: racism has never been “over” and there is no such thing as a “post-racial society.” Though more subtle now than in the days of the Negro Leagues and The Black Fives, racism persists in sports despite overwhelming minority representation in professional leagues. In fact, the 2013 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) reported that “African-Americans comprised 76.3 percent of all NBA players. Eighty-one percent of players were players of color.” The same organization reported  66.3% African American players in the NFL and 52.3% players of color in MLS. Only 8.3% of players on 2014 MLB opening day rosters were African American, an issue that the Commissioner of Baseball is working to address with his On-Field Diversity Task force. NHL numbers are far fewer, though interest in the game among minorities–as both fans and players– seems to be climbing.

Present-day racism in sport–and in life in general, actually– comes most often in the form of denied opportunities for people of color. Meaning, instead of racial slurs, hate crimes, segregated facilities and other blatant expressions of oppression that were in abundance during the Civil Rights Era, our fight is now against discriminatory and/or exclusive hiring practices that usurp minority candidates’ ability to attain positions of leadership at the executive level and other micro-aggressions that people of color are battered with daily. The NFL’s Rooney Rule was a start that has led to the hiring of 17  African-American and Latino head coached and general managers across the league since its establishment in 2003. FIFA has launched a global campaign to combat this on its fields of play, inspiring others to do so in their communities as well. Neither of these are by any means blanket solutions; however, if they work, they work and are definitely good places to start. Especially since it would be obviously impossible to change the biases and prejudices every individual in this industry–and the world– has been brought up with, spoken or unspoken, conscious or subconscious.

fifa racism
Photo: FIFA

At the end of the day, there is no place for racism is sport or society at large. It is not only flat-out wrong, but it does our entire global community a disservice by stifling the talents, perspectives and creativity that members of our worldwide community possess. Let all these incidents be a lesson: we can, and must, do better.

Spurs Hire Becky Hammon and Shatter the Glass Ceiling

On Tuesday the San Antonio Spurs made history when Popovich made Becky Hammon the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.

A star on the court, Hammon will make this upcoming season- her 16th- her last and will right away jump into her new coaching gig.  Becky is confident in her basketball IQ, noting that she has a “very cerebral approach” to the game. Looks like Pop agrees. He made it a point to make sure she was the right fit for the job.

She has excelled on the court over her 16-year career and proven an aptitude for coaching during her time getting to know the Spurs organization through her off-season “internship” where she earned respect from the players and really demonstrated her ability to communicate and lead from the court (not much different than her style of play!).

So the big question: what does this mean for other women who once thought they could only hope for an opportunity to coach in the NBA? It means there’s a shot, but there’s still work to be done. Turns out, it’s not a question of ability in the way many would think. It’s more a question of fit. As Pop and the Spurs made clear, the position was open to the best, most qualified candidate. Women have long demonstrated excellent capacity to coach at a high level; but few have knocked on the NBA’s door, most likely assuming there wouldn’t be a chance.  It just takes a different perspective, one that Becky Hammon clearly has:

AP Photo/Bahram Mark Sobhani

In Hammon’s words,“when it comes to things of the mind, things like coaching, game-planning, coming up with offensive and defensive schemes, there’s no reason why a woman couldn’t be in the mix and shouldn’t be in the mix.”

I couldn’t agree more. Ladies, if we believe in ourselves, we will show others why they should believe in us. It’s said confidence is key; I’d add ambition, tenacity and humility to the recipe for game changers. We will continue to break barriers if we stand strong, dream big, fight hard and learn always.

Proving Her Pointe: Misty Copeland, The Unlikely Ballerina

At 13 years old, Misty Copeland began to shatter the mold for elite ballerinas. Starting late in the game without the ideal body type, no one would have guessed she’d make ballet history. Now a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, Misty is the third black female dancer to solo with the company and the first to dance as principal in famed productions Firebird and Coppélia. 

Overcoming a tough childhood–facing homelessness and financial scarcity with her mother and siblings– to excel in dance with the help of mentors and coaches has led Misty to inspire the next generation of ballet dancers. She mentors through ABT’s Project Pliéa comprehensive initiative to increase diversity in elite American ballet companies.  In a recent interview, Misty expressed to Elle Magazine,  “I had some really incredible people who mentored me, and gave me things I never got from my parents. I think it’s so important for young dancers of color to have someone who looks like them as an example—someone they can touch.” 

Now a face of Under Armour’s I WILL WHAT I WANT campaign, Misty Copeland is a beacon of inspiration for young athletes–particularly young, minority, female athletes–who face overwhelming life circumstances and opposition in their athletic careers.  As she continues to break down barriers, I can only hope that young athletes heed her example and strive for greatness themselves.

Only by perseverance, tenacity and determination will ground be gained for the unlikely athletes– the underestimated, the late bloomers, the wrongly built, the ill-trained, the ones that were told they’re too much of the wrong and not enough of the right. You know what they say: where there’s a will, there’s a way. So keep your eye on the prize and give it all you’ve got. #IWILLWHATIWANT