Historically, star athletes of color have carried the burden of responsibility for racial justice in sport. The calls for change didn’t start in the luxury boxes or the 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 out is mounting. Following the police killing of George Floyd 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, former NBA coaching statesman Gregg Popovich spoke up.

Why we wrote this

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

Yet a marked separation remains between owners and players. Based on a 2019-20 Political Contributions Report, team owners supported Republican interests and causes nearly 86%. Comparable data for gamers isn’t available, but the racial justice issues they’ve endorsed generally find more support from Democrats than Republicans.

One way forward might be for landlords to organize from the outset in the spirit of social justice. That’s what the majority female-owned Angel City FC women’s soccer team in Los Angeles does.

It had been nearly two weeks since the death of George Floyd at the hands of police sent shockwaves across the United States. Minneapolis residents and protesters had their say. From now on, the world of sport would speak. The NFL, long maligned for its actions toward Colin Kaepernick, stunned the public with a comment from commissioner Roger Goodell:

We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League[,] let’s admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players sooner and encourage everyone to speak up and protest peacefully. We, the National Football League, believe that 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 principal representative of the owners, was on board. Only one thing was missing: the owners themselves.

Why we wrote this

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

Historically, star athletes of color have carried the burden of responsibility for racial justice in sport. The calls for change didn’t start in the luxury boxes or the executive suites. One reason is obvious: the major owners of NBA, NFL, and MLB teams are nearly all white; there are only six exceptions.

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

The pressure for this to change is mounting. Less than a year after Mr. Floyd’s death, another black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by police at Brooklyn Center, about 10 minutes from Minneapolis. This time, when the sports world spoke, it was veteran NBA coach Gregg Popovich:

How many young black children need to be killed for no…reason? How much? So that we can hold police unions accountable? We need to find out who is funding these people. I want to know what the NBA owners are funding these people who are committing these lies. That might be a good starting point, so everything is transparent.

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 on May 12, 2021, in New York City.

Owner Investments – and Stocks

The split between owners and players was highlighted by a USA Today article last October that reviewed the political contributions of 183 team owners from 2019-20. The results showed that the majority of the owners’ money supported Republican candidates or causes. The margin wasn’t even close – Republican interests and causes had nearly 86% support. Comparable data for gamers isn’t available, but the racial justice issues they’ve endorsed generally find more support from Democrats than Republicans.

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

But an earlier story from two owners decades ago hints at the potential for a different image.

Nearly 60 years ago, NBA luminary and legend Bill Russell led a boycott of a preseason exhibition game in Lexington, Ky., after two of his teammates were denied service in a separate cafe. 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 the exhibition should never have been played after the players were refused service and said he would ‘never subject my players to this embarrassment.”

Mr. Kerner, meanwhile, traded two of the Hawks’ three black players, including Mr. Sauldsberry. After a coaching change, Mr. Hill, the team’s only black player, 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, due to MLB’s recent decision to move the All-Star Game in light of criticism that State Senate Bill 202 encourages voter suppression.

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

A new approach

The way forward could certainly contain a spirit of ownership that not only protects the right to protest, but promotes it through financial support. Another path is to understand the power of ownership that organizes in the spirit of social justice from the start.

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 actress Natalie Portman, tennis star Serena Williams and more than a dozen former stars of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team. Angel City FC is majority female-owned and will join the National Women’s Soccer League in spring 2022. In her first letter as co-founder and chairman, Julie Uhrman affirmed Angel City FC’s commitment to “thinking differently about ownership and to “make a positive impact on our local community.”

Founding investor Alexis Ohanian, husband of Ms Williams and co-founder of Reddit, acknowledged that while it was a ‘business decision’ there are plenty of good ‘social reasons’ for it :

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

It is promising to think of a world where franchise owners, with the wealth they have amassed, take the lead in social awareness. Once this happens with regularity, it will no longer be just a matter of small change. The money – and the movement – ​​will begin to spin in a way that benefits everyone.