Expansion could add black NFL owner, too

April 20, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

In addition to two new teams, the NFL is likely to add something else when it expands this fall: its first black team owner.

Long after the color barrier was breached on the field, it remains rigid in the owners boxes of major sports leagues. In the NFL, there are no African-American owners, but that probably is about to change.

Of the five finalist cities competing for the two expansion franchises, three, including Baltimore, have black investors among their ownership groups and a fourth is seeking to add one -- meaning black part-ownership is nearly a certainty with expansion.

None of the groups would discuss the percentage share that would be held by the black investors, but controlling interest in all cases is held by white men.

"There are two ways to view it. Any breakthrough is a breakthrough. Or you could say it is tokenism. I would prefer to view it as a breakthrough," said Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

His center studies race in sports. Earlier this year, it released a report showing that 5 percent of key positions in major sports teams -- major-league baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL -- are held by minorities. In the NFL, minorities represented 2.9 percent of key positions and 62 percent of players, the report said. About 6 percent of fans at NFL games are black, Lapchick said.

Baseball's Texas Rangers are the only major sports team with black ownership, a limited partner. The NBA's Denver Nuggets were owned by a pair of black investors, but they sold a few years ago. No NHL teams are black-owned, he said.

Lapchick credited NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue with a strong public stand on minority issues, including his push to keep the Super Bowl from Phoenix until Arizona legislated a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said black investment "was addressed with each of the expansion groups way up front, in the way it is with all our business relationships. Is it a requirement? No. Was it encouraged? Is it on the table? Yes."

Another NFL official said: "It's something we're interested in, but it's not the sole criteria we will be using" in awarding a new franchise.

Of the five expansion finalists, Baltimore, St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn., have black investors. Charlotte, N.C., officials said they tried to include minority partners, but were unable to, and Jacksonville, Fla., is seeking to add one.

"If it [the color barrier] is going to fall, I'm glad to be one of the guys to do it," said Walter Payton, the retired Chicago Bears running back. He is affiliated with the St. Louis bid, considered a leading contender.

Baltimore, the only city with ownership groups competing, has black investors in groups headed by clothing retailer Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass and author Tom Clancy. The bid by corporate investor Malcolm Glazer includes no partners.

John Mackey, the former Colts tight end and a co-investor with Clancy, said race "is something people like to talk about. But John Unitas never threw the ball to me because I was black. He threw to me because he thought I could catch."

Former Colt Joe Washington is part of the Weinglass group.

Memphis' ownership group includes Willie Davis, a media executive and former player with the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has formed a commission to push for more minorities in key positions in major-league sports, said partial ownership by minorities "becomes a form of protecting yourself from being charged with racism."

But he said the NFL should consider it when awarding franchises, a process he vowed to become involved with.

"It's going to play a role in our actions," he said. He led a protest of baseball's minority hiring record on Opening Day at Camden Yards.

The NFL's history of race relations is somewhat better than that of baseball, which for years had racially segregated leagues, said C. Robert Barnett, a sports historian with Marshall University.

The NFL began as an integrated league in 1920, and had 13 blacks between 1920 and 1933. It went through a period of de facto segregation until 1946, when the Los Angeles Rams added blacks to their roster. That was a year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns, inaugural members of the All-America Football Conference, also had blacks on their roster in 1946, though the Browns would not become part of the NFL until 1950.

The Washington Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate and did so in 1962 only after public officials threatened to bar the team from its new stadium, Barnett said.

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