Calvin Hill's sports career got off to a strong start in 1969. Signed by the Dallas Cowboys as a running back, he finished the season as Rookie of the Year and soon landed a deal to promote the soft drink Dr Pepper.
A few other sponsorship deals followed, but nothing spectacular. That was consistent with his expectations: In those days, even a standout athlete, if he was black, knew that racial barriers remained for off-field earnings long after they had fallen for team rosters.
"I was fortunate that I was able to do some things with Dr Pepper. But I think black players lagged behind with endorsements," Hill says.
Not anymore. Black athletes are now among the hottest properties on Madison Avenue, successfully pitching everything from McDonald's cheeseburgers to Rolex watches to mainstream audiences.
Hill and others say that doors once closed to premier athletes of color have swung wide open over the past decade. Commercial sponsors that were once wary of using blacks now fight bidding wars for the right. Consumers reward the companies with their dollars, discrediting old axioms about whites not buying products promoted by blacks.
Some see it as a harbinger of better race relations in America, just as the integration of playing fields a generation ago proved cathartic.
Among those taking advantage of the new racial tolerance is Hill's son, National Basketball Association star Grant Hill. He earns an estimated $15 million a year from endorsements.
"I don't think racism has disappeared. But I think there is a willingness on the part of advertisers to look at these things the way [the Rev. Martin Luther] King talked about in his speech, judging people by their character and not the color of their skin," says Calvin Hill, who has served as a top executive of the Orioles and is now consulting for the Cowboys.
Of the 10 athletes ranked last year by Sports Marketing Letter as "most wanted" by commercial sponsors, five are black, four are white and one, golfer Tiger Woods, is of mixed racial heritage.
The top three, who as a group will earn an estimated $88 million this year from endorsements, are all minorities: Michael Jordan, Woods, and Shaquille O'Neal. Jordan and O'Neal play for the NBA. Grant Hill is No. 7 on the list.
"When a corporation sees Michael Jordan, they don't see race. They see him adding $200 million to sales. The color they see is green," says Brian Murphy, editor and publisher of the Westport, Conn.,-based Sports Marketing Letter.
"It's a good change," he says.
And a recent one, too. Black athletes have appeared on and off in commercials over the years, though usually in ads aimed at members of their own race. Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier 50 years ago, did some sponsorship work. Home-run king Henry Aaron pitched Magnavox televisions. But sustained, top-dollar deals were the province of white athletes.
The change began gradually, tracking the liberalization of racial attitudes in society at large. Among the trailblazers was O. J. Simpson, who landed a lucrative deal with Hertz rental cars in 1975. The company wanted to use the speedy Buffalo Bills running back to highlight its speedy service.
Then came "Mean" Joe Greene's landmark, 1979 television commercial for the Coca-Cola Co. The 60-second spot, in which a game-battered Greene trades his jersey for a 12-year-old boy's Coke, is remembered as one of the most effective ads in history and a turning point in the casting of black athletes.
Greene, though well known among sports fans, was not as popular, accomplished or polished as Simpson. As such, his success in reaching white audiences through the ad can be seen as historic, says Marty Blackman, head of Blackman & Raber, a New York firm that matches advertisers with sports figures.
"It showed that a black athlete, even one playing a non-glamorous position, could sell product to a white audience. It opened the door," Blackman says.
Blackman, who had been hired by the advertising agency doing the ad, suggested Greene. Blackman had some doubts that a conservative, southern corporation would go for a 260-pound, black lineman. But the Atlanta-based Coke never flinched, he said. The ad won numerous awards and even spawned a made-for-TV movie.
Among Blackman's previous clients had been running back Jim Brown, who retired from the Cleveland Browns at the top of his game in 1966 to make movies. Though he was one of the best and most popular players to wear an NFL uniform, Brown's endorsement contracts were few. That can only partly be blamed on Brown's off-field controversies, Blackman says.
"You would give a client a list of 10 athletes and if five were white and five were black, they chose the white ones. You draw your own conclusions," he says.