The growth of the American sports industry throughout history has mirrored the United States’ journey to freedom, in many cases leading our society in breaking down social barriers that once barred participation of women and racial minorities in the pastimes now enjoyed by all. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball in 1945, sparking the changes in the hearts and minds of Americans that resulted in integrated school systems nine years later with the ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education.
But while the playing fields have since boasted tremendous opportunities for women and minorities, the business side of sports has lagged behind. Today, however, due to the efforts and achievements of several who have been able to ascend to the top, more doors are opening for women and people of color to play pivotal roles in the sports industry.
The following are five key players in the sports business game who have achieved at unprecedented levels, thanks to the proliferation of opportunities that slowly but surely persists in America.
Three People in Sports Business Who Embody Freedom:
Former Head Coach of the Indianapolis Colts
In 2007, Tony Dungy made NFL history by becoming the first African American coach to win the Super Bowl. He and Chicago Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith made cultural and Super Bowl history, playing against each other that year. This opportunity was one that epitomized freedom to them on more than one level.
During the trophy ceremony, Coach Dungy said, “I’m proud to be the first African-American coach to win this. But again, more than anything, Lovie Smith and I are not only African-American but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord’s way. We’re more proud of that.”
Dungy catalyzed the proliferation managerial diversity in the NFL by helping to implement the Rooney Rule, championed by Steelers owner Dan Rooney, which requires teams to interview minority coaches for open positions.
His achievements in the NFL drove him to expanding opportunities for others to come behind him. Dungy was a mentor to many, including Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers’ first African-American head coach and youngest head coach in NFL history to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory.
Anaheim Angels Owner
“Arte” Moreno, a fourth-generation Mexican-American, began a new chapter in Latin-American history, opening the doors to ownership in Major League Baseball and other US professional sports when he bought the Anaheim Angels from Disney in 2003.
Historically there have been many Latin-American athletes to excel in baseball, but none have had such success on the business side until Arte.
He not only became the first Latino to own a major US sports franchise, but also changed the rules of the game by lowering ticket and concession prices while still investing in top-notch players.
These strategic moves made the team more fan-friendly, drawing a record 3.4 million fans and expanding the team’s reach beyond Orange County, and took the Angels to the playoffs the following year.
Entrepreneur, Part-Owner Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics
Co-founder of the BET network, Sheila Johnson’s entrepreneurial skill catapulted her to the top in the media and sports industries. As Vice Chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, majority owner of the Washington Mystics and a minority owner of the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals, Johnson is the first black woman with an ownership stake in three professional sports teams. She is also the second wealthiest African-American woman in the United States.
African-American women have perpetually been at the bottom of the social totem poll in the United States, last to receive citizenship and voting rights and bearing the brunt of discrimination for centuries. Johnson’s business success, particularly in the traditionally white male-dominated sports industry, is a mark of exponential progress that should encourage women and minorities alike.
The climate in America, corporate America in particular, is changing for the better, with more women and minorities empowered to exercise the freedoms this country was built on in positions of leadership. As our great nation celebrates 237 years of independence, we are reminded of the many men and women who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today. To those who laid down their lives and stood up for our rights, we are eternally grateful. And we look to those who continue to transcend opposition as models of freedom in sports business and other industries, paving the way for the next generation of leaders to come.