Nats' no-brainer: minority ownership

This week, Bud Selig is expected to name baseball's choice to be the new owners of the Washington Nationals, who have been owned and operated by Major League Baseball since February of 2002. Selig has a big opportunity with this decision to continue the improvement in baseball's hiring practices for race that already has been a mark of his tenure as commissioner. As the majority of Washington's population is African-American, a choice of the so-called Smulyan group, named for its leader, Jeff Smulyan, would be another sign of Selig's determination to keep the issue of race on the sport's front burner. More than $50 million of the Smulyan group's capital comes from African-American partners.

I am convinced that the African-American investors in the Smulyan group will be real partners in the team's decision-making. The group includes former NFL stars Calvin Hill, Art Monk and Charles Mann, as well as Eric Holder, a former deputy attorney general, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and superior court judge.

There are also visible and high-profile African-American minority owners, including Colin Powell and Vernon Jordan, in one of the other groups (led by Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients) thought to be among the front-runners to be chosen by baseball. Somehow, I see the likes of Hill, Monk and Mann being more hands-on in the running of the team than Powell and Jordan would be; and Holder has been announced as the Smulyan group's liaison between ownership and community organizations in Washington, as part of their city-wide efforts to reach the people. Also, I understand the amount to be invested by the Malek-Zients group's African-American supporters is a fraction of the total investment promised by Hill, Holder, Mann and Monk in the Smulyan group.

Some have criticized Smulyan, who is from Indiana, as an outsider, compared to the local ownership efforts of some of the other groups. But while he might live outside Washington, more than half of the equity in his group is based locally; and half of that, 25 percent of the total investment, is African American. Many of the members of the Smulyan group have spent their entire lives in the District, and have a record of significant action in the community.

Coincidental to the timing of Selig's decision, I will release the 2006 version of the MLB Racial and Gender Report Card this week as the Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. That report will show improvement; but we recognize, too, that baseball still has a long way to go regarding the diversity of its team's front offices.

Much has been said and written about the selection process -- the time and care the commissioner's office has taken to arrive at a final decision -- for the Nationals' ownership. In a city where the majority of the population is of color, choosing an ownership group whose membership is more than 25 percent African-American would send a strong signal about Major League Baseball's commitment to the city's residents.

The Nationals, as run by MLB, have given Selig the opportunity to "walk the talk." Under baseball's ownership of the franchise, Omar Minaya became the first Latino general manager in the history of the sport; and an African-American, Frank Robinson, has been the team's manager since 2002.

Selig, of course, helps choose who works in the MLB's central office, where nearly 30 percent of the professionals are people of color -- more than twice the average for front office personnel on the individual teams. Years before the NFL's Rooney Rule, which mandates interviews for people of color in the hiring process for head coaches, Selig instituted a similar policy in MLB.

Now, the Nationals provide him with one more opportunity for progress, and this one might be the biggest of all.

The three ownership group front-runners all obviously have the means and the business acumen to make the Nationals succeed. But a team with visible African-American ownership should provide a real jolt of optimism for African-Americans not only in Washington but around the nation as well. The percentage of African-American players in Major League Baseball has been on a steady downward slide for more than a decade, so a presence in the ownership ranks would be a much-needed positive influence for the game as children, with the advice of their parents, are deciding which sport to play.

According to Hill, designated as the Smulyan group's chair, the team has promised to have a hiring advisory committee "to ensure that the employees of the team reflect the diversity of Washington, D.C. Our mission will be to advise the team president on ways to fulfill the Group's commitment that the Washington Nationals organization will be among the most diverse, if not the most diverse, Major League Baseball franchise in the country."

That won't be too difficult. MLB currently has no team presidents, and only two general managers, of color. The Smulyan group has promised to hire people of color in many of the top positions.

In the 2005 MLB season, more than 16 percent of senior team administrators were people of color, an increase from 14 percent. This category includes, but is not restricted to, the following job titles: directors, assistant general managers, chief legal counsel, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, public relations director and director of community relations. That's a good sign, but it's still short of the numbers in the central office that the commissioner leads.

So if the Nationals are successful on this front, it will boost Selig's attempts to increase the diversity of team front offices.

The Smulyan group's promise continues this way: The group's second major goal is have an effective, everyday presence in the city with service to the community as a real commitment. Holder, who will oversee the Community Outreach Council, said, "It will bring together community leaders and organizations to develop and implement the Nationals' plans for community service. We plan to work closely with the D.C. City Council and the greater Washington community. Our Advisory Council will make sure that baseball is a relevant part of the lives in every community and neighborhood in this great city."

That might also affect the numbers of young African-Americans who play baseball.

During the 2005 MLB season, 59.9 percent of the players were white, nine percent were African-American, 29 percent were Latino and three percent were of Asian descent. That percentage of African-American players was the lowest in 26 years.

The increasingly low numbers of African-Americans in MLB reflects an empty pipeline from colleges, high schools and youth leagues. African-Americans simply are not playing baseball in numbers nearly as strong as football and basketball. I believe the steady decline of interest in baseball in the African-American community stems from several factors.

• The rise in popularity of basketball and football in the African-American community has been enormous. We see that reflected in youth sports and on high school and college teams, and in the NBA (where nearly 80 percent of players are African-American) and the NFL (67 percent).

• Baseball is more expensive to play than basketball, which requires only a hoop and a ball. Not even 30 percent of Washington, D.C., high schools can afford to field a baseball team. And Howard University, the area's flagship historically black college, recently dropped baseball. For decades, youth baseball fields in urban America have either been nonexistent or in disrepair. Baseball's RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) has helped, but that enterprise is still so new that youth who've participated in those programs have not yet reached the college or minor league levels in any significant number.

• There arguably are fewer African-American superstars in baseball now than there were 20 years ago, when 24 percent of MLB players were African-American. For example: Over the decade of the 1980s, three of the top 10 leaders in batting average and home runs were African-American, as were five of the top 10 RBI leaders. Between 2000 and 2005, five of the top 10 leaders in batting average, home runs and RBI were Latino. Today, the NBA and NFL boast legions of African-American stars who are role models for children. Baseball's biggest African-American name right now probably is Barry Bonds, who is in the midst of great controversy.

• Since the infamous 1987 remark by Al Campanis, then the L.A. Dodgers VP, that "Blacks may not have the necessities" to be baseball managers and general managers, many parents of African-American children have been communicating a baseball-does-not-welcome-us message to their children.

I believe that if baseball can highlight the popularity of the game among young people in Washington, it would begin to build national interest in communities of color across the nation. Ownership, commitment and opportunity are at stake in the commissioner's choice of an ownership group for the Nationals.

Whenever Selig has had control, opportunities for people of color have increased. And he has control here.

Richard Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity and ethics in sport.