Another giant leap for black ownership

Discussing the history of African-American ownership in professional sports is like discussing moon landings in 1970. Then and now, there have been only a couple to address. They can be placed only in the context of what a wild fantasy it once had been.

Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, stepped into the Neil Armstrong role little more than two years ago when he was awarded the NBA's expansion Charlotte Bobcats, for roughly $300 million -- and many, if not all, black fans equated it to a moon landing, something that once seemed so unimaginable. Even after Johnson beat out a group led by legend Larry Bird, a mass e-mail circulated through in-boxes in African-American homes and businesses, weaving a colorful tale about what wonders would emerge from rich black athletes and entertainers pooling their resources and talents to purchase a pro team and advance the cause of black economic power. It was a "what-if" full of fancy and hopefulness, even if it was grounded in very little reality.

Now, black ownership is a reality in sports, and it's on the verge of expanding into America's biggest arena, with National Football League owners set to vote in March on Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler's bid to buy the Minnesota Vikings. For the first time, such a purchase has a history to which it can be compared. But the other 99 percent of the talk about it deals with the future, of Fowler's ownership and of the overall meaning of African-Americans embedded in the halls of power in sports.

"It's a great thing to have minorities in those positions," said Calvin Hill, the former NFL All-Pro running back and once a minority owner of baseball's Baltimore Orioles. "Usually the case is that when you bring minorities and women into those positions, you see a new and different way of doing things. You see a lot more creativity, a lot more openness to new things, and courage to try new paths, and to bring new people into areas they haven't been before.

"It sounds like he's like Robert Johnson," Hill said of Fowler. "He's an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs think outside the box."

The potential inclusion of Fowler into the select group of pro sports owners is, on the surface, a shift in a well-entrenched way of thinking. The belief for decades had been that it would take either a group fronted by a former player banking on his name and career earnings, or one of the tiny group of African-Americans with real wealth, not simply lots of money. That's why names like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and the late Reginald Lewis were the ones bandied about most -- even though none ever hinted at an interest in buying a team.

Attempts by former athletes never went very far. Hill himself once joined with Hall-of-Famer Paul Warfield to buy the Cleveland Browns. Among the major sports, existing or expansion teams were pursued unsuccessfully at various times by notable athletes including Walter Payton, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Willie Davis, Joe Morgan and Reggie Jackson. More often than not, the financing was never quite enough to either meet the asking price or to convince the league's owners to approve the sale. One that was approved, the sale of the NBA's Denver Nuggets to a group fronted by businessmen Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee in 1989, fell apart quickly, with both selling out within three unsuccessful years.

Blaming the sort of racism that kept blacks out of coaching and executive positions throughout history never felt quite appropriate. Rather, the defeats illuminated the theory that ownership was the only way to assure that such discriminatory hiring practices would cease. The other lesson was even simpler and understandable: money talks. The old bromide about green being the only color that counted was even more applicable on the question of ownership than it was about coaching and managing.

Fowler himself acknowledged that on the day he was introduced as the winning bidder. "I just happen to be black. [Owner Red McCombs] did not discount the price because of that," he said.

The ascent of Johnson to the NBA's owners club proved that. Commissioner David Stern has promoted the idea that his sport is open to people of every color at every level, and that they all should be judged on their production rather than their skin tone. Implicitly, that included ownership, and so it was no surprise that Stern's league broke the barrier.

Yet he described the milestone occasion in more practical, capitalistic terms. "The priorities [for approving the expansion Bobcats' owner] were simple -- knowledge and money and competence," Stern said during All-Star Weekend in Denver. "Bob is an entertainment person who had the money, and he could write the check himself ... and the owners fell in love with him.

"It's only about money and competence. Those are the only factors."

The NFL is already promising to scrutinize Fowler's money and competence, and most believe that will weigh more than the fact he will be the first face of color in their group. Fowler is general partner of a group putting up a reported $625 million for the Vikings. He has kept his personal wealth private so far, which leaves doubters with raised eyebrows since other details of his personal life have not held up well under the most cursory initial probe, when discrepancies about playing Little League baseball and in the NFL surfaced.

So far, there are no intimations about a double-standard being in place for him. Most believe, in fact, that deep down the NFL wants this as much as the NBA did. Fowler does fit the mold of new, young owners in recent years -- Dan Snyder, Steve Bischotti, even dating back to Jerry Jones in the late 1980s -- in terms of their imaginative ways of making money. Fans of all colors have focused on Fowler's race -- understandably, because he would be the first in the NFL and the second in any sport -- but just as much on the issues that directly affect the Vikings, such as their stadium problems, the possibility of their leaving Minnesota, and the exodus of Randy Moss.

A spokesperson for Fowler told The Associated Press it would be "inappropriate for Reggie to be commenting at this point" on Moss' trade since McCombs still calls the shots with his team, though Fowler did wonder aloud last week why anyone would want trade away one of the best players in the league.

Johnson's Bobcats have held their own on the court and off, playing surprisingly competitive ball and garnering praise for the way their front office was set up (two of the first hires were black men with lengthy resumes in the game at several levels: president Ed Tapscott and head coach/general manager Bernie Bickerstaff). Plus, the Bobcats will get a new arena next season, something the previous Charlotte franchise couldn't pull off before leaving for New Orleans three seasons ago.

When baseball brings African-Americans into majority ownership is anyone's guess, although it has already crossed the color barrier with Asian (Seattle Mariners) and Latino (Anaheim Angels) owners. The Oakland A's current owners have twice bypassed groups including prominent blacks, Morgan and Jackson respectively, in the past six years. On the other hand, black investors are involved in at least one of the groups vying for the Washington Nationals. In fact, Johnson had shown interest in buying the Expos before they were uprooted from Montreal.

What seemed so unrealistic earlier in this decade has now entered the realm of the possible -- for anybody with the proper bottom line. Future NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson said last weekend that he had other priorities to attend to in his early years of retirement, but he did not rule out wanting to get into ownership in later years. He admitted he thinks more about it now that he's seen it occur.

"In such a short period of time so much has happened, so many good things. You're talking about not long [ago] that there weren't many black players," Robinson marveled. "And the more opportunity we have to get into a spot like that to show what we can do in those situations, the better."

David Steele is a columnist for the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at david.steele@baltsun.com.