By Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr,
President and CEO
Even before Coach Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the National Football League claiming the league discriminated against Black coaches in their hiring practices, it was pretty clear that professional football has a race issue.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida recently found that, in 2021, around 71 percent of the players in the NFL were people of color, while only a quarter were white. Yet of the league’s 32 teams, only three head coaches are people of color. And only two team owners are non-white: Jacksonville Jaguars’ owner Shahid Kahn is a Pakistani-American and Kim Pegula, a Korean American, is a co-owner of the Buffalo Bills.
In a league whose players are overwhelmingly Black, there needs to be more representation in the front office of people who look like the athletes that take the gridiron each Sunday.
With the Denver Broncos expected to hit the market sometime this off-season, now is probably the best time in the 101-year history of the NFL for the league to have its first Black team owner and to begin to change the plantation mentality that has plagued professional football for decades.
When considering potential buyers of the team, one name continually rises above the rest: Robert F. Smith.
Smith, the 59-year-old founder of private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, whose net worth is estimated to be around $6.7 billion, may not have the star power that other potential buyers do (i.e., former Broncos quarterbacks Peyton Manning and John Elway or Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos). But what he does have is a long track record of success in the largely white world of investment. He has an ability to see value where others do not, successfully investing in emerging enterprises and quickly making them profitable. Consider, for example, that Vista currently has $86 billion in assets under management.
And the Broncos could certainly use some of Smith’s magic given that the team hasn’t had a winning record since the 2015-16 season when they won the Super Bowl.
Putting aside Smith’s investing acumen and ability to grow emerging businesses, his up-from-the-bootstraps story and expansive philanthropic work in the Black community would go a long way to changing the make-up of a NFL ownership from its traditional purview of stodgy, old white men.
For one, Smith is a Denver native whose curiosity, intelligence and drive led him to a job with Bell Laboratories when he was just in high school. From there, Smith went on to Cornell and Columbia universities and jobs with Goodyear, Kraft, and Goldman Sachs before founding Vista Equity in 2000.
What his resume shows is that Smith is not afraid of breaking down walls and inserting himself into traditional bastions of whiteness like the Ivy Leagues and private equity. If there is any Black man in America who could take on the lily-white structure of NFL ownership, it’s Robert Smith.
If the NFL is serious about changing not just its image, but its relationships with its players and fan base, then Smith would also be an ideal partner for the league. He not only talks a big game about racial equity, but he backs it up by putting money where his mouth is.
In 2019, Smith spent $34 million of his own money to settle the loan debt for the nearly 400 students who graduated that spring from Morehouse College. He also donated $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the largest by an individual donor to the museum at the time, and he helped found and donated $50 million to the Student Freedom Initiative, which aims to relieve the financial burdens on minority college students.
Through Vista, Smith has also spearheaded the Southern Communities Initiative, a consortium of companies working to address problems facing communities of color in the South, where almost 60 percent of all Black Americans live. Through the SCI, Smith hopes to tackle pressing issues like substandard education and workforce development opportunities, housing and healthcare inequalities, the digital divide, limited access to capital, and physical infrastructure failures in these communities.
In an argument about integrating professional football, Black activist and journalist Halley Harding wrote in the Los Angeles Tribune in 1941 that “most persons, corporations or businesses almost always forget the people or incidents that made them big.”
Harding added: “This story is about a great American sport [football] that took all the aid the colored American could give and then as soon as it became ‘big league,’ promptly put a bar up against the very backbone of its existence.”
These words could just as aptly be applied to the NFL today as they did back in the 1940s. But now, as America once again reexamines its turbulent past when it comes to race, the NFL probably has its best chance in years to right a glaring gap in its leadership when it comes to the Broncos. And if there is anyone who can fill that gap, it’s Robert Smith.