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Friday, August 13, 2010
Time to take ownership

By LZ Granderson

When I first heard Jay-Z's "99 Problems" back in 2004, three things struck me right away. Obviously, the chorus was one. Rick Rubin's guitar-driven track was another. And then there's this:

Rap mags try to use my black ass
So advertisers can give them more cash for ads
I don't know what you take me as
Or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has ...

Jay-Z, of course, wasn't the first artist to talk negatively about the media, but his lyrical approach and vocal delivery wasn't as much an angry me-against-them attitude as it was "I see what you're doing, and I want in." He understood the power he held and demanded to be a partner, not a well-heeled pawn.

LeBron James and Jay-Z
If LeBron James follows the business path of Jay-Z and his other business mentors, he could one day own his own NBA franchise and have to deal with superstar egos from the other side.

That level of self-actualization is the next evolutionary step that minority athletes will take in completing their journey from exclusion to inclusion in professional sports. Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, Curt Flood brought about free agency and players since have smashed on-field and contract records. Now, athletes of color must move past in-fighting over one more golden egg -- clubhouse spats over Japanese versus Spanish translators -- and realize they are the goose.

Rosters in the NBA are 80 percent minority, in the NFL are 70 percent and in the MLB are 40 percent, and yet there are only two majority owners of color (out of 92 in the three leagues): Arturo Moreno of the Los Angeles Angels and Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats.

The richest of those three leagues, the NFL, has never had a majority owner, CEO or president of color in its 90-year history. Over the past two decades, it is estimated that the NFL has tripled its revenue to $8.5 billion a year. Its goal is to pull in $25 billion annually by 2025. And it's not just pro football. Revenues for the NBA (approximately $3.68 billion in 2009-10) and MLB ($6.6 billion in 2009) have also grown in recent decades.

Player salaries will undoubtedly reflect that growth. May I suggest instead of dumping their growing pool of money into the kind of glitzy, depreciating assets that are normally showcased on MTV's "Cribs," minority athletes should position themselves to shatter the glass ceiling of ownership with the goal of reaping a bigger harvest of the land they helped till?

Just as older coaches groom former players to become future coaches, executives should be mentoring players with potential to own a franchise. Heckle LeBron James all you want, but the company he keeps -- businessmen such as Warren Buffett, David Geffen and yes, Jay-Z -- suggests that by the time he retires, he'll not only have the resources, but the tools to be the majority owner of a sports franchise if he so chooses.

There are not many 25-year-olds in any industry you can say that about, and that to me is the true sign of progress. Kevin Garnett famously screamed "anything is possible" after the Celtics won the 2008 NBA championship. If he joined Jordan in ownership of a team, I just might believe him.

Now, I hear the cry of the naysayers loud and clear. Yes, it takes a lot of capital to purchase a team; no, the opportunities to purchase a franchise are not plentiful; no, everyone does not have a head for business. Nothing exists in a vacuum and these are all valid points that help explain the status quo.

After all, just because a topic has a racial component does not mean it's tied to racist motives. Franchises such as the Steelers, the Yankees and the Lakers are family-owned businesses and will continue to be so for many game days to come. This column is not an indictment of old, white men, but rather old ways of thinking.

When I was a kid, athletes dreamed of having their own shoes. Now I look at James, Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal and Albert Pujols, and I see men who could dream of owning teams when they retire.

Imagine if Marshall Faulk were in position to buy the St. Louis Rams, which are for sale, or if Magic Johnson decided to sell his minority stake in the Lakers and purchased a bigger hunk of the Detroit Pistons, which is the latest scuttlebutt around the league. I can't think of a better sports rags-to-riches storyline than an athlete who brought championships to a franchise or grew up a fan of a team eventually becoming its owner. Not to negate the passion of businessmen-turned-owners such as Mark Cuban and Jerry Jones, but the idea of Derek Jeter one day buying the Yankees gives me chills.

Why does minority control matter?

Albert Pujols
The contacts and bankroll that Albert Pujols is building would be a good starting point for a trip to the owner's box.

Well, until there's more racially equitable representation at the owners' table, people of color will always be a guest at the party. They may get to strut down the red carpet entering the party, but they'll never be the host. It's akin to a Fortune 500 company with a strong diversity mission statement having no minorities on its executive team.

Players migrating from rich to wealthy and then to ownership is a natural and crucial progression in the professional sports industry, just as they have gone from being commented about on TV to being the commentators. Just as social media has enabled them to control their own messages, dictate their own branding, become more than well-heeled pawns and become true partners in the growth of the multibillion-dollar sports industry.

Now for many minority athletes, being at the party is enough, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Grown men are allowed to spend their money any way they want within the constructs of the law. But I am a believer of W.E.B. Dubois' Talented Tenth, a social theory that suggests one-tenth of the people in all races are exceptional and that they have the capacity to lead everyone else into a new day.

I believe there is a Talented Tenth within the professional athletic community. I believe this tenth will follow in Jordan's business steps and not be satisfied with having their own shoes or 1 million followers on Twitter. Just as actors have gone from exclusive studio contracts to running their own production companies and lawyers make partner, this Talented Tenth will mark the final and crucial step toward inclusion by owning pro sports franchises.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to He can be reached at