There are no official records kept on such matters, but it is a fair guess that Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson is the first owner of a professional sports franchise to "raise the roof" while walking to the podium for his introductory news conference.
It was an unconscious gesture -- certainly, since being awarded the NBA's new team in Charlotte in December, Johnson has stressed he is the first black to hold majority interest in a U.S. professional sports team because of his billion-dollar bank account, not his racial sensibilities. Yet Johnson's raising his arms to hype the Charlotte crowd was a sharp example of the new vocabulary introduced into the sporting world's conversation now that someone from a different background has finally gotten a chance to speak at the ownership level.
Now, as diversity becomes an increasingly dominant issue in sports, Johnson's ascension has raised questions about making that conversation even more broad, particularly in the NBA, which has long been at the forefront of such efforts.
This weekend Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is using this NBA All-Star Game as an opportunity to explore opportunities for minorities at the highest levels of sports, and in a hotel conference room this morning, he and three other congressmen heard from a panel of experts on whether it was time to introduce legislation to force sports teams to diversify their coaching and management ranks.
"When we see a great many African Americans playing in sports, it gives a false impression that the world of athletics is one of equal opportunity. We need to create a different climate," Lewis said, adding his staff will begin discussing Title IX-like legislation that would affect colleges and antitrust exemption legislation that would affect professional teams.
According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, only six of the 145 major professional sports teams have black general managers and only four have black presidents. This could in part be because Johnson is the only black majority owner in all of sports; New York Islanders owners Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar are the only other minorities to hold major stakes of teams. All three are relatively new to team ownership, and there is a feeling that with their influence, some of those numbers could change.
"You want people making the decisions to pick the best talent regardless of race, creed or sex, and that's something I intend to do," said Johnson, who was not at the panel discussion this morning but has previously addressed the issue. "The thing is that you can't be competitive as a business if you are not even considering some of the people who could be your best players.
"When I'm on boards of directors, I bring up diversity all the time. It's right, it's good for business, and you lose talent if you don't make a point of considering everybody."
Still, while Johnson may be naturally inclined to include minorities in his job applicant pools, many others are not. Increasingly, leagues are finding they need to legislate that consideration, and the results have been mixed.
Major League Baseball has seen a dramatic increase in minority coaches since owners have been required to submit their coaching candidate slates to the league offices; 30 percent of the league's teams currently have minority managers. Yet when the NFL tried to adopt a similar policy recently, requiring each team to interview at least one minority candidate for all head coaching positions, it was almost immediately circumvented by the Detroit Lions, spurring an internal investigation.
To some coaches, mandating interview practices isn't the answer anyway. Jets Coach Herman Edwards recently said he's concerned that if minority coaches are given "courtesy" interviews too many times just to fill a requirement, they will gain reputations as not being able to interview well. Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy agreed, noting, "I think it is unfortunate that we haven't made decisions that have included more people. I don't know what it's going to take to get them in the process. The issue for the league is its 32 individual organizations that make decisions."
In fact, of all the professional sports leagues, only the NBA has been able to successfully spur its ownership groups to consistently put minorities in high-profile positions without internal legislation. The first black coach in professional sports (Bill Russell), the first black general manager (Wayne Embry) and the first black club president (Embry) all came from the NBA.
Such diversity can be traced in part to Commissioner David Stern, who said that over the years he's made it a priority to "suggest to owners at times that maybe their management wasn't getting access to a wide enough group of candidates." Necessity also played a role.
"You also have to remember that for a long time we were the least successful league, and we needed to be open to talent," Stern said. "When the Boston Celtics thought Bill Russell would lead [them] to a championship as coach, they took the plunge [in 1966], and the niceties of how it would look at the country club were not really observed in a rough-hewn league struggling to stay alive."
Decades later, that plunge has paved the way for 12 black coaches, four general managers, one president and one owner in the NBA, and their involvement, in turn, has shifted the tone and character of the league to something increasingly distinctive from that of other professional sports.
The NBA was the first to incorporate hip-hop music into its arena shows, the first to target the Internet as a way to reach younger fans. Its international marketing efforts have also been the most aggressive in sports as league officials have tried to ingratiate the game to people of all backgrounds and ethnicities.
"You have more people of different backgrounds making decisions, so, naturally, the way the league sounds is going to be different," said New Jersey Nets Coach Byron Scott. "People sometimes think the character of a league comes from the players on the court, and it does, but it also comes from above, from small things like cultural references that get slipped in here and there, to big decisions that are made with a different perspective."
Now, with Johnson in charge in Charlotte, many both in the sports and political worlds are watching closely to see how that character will continue to evolve. In a more serious follow-up to his roof-raising, Johnson has already hired Ed Tapscott to be his team's executive vice president; for years, many have considered Tapscott the most overqualified out-of-work minority executive in professional sports. How Tapscott and Johnson will fill out their staff, design the team's marketing campaigns and select vendor contracts are all matters of intense interest, Lewis said today.
So too is whether Johnson's involvement spurs other minority businessmen to more seriously consider owning a sports team, further diversifying the spectrum of a sports community that for a long time painted from only one palette.
"Having Bob Johnson in charge in Charlotte is going to have an influence, bring a different type of vibe to the game, and it's also going to be an example for young guys like me, who are interested in maybe owning a team one day," said New Orleans Hornets forward Jamal Mashburn, who is playing in Sunday's All-Star Game.
"You need to be able to look at someone who is like you and say, 'This can be done.' You need to have someone involved who sounds like you, and it's nice to see that finally start to happen."