Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 18
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Effort to advance race relations gathers steam

Not long after Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross decided to use the racially charged Richie Incognito incident as a teaching platform rather than to run from it, he dove headlong into his contact list, looking for those who could help him turn an idea into a movement.

He made the obvious call to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. But he also called the commissioners of the other sports leagues. He called the heads of every major network sports division. He asked them all to join him in support of what would become the nonprofit Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, an organization he founded to use sports to advance race relations.

On Friday, RISE launched a nationwide campaign that will show off an unprecedented alliance of most of the larger sports properties, including the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS and NCAA, and supported by all the major sports networks: ESPN, Fox, CBS, NBC and Turner.

In a series of public service announcements that will run across most sports — in stadiums and arenas and during game broadcasts — some of the nation’s more prominent athletes, including Tom Brady and LeBron James, will invite fans to take a Rise To Win pledge at the organization’s website, promising to stand up against racism.

The campaign debuted Saturday. A spot featuring athletes, coaches and students was scheduled to air in-stadium at Michigan, where Ross got his undergraduate degree and has donated more than $300 million. Those featuring NFL players will begin running in-stadium and on-air this week.

Other athletes who will appear in spots that will air nationally include NFL players Antonio Brown, Larry Fitzgerald and DeMarcus Ware and NBA MVP Stephen Curry.

Several athletes have filmed spots in support of RISE.
“What I found as I made calls is that [the leagues and networks] were all interested,” said Ross, whose franchise found itself in the middle of a front-burner social issue in 2013 when Incognito, a veteran offensive lineman, used racial slurs while harassing a teammate. “People recognized the problem. If they can have an impact, they want to be a part of it.”

The PSAs will point fans toward the RiseToWin.org website, where they can pledge to treat others with respect and speak out against racism and discrimination. A photo app allows users to upload a photo, apply team colors and share it along with the tag “Rise To Win” across social media. The app turns the image to black and white, leaving team colors as the only colors.

RISE also plans activation at stadiums and arenas, a series of town hall meetings that address inclusion issues, and an education program designed for athletes, coaches and parents.

“A PSA by itself doesn’t do [anything],” Ross said. “Another PSA is another PSA. But you roll it out and then once it starts to get real traction you start to … raise the money it will take to create a whole program that can make a difference.”

The stadium activation debuts at Michigan, where a RISE photo booth will allow fans to take the pledge and post their image on the RISE site and on their own social media accounts. Ann Arbor also likely will be the first site for a RISE town hall meeting, for which organizers are targeting the first half of next year.

The educational program also is in development, with University of Central Florida sports management program founder Richard Lapchick designing a pilot program to be tried at two high schools, educating high school athletes on issues of race in sports. Rise plans to develop similar programs for elementary age and college athletes, as well as parents and coaches.

“Each league has different sets of processes and hoops we have to jump through to make this happen,” said RISE Executive Director Ndidi Massay, an attorney who worked previously at ABC and ESPN. “It was a lot of deal-making with the leagues and organizations to actually execute all this. It speaks to the power of the issue that they’re all here. Race relations in our country is at a crisis. I think everyone recognizes it. And I think everyone recognizes that together we can really make a difference.”

Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations and the league’s point of contact on the project, said he first learned the specifics of the program when Goodell called to say Ross had inquired about the level at which the league would participate.

“It was clear we had to be involved,” Vincent said. “We always talk about the power of the game. This is really where we can put that to work, facing this issue in our society. If we can make a difference here, what could be more powerful? RISE isn’t going to be the answer to this issue, but it can be part of it.”