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Volume 22 No. 23
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Forum: Ross’ fundraiser places viability of RISE in question

The divisive political environment was evident again this month, as Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross put the future of his RISE organization in jeopardy by hosting a fundraiser for President Donald Trump.

Ross launched RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality) in 2015 to fight racial discrimination, improve race relations and address social justice. The organization is admirable, and RISE has partnered with the NFL, MLB, MLS, NCAA, NBC Sports, ESPN and USA Track & Field, among others. Its board consists of top leaders in sports, including Chairman Paul Tagliabue and five current commissioners.

But nerves within the organization are frayed after Ross faced heavy criticism for hosting the Trump fundraiser this month in the Hamptons. A number of sources told me they strongly discouraged Ross from participating in the event, knowing it would severely damage RISE’s efforts. But Ross went ahead, expressing surprise at the public outcry over the fundraiser. He was immediately put on the defensive by one of his own players — Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills, an active member of RISE — who expressed confusion with how committed Ross was to RISE’s mission. “It just doesn’t align to be running a nonprofit focused on equality,” he said. “You can’t play both sides of this.”

Last week on RISE’s website, a pop-up window immediately appeared with a message from CEO Diahann Billings-Burford. She touted Ross’ “exceptional leadership” on racial equality but understood “the sharp disappointment and criticism” of Ross’ decision on the Trump fundraiser. “While RISE will face challenges because of this decision, we are a strong organization with many deeply engaged partners that will remain mission-focused,” she wrote. “We are committed to our vision.”

RISE leaders are scrambling to assess what the long-term damage could be, and sources close to the organization said there will be a special meeting by early September. By then, RISE will know if it’s viable, and despite its strong partnerships and board, I’ll be watching to see if RISE can effectively keep the leagues and players engaged. They will have to work extremely hard to recapture the confidence of players like Stills, who spoke to Ross afterward to hash out differences, as well as others including Draymond Green and Stephen Curry. For many players, Ross’ position was inexplicable, as RISE espouses values seemingly incongruent to the president’s.

But supporters of Ross that I spoke with, while frustrated by the distraction, suggested that people look at his record and how he has invested more than $10 million to support RISE.

I understand RISE officials being angry with Ross for hosting the fundraiser; I can’t understand why Ross was surprised by the public outcry. But I don’t question his interest in social reform and justice. I led a discussion at the University of Michigan in 2016 that I still hear about — where attendees were riveted at a discussion between Ross and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert during the NFL player protests that fall. During their exchange, Ross anxiously edged up in his chair when discussing the issue of players kneeling, with Gilbert saying, “What do you want them to do? They want to express themselves.” Ross stressed the NFL players were starting a “conversation that needs to be had in this country.” Both Ross and Gilbert agreed that athletes can, and should, use their voices to effect social change, and the conversation was one of the most compelling exchanges I’ve ever been a part of.

The issues facing RISE came days before the NFL announced that Jay-Z and Roc Nation will play a major role in the league’s social justice program. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Patriots owner Robert Kraft led the talks with Jay-Z, and there are interesting components to this. Jay-Z, Kraft, Fanatics Chairman Michael Rubin and artist Meek Mill formed a criminal justice reform organization, REFORM Alliance. Kraft’s support of Trump is well-known, but he didn’t host a fundraiser. Ross likely wonders if there are different standards here. But one can’t escape the fact that RISE’s organizational mission counters Ross’ political action — and that’s the black/white political prism we live in today.

RISE shouldn’t go away. It’s a valuable organization doing good things. If RISE dissolves because of Ross’ actions, what is accomplished? You discard four years of work and prevent future opportunity to do social good. RISE is more than Ross. It’s a group of strong sports organizations working together to address issues around race and ethnicity in America. If it was just Ross, it likely wouldn’t be viable. But the appeal of RISE is the depth and breadth of its board and constituency.

 

First Look podcast, with more on RISE and industry topics, at the 25:08 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.