Carolynn L. Johnson, CEO of DiversityInc, had a conversation with Howard Bryant during a Fireside Chat at the DiversityInc 2022 Top 50 Event on May 3.
Bryant said he was inspired to write Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field while working on his previous book The Heritage: Black Athletes, Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism.
During his conversation with Johnson, Bryant talked of how Colin Kaepernick taking a knee was one of the first displays of an athlete participating in political activism since the 1960s.
From the ’70s to the 2000s, athletes were seen as being set aside from society and its issues, given their financial success. But the response to Kaepernick’s protest said otherwise.
“As much as we talked about power and control and these athletes making so much money, how much power do you actually have if you lose your entire career by speaking?” Bryant asked. “Maybe these athletes have a lot of money, but they don’t have a lot of control. They don’t have a lot of agency. And money and power are not the same thing.”
Increasing Black Representation in Senior Management Ranks
Out of all the North American professional sports teams, Michael Jordan is the only Black majority owner with the Charlotte Hornets. When looking at Jordan, it’s easy to assume the player-to-management path is doable, if not common. Bryant questions this:
“There are so many other industries where the worker is a woman or a person of color, but we don’t assume that they are going to run the business. Why do we assume that because the NBA is 80% Black you’re going to have 80% Black coaches or Black executives or Black owners?”
A wealthy workforce doesn’t automatically provide access to the next level, the next promotion. Management in sports has the same DEI issues as any other industry, Bryant said.
Erasing Black Identity as a Condition of Success
On par with actors and musicians, athletes have a rare platform for advocacy. But the price of speaking up is not often dissected in the industry, according to Bryant.
“When I thought about [Kaepernick] kneeling and the athletes taking a larger voice, the issue was not protest. The issue was Blacks,” he said. “If Colin Kaepernick was taking the knee to save the whales, does he lose his entire career?”
This translates to other spaces. Climbing the corporate ladder has historically discouraged advocating for Black people.
“That person doesn’t get to be a mentor. You don’t get a chance to enter the business. And we’re talking about opportunities for growth. You’re talking about opportunities for wealth,” Bryant said.
Holding Leadership Accountable
Finding the right strategy to fight these issues isn’t easy — Bryant named his book Full Dissidence for that very reason. To share salaries and encourage camaraderie or to compete from the same side?
“We’re 12.5% of the population, so you’re trying to navigate being outnumbered in virtually all cases,” he said. “We’re talking about trying to navigate some form of strategy that allows me to survive.”