The evolution of the national conversation surrounding racial justice over the last decade has been remarkable, and football has been its unlikely steward. When Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the National Anthem at a preseason game in August 2016, he helped draw attention to the disparate outcomes based on race present in our criminal justice system. After conversations with members of our esteemed veterans’ community, he decided to continue the effort by kneeling, suggested to him as a way to show concern in line with the way the military honors the fallen. From there the protest wave rolled through NFL teams, other sports leagues, and crashed into family dinners and water cooler conversations around the world.
It spurred many of us to learn more about systemic racial bias, experience personal epiphanies, and act in support of the communities most directly affected. I am grateful for each and every person who has moved the needle on this topic: longtime police veterans who have created better training for colleagues; groups advocating for better pay and hours for law enforcement; legislators and activists crafting bold policy changes; everyday folks causing “good trouble” in lawful protest…. The list goes on.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been a “business guy” since ending my career as an NFL running back in 2011, but I tend to see every social issue we tackle as a society, like the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC communities, through an economic lens. So inevitably, my mind always ends up on the racial wealth gap. According to the Urban Institute, the median wealth of a white family is $171,000, while the median wealth of a Black one is $17,000. If you believe that talent and capability are equally distributed across all groups of people, then a disparity like this should not exist. In short, “that s— ain’t right.”
For me, this means that a fundamental “underlying condition” of unequal racial outcomes is the existence of systemic barriers hindering the economic advancement of Black (and Latinx and Indigenous) Americans. These barriers range from the lasting effects of the overt, legal discrimination of our very recent history to the lingering cultural practices in businesses that make it harder for Black talent to find employment and advance.
At its core, the racial wealth gap in America exists because financial, intellectual and relational capital reach Black individuals and organizations less often and in smaller amounts. However, professional sports, and football in particular, presents a unique model, in that the bulk of the operating budget goes to player salaries—and 70%+ of those players are Black. This notable exception to the typical flow of capital gives us an opportunity to examine ways in which football can play an outsized role in closing the racial wealth gap, how we can do our part in generating the $1 trillion-plus in GDP (that benefits everyone in our country) that can be realized if the gap is closed.
So, what can football do?
The capital flowing to Black athletes has the potential to create Black families and businesses that can pass down generational wealth. I made almost $5 million over my seven years in the NFL, and while this isn’t turning any heads in sports, it was still 20-30 times more than the average Black man in his 20s would make over the same time. I took some advantage of my financial situation by simply being cheap as hell (I drove a Ford Fusion for most of my NFL career), but there was so much more I could’ve done, and many players today are figuring this out. One of my teammates, Jamal Lewis, stood out as a great example, as he owned a lucrative trucking company while playing ball in the league. He eventually sold it, but he continues to build and run companies today. Larry Fitzgerald was a nascent financier when we were teammates in Arizona, and he has since blossomed into a sophisticated investor with a dynamic portfolio that skews toward tech and financial services companies. Beyond football, Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures is the gold standard for how an athlete can multiply his or her capital.
A common thread among them all was their ability to see themselves as “more than an athlete,” as a living business that could both generate and deploy capital. That mindset is transformative. A young man who comes into the league thinking about how to create a $5 million social media content business built on his brand is going to fare extremely well financially, even if he falls short of his target goal. He will make sound personal financial decisions and walk away from sports with an understanding of business (cash flow discipline, customer analytics), which will generate capital for his family in the future. How many Black businesses might this create over time? How many Black families might jump one or two socio-economic brackets due to the capital flowing from those businesses? What is the boost to the overall economy and the fiscal health of our nation that could come of this?
One could argue that a substantial number of players are not around long enough to have investable capital. While true, there is usually plenty of time to cultivate meaningful relationships with football-loving executives and influential leaders, who can create wealth-generating opportunities in the future. I wish I had saved every business card I was handed and spent as much time getting to know these folks as I did on a variety of other free-time shenanigans. The intellectual and relational capital they can provide, in the form of advice and connections, is invaluable and something often not available to Black people. Since retiring I’ve learned that opportunities are not truly generated by how hard you work but by who you know. As the NFLPA and League-sponsored programs continue to promote these activities, and savvy guys take advantage of them, my hope is that we will see a steady march towards closing the wealth gap.
Football teams, too, can do our part. While the numbers are confidential—yes, I’m officially a “suit” now, sorry y’all—we each spend substantial amounts of money with vendors each year to provide a world class gameday experience. From food services to IT to security and parking, businesses of all types can benefit from the capital we invest on behalf of our fans. I’ve got a lot to do as I step into my role as team President in Washington, especially creating a workplace where women feel respected and empowered. However, in addition, I will look under the hood on procurement and see how we select the companies we partner with. Do they employ a workforce that demographically reflects the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area? What about the company’s ownership and executive team? What companies do they subcontract to when executing the work? Beyond race, I’ll ask, are we effectively working with Veteran-owned, female-owned businesses? I want our capital to be doled out equitably, and I don’t believe we have to sacrifice any quality to the fan experience to get this done (NMSDC, I’ll be in touch!).
And as we think about building a new stadium, I’m eager to see how much of the significant capital that will be poured into its construction and operation can flow to businesses that don’t typically get into the mix. Further down the line, as the stadium drives new economic growth for the region, I want to know its benefits will be felt by businesses of all types and families of all demographics. My hope is that the rising tide of a new stadium can lift all boats economically if we are thoughtful and intentional. As Black (and other!) businesses and families thrive, the wealth they create will close the racial wealth gap and lift the entire economy through increased consumption and appreciation of the financial and physical assets finally available to Black households.
A true win-win doesn’t ever exist on the playing field, but it’s my mission to make it a reality here.
Jason Wright is the president of the Washington Football Team and a former NFL running back. After retiring from the game as a player in 2011, Wright earned his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business before joining the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where he was a partner.
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