From the Undergraduate Sports Business Club Journal
Written by Michael Beavers, USBC Journal Editor, Class of 2019
Wednesday, April 26 The Wharton Sports Business Initiative and University of Pennsylvania Center for Africana Studies put on a truly memorable event. They hosted a panel with an all-star lineup, including Sonny Vaccaro, John Carlos, Preston Brown, Anita DeFrantz, and moderated by Professor Ken Shropshire. Sonny Vaccaro is known sports marketing mastermind who at times has been affiliated with major shoe companies including Nike, Adidas and Reebok. Several of Vaccaro’s many accomplishments include beginning the sponsorship of college basketball programs’ sneakers, signing Michael Jordan to Nike, thus creating the Air Jordan sneaker line, and working with Ed O’Bannon on O’Bannon v. NCAA. John Carlos, the 1968 Olympic bronze medal winner, was notorious for raising his fist during the medal ceremony and has since served as an advocate for civil rights and the black community. Preston Brown, former Division I scholarship athlete with Tulane, is the head coach of the Woodrow Wilson High School Football team, and initiator of a team-wide protest of the National Anthem this past fall. Anita DeFrantz was a 1976 Olympic Rowing Bronze medalist, member of the International Olympic Committee, Director on the board of the United States Olympic Committee, Vice President of FISA (International Rowing Federation), and President of the LA84 Foundation, which is a nationally recognized leader in support of youth sport programs and public education about the role of sports in positive youth development. Wharton Legal Studies Professor and Director of WBSI, Kenneth Shropshire moderated the panel in his final event as a Penn faculty member prior to his retirement.
The event certainly featured some harsh realisms, reflections, and recollections from each of the panelists. Preston Brown reflected on how his mother was a drug addict and his father was typically away from home, thus leaving him without his two upmost strongest influences in his life, and forcing his grandmother, an immigrant from Haiti during the 1930’s, to raise him alone. He spoke on how she taught him from an early age that many things that White people are afforded in this country don’t always translate to Black Americans the same way, which prompted him to refrain from standing for the national anthem and pledge of allegiance starting as early as his pre-teen years. There was significant irony in that his refusal to recognize the anthem never received any attention until this fall, when he led his team to take a knee, following Colin Kaepernick’s statement with the 49ers.
John Carlos also provided plenty of memorable anecdotes throughout the evening, including an instance where he witnessed three white boys beating up a fourth white boy, but when he attempted to intervene on behalf of the one being attacked, that same kid called him a nigger and told to mind his business despite Carlos’ efforts to save him from continued assault and agony. Sonny Vaccaro spoke on how colleges continually exploit and profit off of student athletes. He certainly opened plenty of eyes in claiming that the NCAA controls the youth of this nation.
The panelists also discussed some of the effects of racism that they’ve experienced as a result of their activism. Brown talked about the hate mail he’s received as a result of his team’s stance, which included his players being labeled as stupid and illiterate in association with their origins from the city of Camden, New Jersey. He said he received over 1,700 Facebook requests, many of which were to curse him out, call him and his players the N-word, and assert that nobody on the team will amount to anything in life.
Carlos spoke on how someone sent a letter to his home stating, “He would kidnap his father, rape him, and then slice him up into small pieces and send them back to him.” Then came a humorous moment in a tense situation where he remarked, “I lost respect for him not because of what he did but because of what he didn’t do. He didn’t put the return address so I could find him and beat his ass!” Carlos also reflected on how his dad had asked him why he was doing “bad things” overseas, and how expansive and manipulative racism can be when one’s own father could believe that standing up for his rights, black rights, and human rights could be a negative act.
Some panelists further engaged the audience by recalling encounters with fellow celebrities and
star athletes. Vaccaro spoke on how current NBA player Brandon Jennings was at one point the poster child for players that colleges deny athletic scholarships because of test scores or perceived cheating in order to reach minimum standards. He discussed the unfairness of the situation and how he played a key role in getting Jennings to play a year overseas in Europe instead of at the University of Arizona. Carlos mentioned how O.J. Simpson proclaimed that he didn’t understand the purpose of Carlos’ actions. He also mentioned that George Foreman told him that he did not agree or disagree with his choice, but he knew that at the end of the day he had to feed his family. One could easily look at these quotes and draw parallels to athletes today, who decline to speak out against injustices due to fear of retribution from the media, their coaches, teammates, front offices, and leagues. Activism is often viewed as something that could interfere with a paycheck. Furthermore, some athletes are more like O.J., in that they lack a full understanding of these complex issues, making them unable to voice either an educated opinion or afraid to voice an opinion at all.
Though there were harsh and perhaps discouraging moments, there was plenty of inspiration from the panel as well. While Preston Brown received a great amount of hate mail and racist messages on Facebook, he also shared that he received a great amount of support as well. Some of the 1,700 Facebook requests were from old acquaintances and strangers that wanted to share how much they admired what he and his team were doing, and giving his props for taking such a bold stand. He also was interviewed and followed by BBC, allowing him to show the viewers the conditions in Camden and share his personal mission. It led to an outpouring of support from around the world, including the Netherlands, Ireland, Poland, and more. He and John Carlos reflected on others, saying they knew many people who wouldn’t have made the statements they did at the moments they did, but after seeing the aftermath, they would love to be a part of it if it were to happen again. It further displayed how they were pioneers, rather than followers.
The event concluded with each panelist giving some words of encouragement and final thoughts in regard to the future of sports and its role in activism. Brown shared a quote from his grandmother that read “Suffocate the world with your greatness, make them know who you are.” He questioned who the next Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, or next Black Civil Rights leader would be to step up to the plate, saying while he considers himself to be a prime candidate for the task, he also wants to see several others attempt to take the challenge as well. Anita DeFrantz concluded with the need to remember our activist past as well as the history of Black excellence, and encouraged all young people to ask for help if they needed, as this is what fosters progress. Vaccaro shared a personal anecdote to illustrate resilience and fortitude. Carlos wrapped things up by proclaiming that individuals must “Fight the power,” and “Each one teach one.” He elaborated that in order to see change structures in place that exist to obstruct and impede must be confronted head-on and lastly, that people must learn from one another and work collaboratively to make society better for all people.