The recent purchase of the Denver Broncos football franchise by a majority-Black ownership group could pave the way for more minority-owned NFL teams.
Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson said the new ownership, which includes two Black female owners, was a historic move for diversity in the NFL.
“What a tremendous accomplishment and what a gift to be able to do what she’s going to do,” Wilson said in June of Mellody Hobson, a co-CEO of Ariel Investments, which is part owner now of the Broncos.
“She’s the first Black woman to do this. This is a big deal. This is history,” Wilson told USA Today in that June interview. “I think it’s gone over people’s heads a little bit. It’s news. It’s a tremendous representation for minorities, but Blacks in particular.”
On Aug. 9, the Walton-Penner group — composed of former Walmart Chairman Rob Walton, his daughter Carrie Walton-Penner and his son-in-law Greg Penner — purchased the Broncos for a record-breaking $4.65 billion, the highest price in history for a sports franchise.
“We are grateful for the support and trust of the National Football League and the 31 other teams with today’s vote,” Walton told the NFL, on behalf of the ownership group. “We couldn’t be more excited to join the Denver Broncos.”
The three limited partners in the historic purchase include Hobson, legendary Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — all of whom are Black. Hobson, who was first approached to be a part of the organization by Walton, is reportedly the first Black woman to be publicly identified as part of an original ownership group purchasing an NFL team, according to The Athletic. Her selection was soon followed by the addition of Rice.
With all three individuals involved, this has become the most diverse ownership group in the league, a move that Greg Penner feels is necessary for continued success in the NFL.
“We wanted to add people that brought different perspectives and experiences and certainly we have that here,” Penner said. “Lewis, being the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) Formula One driver, Dr. Rice with all of her experience in politics and academics and world affairs, Mellody, as you know, an incredible businesswoman and her track record there,” Penner told The Associated Press.
“We’re big believers in bringing together different perspectives and experiences and backgrounds and that we think will make us more successful.”
Prior to the Broncos’ purchase, there were only two non-white owners of NFL teams and zero Black owners — a glaring statistic for a league in which an estimated 70% of players are either Black or a person of color. Kim Pegula, a South Korean woman, currently co-owns the Buffalo Bills with her husband, while Shahid Rafiq Khan, a Pakistani American, owns the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The NFL has made previous efforts to become more diverse, including enacting the 2003 Rooney Rule, which promised to put more effort into hiring and recruiting non-white coaches and executives.
However, some claim those efforts didn’t go far enough.
The league’s long-standing issues of race and hiring hit a fever pitch in February when Brian Flores, senior defensive assistant and linebacker coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, filed a lawsuit claiming racial discrimination against the NFL and three separate teams, including the Broncos.
After Flores was fired as the Miami Dolphins head coach in January, he claimed the league’s leadership racially discriminated against Black employees and said the NFL “lives in a time of the past.”
Flores said in the suit that the NFL “remains rife with racism, particularly when it comes to the hiring and retention of Black Head Coaches, Coordinators, and General Managers.”
In his lawsuit, Flores claimed Dolphins owner Stephen Ross orchestrated a pay-to-lose scheme in which Ross offered Flores $100,000 for every game he intentionally lost to forfeit the season for better draft picks.
Flores’ lawsuit also claimed that the Broncos interviewed him for a head coach position in 2019 only to satisfy the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to “interview with at least one external minority candidate” for the position.
Additionally, Flores claimed he found out that he was being excluded from an open New York Giants head coach position only after New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick mistakenly sent him a text message congratulating him for securing the role — which Belichick actually meant to send to Brian Daboll. At that point, Flores hadn’t yet had his interview with the Giants for the same position.
The NFL maintains that Flores’ lawsuit is “without merit” and in June filed a motion to force Flores’ class-action lawsuit into arbitration, according to the AP.
Flores’ plight as a Black coach transfers directly into the conversation surrounding more diverse representation in ownership within the NFL.
In his lawsuit, Flores said he believes the NFL must work to “ensure diversity of ownership by creating and funding a committee dedicated to sourcing Black investors to take majority ownership stakes in NFL Teams.”
The recent purchase of the Denver Broncos is a pivotal move in the right direction for the NFL, a league that currently has only three black coaches.
“Thinking about the ownership group with Lewis, Mellody, and Dr. Rice, this is a rare atmosphere that we’re in right now,” Wilson told the Denver Post days after the sale was finalized. “It’s amazing to see African-American people leading and being a part of this.”