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Black Ownership Could Become Reality With Expansion Browns

NEWSDAY

As the NFL prepares for another season, nothing was done in the summer to discourage the practice of bypassing black candidates for head-coaching jobs. It gave the league a perception problem and raised suspicions in the coaching fraternity. It makes you wonder whether the trend is merely a quirky coincidence or if it goes deeper than that.

But while the uproar raged about the coaching situation, in another area, a quieter movement developed, this one much more significant, because black representation in ownership far outweighs any impact blacks could have on the sideline.

Two groups competing for the new Cleveland Browns franchise have diversity. Comedian Bill Cosby has aligned himself with a group that includes Charles Dolan, the cable TV king, while former players Paul Warfield and Calvin Hill are backed by New York real-estate developer Howard Milstein, who owns the Islanders. With the NFL expected to announce the winning bid in September for a franchise that may cost $400 million, there could be black owners in place before the next black coach is hired.

That would represent a fairly sizable victory, because sports ownership is virgin territory for blacks. What Jackie Robinson started in 1947 hasn’t spread to the boardroom. In the 51 years since Robinson, integration has made its way beyond all barriers except one.

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And this may be the toughest to penetrate, because bias lies less with the color of one’s skin than the color of one’s bank account. Most blacks just aren’t green enough.

The owners of sports teams received their toys through inheritance, bought them with old money or absorbed them through corporate takeover. Very rarely do you see someone like Red McCombs, a rich Texan, spend $205 million to buy the Vikings. That’s because the prices are beyond the reach of most individual owners. Today’s buyers are likely to be companies such as Disney and Fox, or a group of wealthy businessmen.

That pretty much cancels out blacks, because few head Fortune 500 companies or have a spare $250 million in the bank. Those who have money, the Oprah Winfreys, haven’t expressed any desire to buy into sports. Those who don’t must link themselves with wealthy white businessmen and run the risk of being labeled front-men and tokens.

Warfield and Hill have decided the risk is worth taking.

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“It would be nice to have a billion dollars and write the check myself,” Hill said. “But that’s not the case, and they don’t take Visa or American Express.”

In other words, partial ownership is better than none at all. And should they get the bid, Milstein would become a silent owner and allow Warfield and Hill to run the Browns. They would be managing general partners, a clout-carrying position held by such powerbrokers as Al Davis and Jerry Reinsdorf. Warfield and Hill wouldn’t be majority owners, they’d just act like ones.

“I see that,” Hill said, “as a step in the right direction.”

This would represent a minor breakthrough. Until now, the few blacks in ownership had small voices or none at all. Magic Johnson has a piece of the Los Angeles Lakers, yet hardly dictates policy, on or off the court. Deron Cherry is a glorified employee of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Isiah Thomas did control 8 percent of the Raptors but didn’t have the funds to acquire more before he was squeezed out.

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No black person has ever held a majority stake in a pro sports franchise, and given today’s prices, it doesn’t look promising.

Warfield is more optimistic than most.

“It’s probably going to happen,” he said. “Until it does, what we’ve put together here, no one could ask for anything better.”

Warfield and Hill became friends years ago when one starred for the Browns and the other for the Dallas Cowboys. Both wanted to extend their impact well beyond the field once they retired. They developed front-office, community and business skills through their work with several teams. Hill held advisory roles with the Baltimore Orioles and now the Cowboys. He once tried to bring major-league baseball to Washington, D.C., and put together a group in a failed bid to wrest the Washington Wizards and Capitals from Abe Pollin.

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“We have the operational expertise in pro football,” Warfield said.

They began chasing the Browns when Hill approached Milstein, a former classmate at Riverdale Country Day School, as the deep-pockets person. Despite Milstein’s millions, the group isn’t favored to win the bid. The front-runner appears to be a group led by former San Francisco 49ers President Carmen Policy.

If they get the bid, Hill and Warfield may realize their vision of a team that does its hiring from a large pool, not a limited one. And that’s where black ownership would work best.

In two months, the NFL probably won’t add any black coaches. But movement can be made in another area. That wouldn’t be a compromise. That would be progress.

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