Up Next


Why diversity is important with impending sale of Panthers

The NFL and its teams should commit to creating organizations that look like the players who put their bodies on the line every Sunday

I grew up in Denmark, South Carolina. And like any good Southerner, my first three loves were God, family and football.

Football is as much a part of our culture in the South as hospitality or sweet tea — we eat, sleep and breathe it. And if you follow me on social media, it will not take long to recognize that my allegiances are to the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Carolina Panthers.

But admittedly, this year has been different from others. Supporting my beloved home team and the NFL generally has become more difficult.

Once considered the most popular sports league in America, the league has faced a decline in viewership, particularly among its African-American fan base, whether that be in response to Colin Kaepernick or ongoing revelations regarding the harmful effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The pending sale of the Panthers, a franchise in the Deep South in a league that’s been tone-deaf on what’s best for its majority African-American player population or its substantial African-American fan base, isn’t lost on me. It also draws attention to the sordid track record on racial and social justice in the Carolinas, where even in 2018, Confederate iconography in public spaces is littered throughout both states.

This is the same North Carolina that gave us HB2, or the “bathroom bill.” This is the same South Carolina that flew a treasonous Confederate battle flag atop the state Capitol where I served for eight years. This is the same state where it took the murder of nine African-American Charlestonians by a white supremacist inside of a church for lawmakers to finally garner the moral courage to do the right thing.

Even against this backdrop, I still hold out hope that the sale of the Panthers will allow the league, the Panthers organization and the Carolinas to atone for their transgressions against African-American players and fans who make the league possible.

I believe the path toward atonement for all parties starts with being intentional about diversity in connection with the sale of the Panthers.

Seventy percent of the league’s players are African-American. Yet, there are no African-American general partners in the league. Not a single one.

Several African-American entertainers and athletes have expressed interest since the sale of the Panthers was announced, including Sean “Diddy” Combs, Stephen Curry and even Colin Kaepernick. And with Michael Jordan sitting in the owner’s box for the NBA’s Hornets, the city of Charlotte has a rare opportunity to boast yet another owner of color.

That’s where I think the city of Charlotte and newly elected Mayor Vi Lyles come into play. The city controls millions of dollars in tourism taxes that the Panthers have previously tapped into for Bank of America Stadium upgrades. A new ownership team will almost certainly seek some public support for either upgrades or a new stadium. The city should be clear that any future public support will require that the Panthers organization commit to embracing the diversity of the city in which it sits and the two-state fan base it represents, from the ownership consortium on down to the vendors they use for stadium operations.

What that looks like is Mayor Lyles urging that any ownership group seeking the city’s support include a substantial ownership stake by people of color. The city shouldn’t stop there. As a condition of any city support for anything in connection with the Panthers moving forward, any ownership group should submit a plan for workforce and supplier diversity to ensure that its organization and its supply chain reflect the diversity of Charlotte and the Carolinas.

In practice, that would include initiatives such as instituting the “Rooney Rule” for all senior organization hires, a management leadership training program with the Carolinas’ historically black colleges and universities to ensure a pipeline of senior diverse talent, workforce training in construction and hospitality trades for residents of Charlotte’s hardest-hit communities, and setting diverse hiring and vendor spending goals consistent with the Carolinas’ diversity. With African-Americans representing 35 percent of Charlotte residents, 22 percent of North Carolinians and about 28 percent of South Carolinians, these are clear targets for the organization to aim for in terms of ownership, workforce and supplier diversity.

The same team with Cam Newton at quarterback and Ron Rivera as head coach shouldn’t have a problem embracing diversity. And a city led by its first African-American female mayor that’s already home to one of the only minority-owned sports franchises is the right place to lead the charge in the NFL finally doing right by its African-American players and fans. In the era of Colin Kaepernick’s blackballing and a sale, triggered by its former owner, that was due in part to racial misconduct, the stars have aligned for the Panthers, the Carolinas and Charlotte to send a clear statement to the country and to the NFL that the Carolinas and the Panthers have turned the page on a sordid racial past and are ready to serve as a model for every other major sports city and organization.

Something like what I’ve described above stands in stark contrast to the ornamental diversity we have seen to date from the NFL. Hush money to the United Negro College Fund (part of the $89 million agreement with the Players Coalition) and “social justice” workshops at my alma mater, Morehouse College, are a laughable response to the players who legitimately stand in solidarity with people of color who far too often find themselves dying as a result of police violence.

The NFL can’t buy their way out of this problem, and NFL cities and fans shouldn’t let them off the hook. The NFL and its teams should commit to real diversity at every level of their organizations in a manner that creates real opportunities and that creates organizations that look like the players who put their bodies on the line every Sunday, the cities that host them, and the states and their fan bases who give their hard-earned money every Sunday.

The state motto in South Carolina is “Dum spiro spero,” which in Latin means “While I breathe, I hope.” I’m still breathing, so here’s to hoping that I can take pride again in my home team and that I can in good conscience watch the game and the team that I love.

Bakari Sellers is a lawyer and a political analyst on CNN. He is a former member of the South Carolina House of Representatives.