When top NFL draft prospect and Alabama standout Quinnen Williams announced he was signing with Young Money APAA Sports in January, his agent, Nicole Lynn, knew she’d be in for a ride.
Perhaps it was because she was signing a top defensive lineman, a 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound Outland Trophy winner, to the same agency that reps the name and face of rapper Lil Wayne and all that comes with the Young Money brand. Or, she knows that if Williams does indeed go No. 2 overall as projected, Lynn will become the first African American woman to represent a top-five draft pick in the NFL. Either way, Lynn is living out her dream of helping athletes fulfill their full potential, an act that is along the same lines as Lil Wayne’s vision.
“Lil Wayne got into the business for the same reason I got into the business,” Lynn said. “He wanted to give back to players. He wanted to help them when football was over. At the end of the day, we can all identify with this. Lil Wayne doesn’t need this money, this sports money. It isn’t for that. He’s doing it for a bigger purpose, and I love that. I love working with people every day that walk with the same purpose, and that’s superpowerful.”
Off the field, Williams is described as the prototypical gentle giant with a magnetic personality, pleasant to be around, a team player. On the field, however, Williams is the epitome of a competitor: controlled and focused on the task at hand. Menacing to some and a true challenge to others. In his last season at Alabama, Williams started 15 games and led the team with 70 total stops, 12 quarterback hurries, 18.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks and a safety.
It wasn’t much of a shock when he was one of four players from Alabama to enter the NFL draft, but Williams also became one of the growing number of athletes to join a sports agency attached to an entertainment company. After signing to Young Money APAA Sports in January, Williams became one of eight agency clients in the 2019 NFL draft class, joining Mecole Hardman Jr., D’Andre Walker, Gary Johnson, Jakobi Meyers, Dennis Daley, Emeke Egbule and Jamal Davis II.
Williams will also join a mixed list of more than 60 veteran athletes as well as up-and-comers represented by Young Money APAA, including second-year Washington Redskins running back Derrius Guice, New England Patriots defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Dimitri Flowers and former NFL wide receiver Nate Burleson.
Williams was exactly what Young Money APAA Sports envisioned when the agency was founded. After signing, Williams was also in awe of his new Young Money family.
“I signed with, like, basically Drake and Nicki Minaj. That’s crazy,” Williams told ESPN.
With Williams, Lynn was stepping into territory out of her usual realm of veteran players, and she learned to appreciate everything that comes with the sought-after player.
“When I met Quinnen for the first time, I was shocked to see that he was just as impressed with me as I was with him,” Lynn said. “He told me that he couldn’t believe I had never repped a first-round draft pick but he wanted to change that. He believed in me, and I am forever grateful.”
Lynn’s career as an agent began only four years ago. Before she entered the world of sports agency in 2015, she was a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley. But Lynn soon realized the hours she clocked every day took her away from what she actually wanted to achieve.
“I always knew I wanted to be an agent, or that I wanted to do this role,” Lynn said. “I didn’t necessarily know what it was called. I knew that I wanted to help athletes; I knew I wanted to help to maintain their wealth.”
Lynn did a little more research and learned that the sports agency world checked the boxes of everything she had wanted to do. Armed with new information, she applied to law school at the University of Oklahoma, where she had earned a bachelor’s degree in business management, in 2012 in anticipation of taking the agent exam. From there, Lynn landed a six-month internship with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) in Washington, D.C.
“My goal was to learn how to be an expert in all of the benefits that a player gets,” Lynn said. “Their insurance, their annuities, etc. And I figured that would be something that would set me apart as an agent. Agents don’t do that, so I wanted to be different and have an expertise in that, and life after football.”
After a stint with the NFLPA, Lynn landed a job with the PlayersRep Sports Agency, at the time a top-10 agency, where her focus would be offering the best services to potential athletes and future clients.
Enter Lil Wayne.
Young Money APAA Sports was officially established in 2016 after years of conversations and idea exchanges between rapper and Young Money Entertainment CEO Lil Wayne and manager and Young Money COO Cortez Bryant.
In 2017, Young Money APAA acquired PlayersRep Sports Agency, where Lynn worked at the time, to help grow the new brand. With the new acquisition came more clients and experienced agents, including Lynn. The agency also enlisted the help of Adie von Gontard, a sports-savvy businessman whose grandfather owned the St. Louis Cardinals and great-grandfather founded brewing company Anheuser-Busch.
“With this specific agency, which, effectively, is the same agency with a twist — that’s kind of the way I look at it — it’s been great,” Lynn said. “The addition of Lil Wayne, Cortez, Mack Maine and Adie von Gontard, it has been just really great. We already had a really good agency with great agents and players, so now we just have been taken to the next level. Some of the rooms maybe we couldn’t get in before, we can get in. Some of the marketing deals we weren’t able to accomplish, we’ve been able to accomplish. So all it did was just really take us and put us into a different category of agencies.”
In its three-year existence, Young Money APAA went from three certified agents to more than 50. The sports agency now represents more than 80 athletes across sports, including football, basketball, boxing and softball.
Lil Wayne and Bryant have been sports fans their entire lives but decided they wanted to contribute more to the sports industry. The two drew parallels between sports and music and began formulating ideas for how a sports agency would fit with their well-established entertainment company. After having a firm grasp on what it’d take to develop the agency, the two discussed what the main focuses would be.
“I think that it got more serious because we’ve got a couple of friends that are athletes,” Bryant said. “They were kind of telling their testimony and their stories, how they were hooking up with agents and basically after the contract phase they were kind of out on their own. They didn’t have anybody to guide them or to help them along the way. We saw that, and we understood that most these guys had cross-trained backgrounds, coming from poverty-stricken neighborhoods growing up and coming into a whole lot of money at a very young age. We’ve had our fair share of bumping our heads.”
Taking everything into consideration and realizing this is something they truly wanted to do, Wayne and Bryant began the formal process of turning their dreams of a sports agency into reality.
The first order of business after establishing Young Money APAA was client services and ensuring that the only thing athletes had to worry about was becoming better in their respective sports. The agency would handle the rest. They laid out in clear terms what they were offering to potential clients and promised that they’d help their players build a solid brand.
“Even if they have the longest career, they’re still going to be superyoung with a lot of life left after that,” Bryant said. “We try to help structure that vision and help them grow while they have that opportunity and this window to be successful and make a lot of money. We want to ensure that they’re making the right decisions, financial decisions, and try to do the right thing to build their brand outside a deal so that when they’re ready to hang it up or, Lord forbid, something happens, you have a plan set up post-sports, a vision that can take them throughout their lives and take care of their family.”
Although Bryant believes the agency is still fighting to be respected as one of the best in the industry, it’s still clawing to be the best and improving each year. There’s no end in sight.
“As an agency, I want to make sure that we establish ourselves with integrity so that we can create partnerships for our athletes that can help them in the long run,” Bryant said. “People come to the brand because they know what it’s done and that it’s established. So corporate brands, they tend to partner with us because they know with our portfolio and our roster of artists. … Right now, I’m in a cultivation state. I’m out here breaking doors down, trying to figure it out on the sports side.
“We’re still young. People don’t know me. These people must think that Wayne is signing these contracts and he’s negotiating deals. They don’t understand that we have a whole team and we really built a reputable company. We have agents outside in the cold to talk to. We’ve got agents on board with us with 20-plus years of experience. We value ourselves in doing good business around the board; that’s not gonna change. We built integrity in the Young Money brand, and we’re planning on doing the same thing in sports. People don’t get it, and that’s OK. They’ll get it one day.”
Although Lynn’s achievement in signing Williams is just one of the highlights in her still-rising career, there’s still an uphill battle as one of the few female sports agents in a predominantly white, male-dominated field. Of the 830 NFLPA-certified agents, only 5% are women.
“I had to get used to being the only one in every room that I walk in,” Lynn said. “Even as an attorney, I work in a male-dominated field. But there’s just something different in sports because you are really the only one, right? Every room I walk in, I just have to assume there’s gonna be no women in the room. I have to assume that I will be identified, or when somebody needs me they will assume that I am the marketing rep, or that I’m a girlfriend of a player, or that I’m a wife. Their first thought will never be that I’m an agent.”
Lynn acknowledges that these numbers won’t change overnight, but with support and backing from a sports agency like Young Money APAA Sports, the future is bright.
“First and foremost, obviously you want him to be a good football player. It makes your job easier,” Lynn said of her clients. “But I tend to represent a lot of veteran players. Not on purpose, but those are the ones that typically flock to me, mostly because they are older, they’re more mature. A lot of times they’re married, they’re with kids, and they appreciate what I bring to the table. They appreciate that I care about their entire family, and so my hope is to work with individuals that are just good guys, just good guys that love the game and just want to be great. You don’t always have those clients, and that’s OK. I think it’s great to be a light in darkness. So I get the opportunity to work with guys who aren’t like that sometimes, and I do everything I can to turn it around.”
Eric Reid, the former San Francisco 49ers safety who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, won’t ever play in the NFL again. We can draw that conclusion from his decision to follow the path blazed by Colin Kaepernick and sue the NFL for collusion.
Given the closeness between the two men, Reid also taking this path appeared imminently possible. In fact, Reid predicted this, telling Dieter Kurtenbach of The Mercury News, “If I’m not in the league next year, there will be a process I will go through. … If I enter free agency and I’m not on a team next year, I’ll weigh all my options, legally, what have you.”
But did he shoot his shot too soon?
One can understand why Reid would feel pessimistic about his chances of securing employment this offseason. Only the Cincinnati Bengals extended an offer to visit thus far to one of the league’s better safeties. During the visit, team owner Mike Brown sought assurances from Reid that he would refrain from kneeling if he were signed, but Reid declined to specify how he would approach the matter. No offer came from the Bengals, and no offer looks imminent after the team selected Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates III in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft last month.
But other teams might have interest and were simply waiting to see how the draft would unfold. The safety class in the 2017 NFL draft was deep, with 24 safeties being selected. Many teams, therefore, have young safeties on their rosters with cost-controlled rookie deals. This year’s class was comparably shallow but did have two standouts in Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Florida State’s Derwin James.
I was interested to see how the free-agent safety market was going to turn out for Reid after the draft, especially since quality free agents Kenny Vaccaro and Tre Boston remain unsigned. The lawyer in me fears Reid should have waited a bit longer, since this lawsuit will likely deter other teams from signing him.
But Reid has talented lawyers Mark Geragos and Ben Meiselas, who also represent Kaepernick. Per Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated, “Reid’s grievance must comport with the requirements of Article 17 of the collective bargaining agreement signed by the NFL and NFLPA. Article 17 concerns acts of collusion that occurred within previous 90 days.” Perhaps Geragos and Meiselas, because of their work for Kaepernick’s case, realized that Reid needed to file his case soon.
I am saddened that a 26-year-old will likely never play the sport he loves. Standing up for what’s right shouldn’t cost a person his livelihood, especially in a league where beating a woman isn’t a career-ender.
Many fans have claimed, wrongly, that Kaepernick sits at home jobless because of a lack of ability. But no one can sell the argument that Reid isn’t good enough. Teams keep at least four safeties on their roster. The league does not have 128 men better at patrolling center field than Reid.
What, then, will the argument be for why Reid doesn’t have a job?
Wading through the cesspool of article comments and Twitter egg avatars brings to light the refrain we will constantly hear: Reid is bad for business and owners don’t want to sign someone who will cost them money.
Let’s, for the sake of argument, stipulate this is true, although I seriously doubt anyone will stop rooting for a team because of a safety. The problem is that these are the same sorts of folk decrying political correctness. These are the same folk who bemoan a culture where people are punished for uttering unpopular opinions. Why, then, don’t these people take up Reid’s cause as one featuring another victim of a culture that punishes people for being on the unpopular side of a cultural flash point?
This situation further evidences that many people who decry political correctness aren’t actually upset that our culture punishes people for unpopular positions. Instead, they think society punishes too often the wrong people: white men.
The truth is simple: A lot of our fellow Americans are happy that men like Kaepernick and Reid don’t have jobs because of their decision to protest racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. They realize this makes them hypocrites, and thus they learn to obfuscate their true feelings with transparent cover stories. Instead, we get Kaepernick is not good enough and Reid is bad for business.
The story of Eric Reid further exposes how incessant cries of political correctness cover up quieter tears of joy that black men can lose their jobs for protesting racial injustice.
The annual drop of the NBA’s top-selling jerseys has arrived, and there’s an especially glaring takeaway. For some reason, Houston Rockets superstar James Harden — the most gifted offensive player on the planet, whose name is essentially Sharpied in as this season’s league MVP — ranks ninth in sales.
Ahead of him (in descending order) are Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo and a top three of Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
Harden’s mark at No. 9, which he also notched in 2016, ties the highest spot he’s ever reached in his career. And this year — despite leading the league through the regular season in points per game (30.4), while ranking third in assists per game (8.8), on the best team in the NBA — the jerseys of four players younger than him (Embiid, Porzingis, Irving and Antetokounmpo) are flying off the racks at a higher rate than his Rockets jersey.
But maybe folks in Houston just don’t like jerseys like that. J.J. Watt, the leader of the Texans and a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, ranked 16th in NFL jersey sales from March 1, 2017, to Nov. 30, 2017.
You gotta think the Beard isn’t trippin’ though. He has a $200 million contract with Adidas to go along with the four-year, $228 million extension he signed with the Rockets last summer. And by June, Harden will be named league MVP. Maybe that’ll give more fans a reason to put his No. 13 on their backs.
At the NFL Players Association office in Washington, D.C., Dior Ginyard spends his time helping players reach their full potential after they leave the game. Because the transition isn’t always smooth, the 29-year-old player development manager believes it’s his mission to help others develop the readiness skills for their second act.
Ginyard finds passion in this role because the young executive believes it is his fate. He’d had aspirations to play professional football, but that dream was stalled after a life-threatening brain injury.
It was on Dec. 3, 2006, that his life changed completely. The 18-year-old freshman at Frostburg State University in Maryland participated in a flag football game with some teammates the day the season was over. He hadn’t played all year. He was rehabbing from a thorny shoulder.
Then the unthinkable happened. Ginyard, admittedly playing too aggressively, viciously collided head-on with another player. The next thing he can remember was waking up in a helicopter not even knowing what day it was.
“I fractured my skull, and it’s like breaking glass. It breaks into pieces,” Ginyard said. “My skull pierced my brain and was causing my brain to swell up. That’s how you’re supposed to go brain-dead. I was flown to a hospital in Pennsylvania, where I had brain surgery.”
He suffered some memory loss, and it was hard to concentrate on things he was used to doing daily without a moment’s thought. During his rehabilitation process, which included physical therapy and counseling, he decided to transfer to Bowie State University, where he majored in communications.
“I was still dealing with the ramifications of my head injury, so I dealt with the depression, the anger, all the things that come with losing something that I thought was going to happen, big dreams,” he said. “So I spent a couple years figuring out what else I wanted to do.”
Ginyard said writing helped him cope with his transition and he figured out his passion. Eight filled journals later he knew he wanted to become a communicator and use his innate, previously undiscovered ability to help others in sports.
He graduated from Bowie State on Dec. 16, 2011, and landed an internship at Lockheed Martin in the communications department. After one year, Ginyard was hired full time and also pursued a master’s degree in marketing management from the University of Maryland University College.
He then decided it was time to make his presence known in professional sports. The Prince George’s County, Maryland, native researched jobs in the D.C. area and noted the NFLPA as an option. Scouring the organization’s website for opportunities, he saw a lone position for a player development manager.
“The first sentence said, ‘This role helps players transition to life after football,’ ” Ginyard recalled.
He believed he’d found the perfect match.
“I’m like, Wow. Now I have a position that helps players transition, and I had to deal with a transition of hitting rock bottom, and then dealing with the aftereffects of depression and anger, the trials and tribulations in trying to get back on my feet. I thought, ‘I can help from an experience perspective.’ ”
Ginyard has been with the players association for three years, overseeing its externship program that provides players with internship opportunities.
“I’m helping guys go back to school to finish their degrees and pursue secondary education,” he said. “It’s helping guys develop off the field, professionally. I love it, just the relationships. I’ve been able to build with these guys. I’m not working with the Tom Bradys and the Odell Beckhams; I’m working with the guy that’s going to need a second career. I’m one person in their ecosystem of friends and managers and agents. I want to give them something.”
Ginyard said the hardest part of his journey has been overcoming some challenges he’s faced.
“I had to learn how to deal with those emotions, not growing up with having a father there, not really knowing what to do with my anger and depression. I’m still managing that, and finding out what was going to replace the passion I had of playing football,” Ginyard said.
After his father left, he grew up with his mother and two siblings. Football was his outlet.
“I would say the biggest challenge for me is like, [understanding] what is this stereotype about a black man that had a brain injury, that his father’s not in his life, that was raised by a single mom, that went to HBCU [historically black college or university]? What does the world say about a person like that?
“Instead of harping on it, I use it as a chip on my shoulder. I want to prove everybody wrong because I know what society says about somebody like me. I want to be that person that stands up for other young black kids in my community and says, ‘Hey, you can make it without playing in the NFL.’ ”
Ginyard was recently featured as part of this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30.
“I’m honored to be on that list for a role that’s nonrevenue-generating. I’m not in sales, I’m not in business development, I’m not an agent, I’m not an athlete. I work in professional development. I think I’m glad I can be a representation for what we’re doing for our players and our members.”
He’s also raising his 3-year-old son, Carter.
The National Football League, the American sport that comes closest to resembling a religion, has its end times in sight: the year 2021. “The likelihood,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in August, “of either a strike, or a lockout is in ’21 a virtual certainty.”
Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them.
Every religious text has mention of the end times. In just the past 30 years, we’ve survived Halley’s comet, Y2K, the end of the Mayan calendar and the rapture that was supposed to happen in September. But nothing lasts forever. The NFL has survived lockouts and strikes before and has seemed like Teflon for the past decade with sky-high broadcast ratings, massive revenues and an annual American holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. But the league has serious competition for American pastime status from the National Basketball Association.
This may seem far-fetched now, while the NFL’s television ratings lead the NBA’s by a wide margin (although numbers were down last season, and some wonder whether television ratings, in a streaming world, matter as much as they used to). And the NBA doesn’t have anything close to dominating a whole day in America like the Super Bowl. But the NBA, which is as popular as ever in this social media era, continues to embrace an important fact about American culture: Black culture and black people determine cool. Cool resists linear structures. If the NFL wants to maintain its dominance, it needs to embrace black culture or get left behind. Just like baseball.
Let’s be clear: The 2017 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was the league’s most watched Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls played the Utah Jazz in 1998. But the average 20.4 million viewers who tuned into each game is equal to the average viewership for a single Sunday Night Football game in 2016. And the NFL is still an unmitigated cash cow, with a net worth of more than $13 billion, dwarfing the NBA’s $6 billion figure. The average NFL franchise is worth $2.5 billion. Worth of the average NBA franchise: $1.36 billion, a 3.5-fold increase over the past five years. Over at Major League Baseball, the average team is worth $1.54 billion, but 50 percent of viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent in 2010. And in its defense, the MLB can still captivate the country when it has historic World Series matchups like last year’s battle between Cinderellas in the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. And they almost doubled back with a monster championship series between the Yankees and Dodgers if the former hadn’t lost to the Houston Astros. ESPN data shows the average age of baseball viewers at 53. The average age is 47 for the NFL, and it’s rising. The average age is 37 for the NBA, and it seems to be staying there. Baseball’s television ratings continue to trend downward.
Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer and author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, summarizes the NFL’s stance in relation to the NBA and MLB: “Post-ABA merger,” he says, “basketball has done by far the best job of adapting to the people who play the sport, baseball the worst. The NFL has been in between, leaning towards a bad job.”
Why might the NFL be on its way to becoming MLB? Because the NFL is looking at a 2021 season that may not even be played. Because the NFL’s ostensibly mainstream stars — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Eli Manning — who have dominated the past decade, are getting old. And many kids are being steered away from playing the game in its tackle form. “Participation has dropped,” Mark Murphy said in January. He’s president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers and a board member at USA Football. “There’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all.” In a recent (nonrandom) study of NFL players, 110 out of 111 brains examined showed signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
But the NFL could spiral mostly because, perhaps more than at any other time in pro football history, the league is at a crossroads when it comes to race. League news right now leads with racial conflict. Players are protesting. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners are somewhere between demanding and begging them not to. And in the middle, fans fight over whose boycott of the NFL is actually having an impact on the ratings, if any at all.
Free agent Colin Kaepernick, to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality, opted on Aug. 14, 2016, not to stand for the national anthem. This has placed the NFL at the center of a discussion about race and sports. Kaepernick’s protest has spread around the world, from European soccer games to Midwestern high school football games. By most accounts, the NFL has botched the handling of the protests. A year later, Kaepernick isn’t in the league despite evidence of him being good enough to start on some teams, and he could surely be a backup.
The reason the anti-protest backlash has become so impactful for the black community is because there’s an understanding of what the fervor about protests is really about—silence. There are contradictions in just about every sentiment of outrage about the protests. Just look at the viral image of an NFL fan wearing a “I stand for the National Anthem” shirt while sitting on a flag. And at the fact that the NFL didn’t even start requiring players to stand for the Anthem until 2009—after the Department of Defense paid the league $5.4 million for “paid patriotism.” And at the fact the NFL actually violates flag codes in some of their representations of patriotism. Jerry Jones himself sat during the anthem at his first Cowboys game, in 1989. And Donald Trump’s finger-pointing at players (and owners) doesn’t erase the fact he insulted John McCain for being a prisoner of war and has lied about calling Gold Star military families who lost soldiers in battle this year. The anger over protests isn’t about patriotism, it’s about silencing black athletes. Steps the NFL may or may not make to quell protests will be seen as an endorsement of that silence.
On Oct. 15, Kaepernick filed a formal grievance against the NFL alleging collusion by team owners. “I think he should be on a roster right now, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers said in August. “I think because of his protests, he’s not.” Jay-Z rocks a custom Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live, and his actual jersey leads the 49ers’ sales, even though he hasn’t taken a snap for them this season. Kaepernick’s likeness rules the streets. All the while, Kaep rarely speaks, instead continuing his push to donate a million dollars of his own money to various charities across the country, volunteering to donate backpacks to students and suits to parolees. Without so much as a news conference, Kaepernick is part of a daily news cycle, thanks to a massive social media following that watches his every move.
What Kaepernick is learning is something NBA players have known for years: Their social media channels are the best ways to get their points across. So when NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo reinforcing the rule that players had to stand for the anthem, NBA players (J.R. Smith notwithstanding) mostly took it in stride. That’s because they understand their social impact reaches further than the average NFL player’s. (Odell Beckham Jr., with 9 million Instagram followers, has the most by far of any NFL player.)
LeBron James, who has 39 million Twitter followers and 33 million Instagram followers, expressed that much in a news conference after he called Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter: “My voice … is more important than my knee. What I say should hit home for a lot of people [to] know where I stand. I don’t believe I have to get on my knee to further what I’m talking about.”
And that’s where the NBA dominates the NFL: at social media, where everything is happening. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, NBA teams have an average of more than 7 million followers, while NFL franchises average 4.6 million. Even during the NFL’s last season, there were more hashtags on Twitter dedicated to the NBA. In 2016, Forbes ranked the top athletes on social media: Four of the top 10 players were from the NBA, and the rest were international soccer stars. NFL players didn’t crack the top 10. The NBA social media connection allows players to enter lives and households in new and intimate ways.
Another major reason for the NBA’s ability to lap the NFL in social media is the NFL’s draconian rules about sharing videos online. Last October, the league sent out a memo barring teams from posting clips or GIFs of games. Teams that did so would be fined up to $100,000. While teams such as the Atlanta Falcons use clips from Madden video games to “show” highlights every Sunday, the NFL’s hard line limits many teams’ ability to deeply connect with fans where they are — which is, so much of the time, on their phones.
“The NBA is the more progressive league when it comes to digital,” said Jaryd Wilson, digital content manager for the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks have become an online darling thanks to creative Twitter posts and engagement with fans online. “In-game highlights are our highest digital performers and our most engaging types of content.”
The NFL’s limits on social media, and teams’ subsequent mockery of the decision, exposes a blind spot about American culture. African-Americans dominate what’s trendy on social media, and if “Black Twitter” determines that something is viral, it often becomes an American cultural phenomenon. Think of phrases such as “lit” and “on fleek” or crazes like the mannequin challenge — these began in blackness. On any given week, a new black-centered sensation, such as the NSFW #ForTheD challenge that dominated social media last month, takes over the country.
The NFL had that viral moment with Cam Newton doing his signature dabbing celebration in 2015, but he was as chastised for it as he was celebrated. Letters were written to newspapers about his “pelvic thrusts,” and Newton’s “arrogance” became the center of the story. And after a humbling Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, Newton seemed put in his place. Instead of embracing him, the NFL demonstrated that it didn’t understand what moves the needle in American culture. It cut down one of its viral superstars — something the NBA just doesn’t do.
“Diversity is very important to us,” said the Hawks’ Wilson. “We know our demographic, and our audience, and it is about keeping up with those trends. We always think about how can we tap into diverse communities while trying to push ourselves forward.” It affects the Hawks’ bottom line significantly. The organization has taken things a step further by offering a full-on embrace of Atlanta music: acts such as T.I., Gucci Mane and Big Boi perform at halftimes throughout the season, which has resulted in increased ticket sales and price inflation every time a concert is announced. The Hawks’ Philips Arena is even now home to rapper Killer Mike’s Swag barbershop.
The NBA understands that rock is no longer the dominant genre of music. Last year’s Finals marketing soundtrack featured songs from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. while the NFL featured the return of Hank Williams Jr. — who was dropped from ESPN’s Monday Night Football six years ago for likening President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. And while the NBA features a list of rap stars and rhythm and blues singers during All-Star Weekend festivities, this year the Super Bowl will feature Justin Timberlake, whose last, 2004 Super Bowl performance featured him pulling off a piece of Janet Jackson’s clothing, exposing her breast. Whether or not the move was planned, it went awry, and Jackson caught the backlash as Timberlake’s career flourished. These kinds of things resonate, and the NFL’s de facto pardoning of Timberlake is another reminder to the black consumer that the league doesn’t cherish their concerns the way the NBA so often does.
“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor,” said Andrew Brandt, director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at the Villanova University and host of The Business Of Sports podcast. “Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.”
Yet, even as black America is ravaged by socioeconomic disparities, a 2015 Nielsen study explains that we’ve reached a tipping point with regard to black economic influence. “Today’s American mainstream is rapidly changing, and that change can be attributed in part to the growth and activities of African-Americans in the marketplace. Social media and the internet have become go-to communications platforms for African-American stories and content.” The study goes on to state that black consumer power is growing at unprecedented levels, reaching $1.2 trillion in 2015, a 275 percent increase from 1990. So the appeal to the black consumer is about more than just what’s “cool.” It’s about a consumer base that is increasingly vital.
The NBA season kicked off last Tuesday with a display of the chokehold professional basketball has on compelling storylines. LeBron James faced off against his former teammate and passive-aggressive foe Kyrie Irving. The Warriors lost a buzzer-beater to the newly constructed Houston Rockets that now boast Chris Paul — all while a Klay Thompson doppelgänger was the social media joke of the night. But the NBA’s offseason was almost as entertaining, full of memed stories and social media buzz, from the petty feud between Irving and James to Thompson’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-like adventures in China, Hoodie ’Melo and Kevin Durant’s bizarre Twitter dramas. The NBA, its individual players and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.
Meanwhile, the NFL is years-deep into a seemingly never-ending barrage of Spygate, Bountygate and Deflategate. There was the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. Accusations about covering up CTE analysis. All of this, though, seemed only to slightly dent the NFL’s impenetrable shield: People seemed to have accepted the judge and jury status of Goodell, the misogyny and abusive history of too many players who continue to play despite domestic abuse cases, and folks kind of knew that playing football was damaging to athletes in the long term. But Kaepernick’s protest and its fallout illuminated a sharp and deep conflict within the NFL—and among its fans—that many weren’t expecting.
An Oct. 11 study by The New York Times makes clear that the NFL is now one of the “most divisive” brands in America. The league doesn’t have to choose between its black players and white audience, but it does have to find a middle ground between black players and fans, and its white fans, a dilemma unique to the National Football League. The NFL is the only major male American sport that has mostly black players and a mostly white audience. The NFL is 67 percent black, but its audience is measured at 77 percent white. And although the league is two-thirds black, its top stars are white. In 2015, seven of the NFL’s nine top endorsement earners were white. Since then, black athletes such as Cam Newton and Odell Beckham Jr. have stormed the top ranks, but endorsements largely focus on quarterbacks. The New York Giants are the only team in the NFL that has never started a black quarterback. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, there were six black starting quarterbacks as of Week 7.
But by the time of the 2021 labor negotiations, the aforementioned Brady/Brees/Rodgers/Manning quadrumvirate will be out of the league. Andrew Luck, Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota are the quarterbacks most poised to be the league’s next torchbearers, and with them are Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott. So what happens when the faces of the league are as black as the rest of the players? How the NFL reacts will determine the future of the sport. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have both been at the same racial crossroads. One league offers the NFL a blueprint for success, and the other a cautionary tale.
The NBA has had multiple eras in which it has had to realign based on demographics and its top stars. In 1979, three years after the NBA merged with the ABA, the league had a nearly identical demographic makeup as the NFL. Seventy-five percent of the NBA’s players were black, up from 60 percent a decade before, and only two of the league’s top 20 scorers were white. At the same time, 75 percent of the audience was white. Attendance was down, as were ratings, to the tune of a 26 percent decrease against the previous season. A 1979 Sports Illustrated article titled There’s An Ill Wind Blowing For The NBA laid out the question plainly: Is the NBA too black?
The article examined the feeling among fans and some owners that black athletes were “undisciplined,” “overpaid” and played “playground basketball” — all dog whistles. An unnamed executive was quoted: “The question is, are they [the black players] promotable? People see them dissipating their money, playing without discipline. How can you sell a black sport to a white public?”
The NBA answered that question two ways. One, David Stern became commissioner in 1984. “Stern said, ‘I’m just going to put the best people on the floor,’ and he said the same thing for the front office,” said Richard Lapchick, founder/director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sports (TIDES). “The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”
The league also lucked up by being able to lean into its racial divide with a ready-made rivalry between the bombastic and very black Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Stern, to his credit, embraced the clash, marketing the rivalry and letting the racial subtext become one of the main storylines. The league rode that popularity through the ’80s and ’90s with respectable black stars like Michael Jordan who didn’t upset the American status quo. Jordan was, in many ways, the perfect black athlete for corporate America. He stayed out of politics, seemed nonthreatening, and was a money machine.
Then came the NBA’s next racial crossroads: Allen Iverson. AI, the anti-Jordan, had cornrows, tattoos, jewelry — and he just did it his way. Iverson tested the limits of Stern’s acceptance of black culture. Iverson was from the ’hood, had been embroiled in a nasty fight before going to college, and didn’t bother cleaning up his language. While the NBA struggled with Iverson’s imaging, Reebok embraced his persona, tying their AI shoe to urban culture. They called it The Answer, and it was a monumental success.
A generation of athletes looked up to Iverson. And as those players mimicked his style, the NBA cracked down. In 2005, Stern instituted a dress code for the NBA, making players drop the baggy clothes and dress business casual. LeBron James, just entering his third year, was amenable to the change: “No it’s not a big deal, not to me.” The usually reserved Tim Duncan had stronger thoughts: “I think it’s a load of crap.” Of course now NBA players are the most style-forward athletes in the world. Every night is a runway show.
In 2014, when a tape of the Clippers’ then-owner Donald Sterling uttering racial slurs leaked online, new commissioner Silver was quick and decisive, issuing a lifetime ban. It was the only viable option. The fans were ready for Sterling (who had a long history of animus toward African-Americans) to go, and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry had planned on walking out during a game if Sterling kept his status. There could be no wiggle room. In fairness, the NBA had to work out many of its racial battles before the era of social media. So while the league’s virtual expulsion of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the mid-’90s was just as despicable as what’s happening to Kaepernick, the league didn’t have to fight those issues in real time on social media, like the NFL does now.
“There’s a cottage industry in predicting and hoping for some sort of downfall in the NFL due to concussions, or domestic violence or whatever the latest crisis people seem to make of it,” said Brandt. “I kind of smile when I hear that, because we’ve been talking about that for a long time and NFL continues to grow financially.”
But it’s important to remember that there was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport. There are numerous reasons for baseball’s dwindling cultural impact: steroid scandals, strikes and shrinking attention spans. However, it’s undeniable that baseball’s lack of connection with America as a whole is directly tied to its refusal to embrace black culture.
“You go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds,” said ESPN’s Bryant. “It was the greatest threat to the integrity of the game because the best player in the game, who all the young people loved and wanted to emulate, was doing something cool, and they shot it down. That was baseball’s last opportunity to catch people and be hip to Madison Avenue, because drugs ruined the game for the next 25 years.”
Baseball’s tacit insistence upon “tradition” and unspoken rules are all too often coded language for a refusal to accept cultural norms that aren’t firmly white American. Bat flips and celebrations are seen as being anti-baseball when they’re really bits of culture inserted by nonwhite athletes. In 2015, Chris Rock landed a scalding indictment of baseball’s popularity during a video for HBO’s Real Sports.
Calling himself an “endangered species, a black baseball fan,” Rock insists that baseball’s focus on its history, a history that excluded African-Americans for the first half of the 20th century, is a turnoff for black fans who aren’t into a time when only white players were allowed to play. And Rock suggests that baseball will fall further away from mainstream popularity as long as it continues to ignore the black fan and players. “Maybe if baseball can get a little hipper, a little cooler and just a little more black, the future can change,” he said in the monologue. “But until then, blacks and baseball just ain’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.”
The NFL may be gaining an understanding of its need to let black players express themselves to their fans. The league has loosened up the penalties for touchdown celebrations, which has so often been a vibrant space for black player expression and trash talk on the field. Now, players can celebrate while using the football as a prop, celebrate as a team and celebrate on the ground, which were previously 15-yard penalties. And the ESPN Twitter account promoted a Week 5 Packers vs. Cowboys game with a video of battle rappers DNA and K-Shine rhyming about their favorite teams at a barbershop. It’s a start, and a sign that the NFL is inching toward some of the cool points that the NBA snatched. But with Kaepernick still unemployed, the league, stuck in its ways, continues to scramble without a sophisticated strategy or uniform approach in place.
Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them. But the NFL is at a crossroads at a time when black culture is simultaneously as powerful, relevant and under attack as at any point in American history. What side of that history is the NFL going to stand — or kneel — on? The almighty National Football League has decisions to make, and so do its players and fans.
Musician Kid Rock, who is both the “KING OF DETROIT LOVE” and the creator of “Sweet Home Alabama,” said he is not racist because “I LOVE BLACK PEOPLE.” Right-wing radio host The White House, whose high-profile occupant believes the human body has “finite amount of energy,” went into lockdown after a yoga mat was thrown over the north fence. Cable morning show Fox & Friends, once compared to a children’s show by The New York Times, compared Sept. 11 memorials to those of the Confederacy. New Orleans Saints running back Adrian Peterson, who averaged just 2.5 yards per carry during the preseason and 1.9 per carry last season, said he wanted to run the ball up the Minnesota Vikings’ “Donkey” after rushing for 18 yards on six carries. An employee of the Chelan County (Washington) Emergency Management Department posted a meme of a stick figure being run over by a vehicle with the headline “ALL LIVES SPLATTER.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was caught “liking” graphic pornography on his official Twitter account; the senator’s communications team said the “offensive tweet” was “posted” to Cruz’s account despite that not being how likes work on the social media platform.
Musician and habitual line-stepper R. Kelly attempted to promote new music by tweeting a message that said, “All it takes is one ‘yes’ to change your life” followed by a graphic of repeating “Noes” with a “Yes” nestled in the middle. A student loan refinancing company reportedly maintained a work environment where the (former) CEO slept with multiple employees who were not his wife; an executive drunkenly crashed his car after sexting a subordinate; and where colleagues had sex in parking lots and public restrooms, where multiple toilet seats had to be replaced. A separate company, once again proving you never eat at the company potluck, had one employee stop breathing and others fall severely ill after they ate a shrimp casserole. Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, definitely not mad online, released a new NBA Finals-themed shoe that includes every critique directed at him over the past year imprinted on the insoles. Former NFL wide receiver Steve Smith,
who had 2,641 yards and 12 touchdowns in his six-year career, was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame because voters confused him with five-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith Sr. Black conservative radio host Larry Elder, who once tweeted, “The welfare state has done more to destroy the black family than did slavery and Jim Crow,” tweeted, without a hint of irony, that “ ‘Uncle Tom’ is a more destructive pejorative than ‘n—–.’ The latter is an insult. The former stops blacks from independent thinking.”
The White House misspelled African-American Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s name as “Tom.” The Minnesota Vikings, a team that built a new stadium that kills a lot of birds, hired an 18-year-old author and public speaker to serve as its “Gen Z Advisor.” The New York media is upset that professional dancers and part-time athletes Odell Beckham Jr. and Russell Westbrook had a dance-off during a live Wyclef Jean performance. A day after Kid Rock told protesters in his hometown they “can protest deez nuts,” the Detroit Lions declined to comment on a season-ticket holder posting a photo of two African-American fans on his Facebook page with the caption “Ignorant n—–s.” A Shelby County (Tennessee) strip club, where in 2016 a man was shot in a restroom and left a paraplegic, turned out to be illegally owned by the county, a new lawsuit revealed; the establishment, formally named Babes of Babylon, was ordered shut down in 2011 after “drugs, assaults, and prostitution got so bad at the club.” Retired boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., outside of the strip club he owns in Las Vegas, told an inanimate Hispanic puppet that he has seven girlfriends because “having one is too close to having none.” Hawaii walk-on quarterback Hunter Hughes had to twerk to the sounds of a trombone at a WWE event to earn a full athletic scholarship.
Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who employed Michael Vick when the quarterback was released from prison after a dogfighting conviction, Riley Cooper after the receiver was caught on camera saying, “I will fight every n—– here,” and Wendell Smallwood after the running back was arrested for witness tampering related to a murder case, said he wouldn’t sign Colin Kaepernick because “I don’t think anybody who is protesting the national anthem … is very respectful.” Peterson, still not letting it go, said he “didn’t sign up for nine snaps” when he signed with the Saints this season despite the team already having a starting running back and a quarterback who threw for more than 5,200 yards last year. Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, best known for repeatedly stating, “I’m here so I won’t get fined,” was fined $12,000 for “raising the middle finger on both hands” during last week’s game against the Tennessee Titans. Trump once called his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, disloyal and an “idiot” and told him to resign after a special counsel was appointed to lead the Russian investigation earlier this year. Wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, who recently was awarded $31 million for a sex tape he willingly participated in, called those without water and power in Florida because of Hurricane Irma “crybabies.”
Two weeks after being traded to the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has had only 13 days to learn the playbook and plays a different style from starter Andrew Luck, is expected to start for the 0-1 team. A former St. Louis police officer who reportedly yelled that he was “going to kill this m—–f—–” before fatally shooting an unarmed black man was found not guilty of first-degree murder. In completely unequivocally unrelated news, Kaepernick was named the NFL Players Association’s Community MVP after the first week of the season. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon wears no fewer than three shirts at all times; “Never two. N-e-v-e-r t-w-o,” his spokesperson said. Police officers in a Chicago suburb sold $10 raffle tickets at a Labor Day festival for the chance to win an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle; the town banned assault weapons in 2013.
Former Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe still lives with the aches and pains of the game.
There are the minor twinges that come and go. Discomfort from joint inflammation and soreness are to be expected. After all, Monroe dedicated the better part of 18 years of his life continually putting his body on the line. But then there is the pain that requires therapy, lingering issues from misdiagnosed injuries that Monroe said he didn’t even know existed.
“It’s kind of depressing because here I am a year later, rolling out of bed with my back hurting like I had practice yesterday, every single day. And I’m only 30,” Monroe said. “Retiring from football was retiring from playing football on the field, but I feel like I still have to do all the things I did while I played just to get through my day and not have my knee be swollen every day and have my back so tight that it hurts just walking around.”
Although fine-tuning his body is a constant in Monroe’s life, he has found a natural way to alleviate the daily aches and pains without the side effects of various pharmaceuticals generally used for pain.
Even as an active member of the Ravens squad, before retiring last July after being released by the team a month before, Monroe openly shared his thoughts about the use of medical marijuana in the NFL. Although the Ravens have never confirmed nor denied that Monroe’s advocacy was one of the reasons for his release, the message was clear that the organization did not back Monroe’s decision to openly advocate for the use of medical marijuana.
“I promise you, he does not speak for the organization,” head coach John Harbaugh said last offseason.
Whether Monroe got support for his cause didn’t matter much. The time he devoted to researching the positive impact of cannabis use and how beneficial it could be to those with chronic pain, especially fellow football players, was enough to keep Monroe steadfast in his journey to educate people.
“I reached a point that I realized I had been armed with enough real information. I’d done enough research and sort of got to a place where I understand that marijuana was healthier than most anything that any team doctor prescribed me,” Monroe said. “I thought it was time that someone who would be heard, a player that was active, talk about this because I saw guys that were retired trying to speak out about it and the message fell on deaf ears. I was determined to do what I thought was right.”
Another driving force was the fact that the execrable side effects from prescribed medication was something Monroe never wanted to experience again. One time in particular still stands out to Monroe. During the last year of his career, Monroe underwent surgery and was placed on injured reserve during his recovery. For the pain, he was prescribed oxycodone, an opioid used to relieve moderate to severe pain. Five days into taking the prescribed pills, Monroe felt spaced out and lethargic. At one point, while propped up in a chair, Monroe watched his daughter walk down the hallway of their home. He struggled to recognize her, and even questioned who she was.
“At that point, I decided I’d never take those pills again,” Monroe said. “They were definitely taking the pain away, but they were causing problems with me not recognizing family members and causing mental stress. Pills are addictive. I’ve seen it in my own household with my mom overdosing on heroin as a result of an addiction spurning from a prescription of pills for a car accident.”
According to the study “Injury, Pain, and Prescription Opioid Use Among Former National Football League (NFL) Players,” where 644 retired NFL players were surveyed, 52 percent used opioids during their NFL career, with 71 percent admitting to misuse.
“I continue to do this because it’s not just me and it’s not just the few players people hear about,” Monroe said. “It’s hundreds and thousands of guys who played football, period, who are dealing with things, whether issues related to potential brain damage or issues that they deal with physically, and everything else in between.
“Cannabis does help, and I’m not going to be shy about talking about it because of what people believe. At one point I hated cannabis. I grew up in a house where it was around all the time, but I also saw people get arrested all the time for it, so I had a very negative connotation for it and I believed all the bad things I was taught about it. Unfortunately, people believe that people involved with cannabis are bad. I do know it’s healthier than what we’re doing in sports in general now, and I believe that we can come up with a responsible way to implement it into sports.”
With football in his rearview mirror, Monroe is focused on educating, awareness and policy change. The former football player now serves as a board member of the NFL Players Association pain management committee, and also as an athletics ambassador for Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana in the United States, according to his website.
“We’ve actually reached out to the NFL to no avail, but hopefully through these continued efforts we’ll make a difference, whether it’s in the NFL, another league or just the overall impact we might have on marijuana access for people in general,” Monroe said.
A year and two months after announcing his retirement, Monroe has no regrets about leaving football after nearly two decades on the field. Family, advocacy and being healthy are now top priorities. The former tackle continues to train, and he uses cannabis every day before and after workouts to alleviate pain. Monroe said cannabis has replaced all of the pharmaceuticals he took before. There are no more anti-inflammatory pills, which he described as a “crucial tool” in his previous therapy.
As for football, Monroe doesn’t hate the game. If he happens to catch the game, he will watch to see how friends and former teammates are doing, and hoping they are healthy on the field. But for the most part, Sundays are now reserved for family time.
“I do struggle with what I feel about [the game],” Monroe said. “I’m not a person who’s doom and gloom on football. I think the future is really laid out, and it’s important to understand what that might look like and also try to fix it now as much as I can — as much as any player can. I love the sport, and I hope that we can make it healthier.”
Marion “Suge” Knight’s original terrordome was the defensive line. It’s where he starred for four years at Lynwood High School, 20 minutes from Compton, California’s much-loved Tam’s Burgers. Knight faces murder (among other) charges stemming from a January 2015 incident at Tam’s in which he is accused of barreling a Ford F-150 into two men.
Knight’s friend, Terry Carter, 55, was killed. Cle “Bone” Sloan, 51, was injured. All of this followed an argument near a filming location for the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. For the better part of three years, Knight has been held at Los Angeles County Jail, where he awaits a January 2018 trial. He is claiming self-defense. “He left the scene,” attorney James Blatt said in February 2015, “because he was in fear for his safety, and life.” Knight has shuffled through more than four attorneys since.
Wealthy white kids at Hollywood high schools were often the target of Knight’s shakedowns when he was at Lynwood. During the early ’80s, however, Knight was far more focused on sports than thugging: He earned letters in track and football all four years.
Harvey Hyde became the head football coach of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1981. At the time, the UNLV Rebels (recently on the wrong side of the most lopsided college football upset of all time) were new to Division I. The school, established in 1958, had gained national prominence via basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian’s “Runnin’ Rebels” program. It was up to Hyde to make UNLV a two-sport school.
Hyde still calls Marion Knight “Sugar Bear,” Knight’s childhood and neighborhood nickname. They met on a recruiting trip that Hyde made to Los Angeles County’s El Camino Junior College, where Knight excelled in the defensive line’s trenches. The Compton native was 6-foot-2 with big hair and an imposing frame.
Hyde, a player’s coach, brought Knight to Las Vegas. As a junior, he started at nose guard and defensive tackle and immediately became one of the Rebels’ best defensive players. Knight was voted UNLV’s Rookie of the Year, named defensive captain and won first-team all conference honors. In a city full of sins, Knight was apparently UNLV’s biggest blessing.
“[Knight] played his butt off,” said Hyde, whose coaching portfolio includes NFL stars Randall Cunningham, Ickey Woods and 2017 Hall of Famer Terrell Davis. “[Knight] was a ‘yes sir, no sir’ guy … the type of player any college football coach would love to have on his team.” Hyde was let go in 1986 after a string of damaging events for the football program, including burglary, the beating by a player of an off-duty policeman, the embezzling of video and stereo equipment, sexual assault and domestic violence, among other issues. Knight, a part-time bouncer at Vegas’ then-hot Cotton Club, wasn’t a blip on Hyde’s disciplinary radar. “He never, ever gave me a problem in any way.”
To many members of the UNLV team, and his close friend Tarkanian, Hyde was the scapegoat for a program he helped save. The lack of institutional control, they believed, wasn’t Hyde’s fault. Hyde has never spoken ill or shifted blame to anyone.
Knight may have been yes-sir-no-sir, but he was side-hustling: Books. Jon Wolfson, who in the early 2000s was a publicist for Death Row Records and is now the manager of Hall and Oates, recalls a conversation he had with Knight about his UNLV days. “He’d say something like, ‘Then I’d play the dumb athlete role and say, ‘Oh, Coach, I lost my books.’ ” The staff never second-guessed Knight, said Wolfson. “They’d give him brand-new books, and he’d sell them to make some extra cash.” Knight enjoyed two impressive seasons at UNLV in 1985 and 1986, lettering in both.
Yet, per Randall Sullivan’s 2003 LAbyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal, Knight’s demeanor became more ominous and reclusive during his senior campaign. Visitors from his hometown of Compton were frequently sighted, as Sullivan reported. Knight, too, moved in an apartment by himself, and was seen in several late-model sedans. And his reputation on campus evolved far beyond that of the friendly jokester he was the year before. He seemed a man involved in far more sophisticated situations.
Yet when Wayne Nunnely took over as coach in 1986, Knight’s athletic demeanor apparently remained consistent. “He wasn’t a problem guy at all,” Nunnely told the Las Vegas Sun in 1996. This was three days after Tupac Shakur was shot five times near the Las Vegas Strip by a drive-by assailant who remains unknown. Shakur and Knight were at the intersection of Koval Lane and Flamingo Road. Shakur, of course, died. Knight, by then better known as “Suge,” was then gangsta rap’s unquestioned, unrivaled and undisputed emperor. “You didn’t really see,” said Nunnely, “that street roughness in him.”
The gridiron roughness is something Knight didn’t hesitate to talk about. “I think the most important thing, when you play football,” Knight told comedian Jay Mohr in 2001, shortly after being released from prison for serving half of a nine-year sentence for assault charges stemming from the fight with Orlando Anderson in Vegas’ MGM Grand the night Shakur was shot, “you get the quarterback, you stick your hand in his helmet and peel the skin back off.”
He jokingly suggested, even after selling tens of millions of records and doing nearly a five-year bid, that he could still play in the league. “I think I could strap up and intimidate most of those [guys]. I think we could make a few deals and I’ll be like, ‘OK, look. Lemme get ’bout three, four sacks. I’ll let you get a few blocks. We’ll enjoy it.’ ”
According to teammates, Knight dropped out of UNLV before graduation. By 1987, he was back in Los Angeles. One of the biggest songs on the streets was Eazy-E’s gangsta rap bellwether “Boyz n Da Hood,” which dropped in March of that year. But before turning to hip-hop to plant the seeds of a future empire, Knight had one last gridiron itch to scratch: the National Football League.
The first overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft was Vinny Testaverde, who played until he was 44. The second overall pick was defensive stalwart Cornelius Bennett. There was also current University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye, 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon and Rod Woodson, the only Hall of Famer from this class. Former University of Oklahoma megastar linebacker Brian Bosworth and future Hall of Famer wide receiver Cris Carter were chosen in the supplemental draft. Marion Knight was not one of the 335 players selected. But the NFL eventually did come calling. The league was desperate.
As documented in the new 30 for 30 film “Year of the Scab,” NFL players went on strike shortly after the start of the 1987 season. Today, football players influenced by exiled Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick fight for their freedom of expression. Thirty years ago, players bucked back at ownership for freedom of agency. In 1982, players went on strike demanding 55 percent of revenue. The 57-day standoff cost the league seven games and $275 million in revenues. And another $50 million returned to networks. While united in both strikes, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) gained little ground in either.
“Free” agency in the 1980s wasn’t the spectacle it is today, with hundreds of players changing teams annually. “This was before free agency,” said veteran Los Angeles Times sports reporter Chris Dufresne. “[NFL players] really were indentured servants. They couldn’t go anywhere!” Players were, for lack of a better phrase, property — bound to teams for life. With rare exceptions, they did move to new teams, although many times those were star players with leverage, a la O.J. Simpson’s 1978 trade to the San Francisco 49ers.
Teams could sign free agents, but the cost was steep. The “Rozelle Rule” stated the NFL commissioner could reward the player’s original team with draft picks, often first-round selections, or players. NFL salaries did rise in the ’80s, primarily because of the brief existence of the United States Football League (an entity that featured team owner Donald Trump) and its willingness to lure NFL players with large contracts. But by 1985, the USFL was defunct. Even that era couldn’t hold a candle to the second strike. “The 1987 Rams season,” said Dufresne, “was the craziest I’ve ever had in journalism.”
Training camp started with star running back Eric Dickerson warring for a new contract. On Aug. 21, 1987, running back and former Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, after drug issues that plagued him while with the Cleveland Browns and at USC, was arrested after being found in a field. “[He had a] trash can lid, pretending to be the Trojan Warrior,” Dufresne recalled. “That’s how the summer started.” White led the NFL in rushing that same strike season, with 1,374 yards.
The strike started after Week 3. Players said they wouldn’t show up for Week 4, owners called what they thought was bluff, and then had to scramble to fill rosters with replacement players: former college players, undrafted players, construction workers, bartenders, even ex-cons. Replacement players, otherwise known as “scabs,” were ridiculed.
Somewhat like Faizon Love and Orlando Jones in 2000’s The Replacements, Knight was one of those replacement players. Dufresne, 30 years later, doesn’t recall the future head of a gangsta rap empire. “I have no recollection of Suge being there. I must have seen him,” he said. “[But] why would I remember him? How would anyone know who he was at the time? He was one of the guys that the Rams players were throwing eggs at.”
The strike lasted only a few weeks, but it got ugly. It sounds ridiculous to say Knight was bullied, but such was life in the NFL during the 1987 lockout for “scabs.” Knight, a man who would evolve into an intimidating pop culture tour de force, had eggs thrown at him. First-year Rams offensive tackle Robert Cox smashed the window of a van carrying replacement players after union players began rocking the van.
These incidents were common throughout the league. Frustrations were at a boiling point. Once stars such as Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Dorsett, San Francisco’s Joe Montana, the Oakland Raiders’ Howie Long and Seattle’s Steve Largent crossed the line, the NFLPA recognized the ship was sinking. “They had a weak union compared to the baseball union,” Dufresne said. “But the things they were fighting for were real.”
The strike lasted 24 days. Knight officially played two games as a Los Angeles Ram, against the Pittsburgh Steelers and against the Atlanta Falcons. Although Knight’s official stats are all but lost to history, this YouTube video compiled his official NFL stat line: eight plays, zero sacks, zero tackles and one penalty. John Robinson, Rams head coach from 1983-91, said the team had too many bodies that year between union and replacement players. He, too, has no recollection of coaching Knight.
“Suge,” said Dufresne, “was just an anonymous nobody in the surroundings.” The anonymity wouldn’t last long.
In October 1987, as the regular NFL players reported back to work, Knight’s rap sheet ballooned and his boogeyman persona began to take shape. In Los Angeles, Knight was charged with domestic violence after grabbing future ex-wife Sharitha Golden (whom he’d later implicate in Shakur’s murder) by the hair and chopping her ponytail off in the driveway of her mother’s home. That Halloween, he was arrested in Vegas for shooting a man in the wrist and in the leg, and for stealing his Nissan Maxima. With felony charges looming, Knight skated away from any serious penalty in part because of a contrite courtroom appearance and his history in the city as a famed football player. The felonies were reduced to misdemeanors: a $1,000 fine and three years probation. “I shot him with his own gun,” Knight told The Washington Post in 2007.
Three years later, in Vegas once again, he pleaded guilty to felony assault with a deadly weapon after pistol-whipping a man with a loaded gun and breaking his jaw. Knight again evaded serious penalty.
Knight by then was immersing himself in the music industry, serving as a bodyguard for superstars such as Bobby Brown. He eventually maneuvered his way into the circles of rappers like The D.O.C., Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E. Knight partnered with Dr. Dre to create Death Row Records in 1991. Dr. Dre’s 1992 The Chronic (Death Row/Priority) and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (Death Row/Interscope) the following year became instant pop gospels and solidified Knight and Death Row as not only major players but also undeniable and controversial cultural focal points.
It’s been years since Coach Hyde has seen his former player. He’s not sure if he will again, but, “You can’t get me to say anything negative about Suge Knight,” he said. “Whatever somebody is accused of, he’s still a football player of mine. He’s still part of the family when I was at UNLV.” Hyde pauses momentarily, then continues, “I’m not endorsing all the certain things they accuse him of, because I really don’t know. I have no idea! He doesn’t judge me and I don’t judge him. We just have our old feelings of each other. I just think that’s what it’s all about. You don’t forget people.”
“When I watch the news, it’s like I’m watching someone else,” Jon Wolfson said. “That’s not the guy I know.”
As for Dufresne, he’s not on either side of the aisle. He’s more shocked that Marion Knight, a guy he only mentioned in passing through roster lists, morphed into Suge Knight, the Death Row Records impresario who was once worth more than $100 million. Suge, he recalled, wasn’t the only notorious figure to come about during his time covering the Rams. Darryl Henley, a former cornerback for the Rams (1989-94), was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 1995. He is currently serving a 41-year prison term for conspiring to murder the federal judge who presided over his trial, as well as the former Rams cheerleader who testified against him. And the Rams’ 1996 first round pick, running back Lawrence Phillips, received a 31-year sentence for domestic violence, spousal abuse, false imprisonment and vehicle theft and was later charged with first-degree murder of his cellmate. Phillips committed suicide in 2016.
Dufresne recalled the bitterness of rap in the ’90s, the “East/West thing” as he dubbed it. And he remembered the personal sadness that followed Shakur’s murder. Yet, it wasn’t until this phone call where he put one and one together. Marion is Suge. Suge was Marion. Suge Knight was a replacement player during the most untamed year of my career.
“Marion Knight, out of UNLV, who did what a lot of guys did and had a dream to play [in the NFL] and maybe didn’t understand what the players were fighting for, he was just another guy,” he said. He stops, as if he’s shocked. “Little did we know.”
When retired NFL safety Chris Crocker was at the peak of his career, like many other athletes he signed countless autographs. Many of the autographs were done face to face with fans, while others were signed for dealers who negotiated with fans.
From that experience, Crocker set out to focus on the next chapter of his life: starting a technology company that would connect fans directly with athletes and teams to purchase signed merchandise while allowing players to maintain control of their brands.
In 2014, Crocker hung up his cleats after more than a decade on the field, and now he’s in the beta phase of his new technology company FanFlow, a website and app that will help fans purchase memorabilia online without a dealer acting as a middleman.
“Essentially as an athlete, you’re indirectly an employee of that shop or that memorabilia dealer,” Crocker said. “There’s a huge disconnect between yourself, him or her, and your fan base. I just didn’t like any of it. I just didn’t like the fact that I own my name, and you leverage my name for your monetary gain as a memorabilia dealer. I just thought that was just so wrong. All my colleagues dealt with this, but it was the only way. There was no other way.”
According to Crocker’s business plan, fans will choose the item and the player and customize their message. FanFlow will take it from there. The business is still in its initial phase.
“Choose the athlete you want that has an article you want, and then have that athlete personally inscribe it,” Crocker explained. “Along the way, we video verify it, and we give that to you. That’s really a connect, and the thing that we do with the video, which is an integral part of what we do. We’re able to expand on that video, and that customizes as well. It’s a form of engagement, it’s an experience. It’s really awesome.”
Each athlete’s signature has a specific price point, and they will be paid accordingly. FanFlow will take a percentage of each transaction.
“We not only offer a premium form of authentication; our platform makes it significantly cheaper to acquire memorabilia for consumers because there are no markups in the product, and alternately more profitable for athletes because of the same fact,” Crocker said.
According to Crocker, memorabilia dealers charge higher rates for the same product because they have to pay the athlete to sign and then sell the item to make a profit. “This easily doubles the price,” he said.
FanFlow’s beta phase was launched in 2015 and has only one team on board: FC Cincinnati of the United Soccer League. No other teams are under contract in any major sport yet.
“This is for intentional reasons, as we don’t necessarily want to divulge our go-to market strategy,” Crocker said. “Our platform doesn’t depend on having working relationships with sports franchises. We have the option of working with big-box retailers as well. Everyone sells the same merchandise, and FanFlow gives the competitive advantage because of that very same fact.”
Crocker has invested a significant amount of his own money. He says he has attracted outside funding, which he is not yet disclosing. “We are in a seed round of fundraising, and the company valuation has yet TBD,” Crocker added.
Crocker was a third-round pick in the 2003 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. After two years with that club, he spent time with the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings. He spoke with The Undefeated about the transition from football, getting his business off the ground and investing in yourself.
How did you become interested in a tech company?
I conceptualized this while I was playing. Before we actually dove into this, it was all about the research and trying to figure out who does it, and who’s in this space, who’s doing what we’re doing, what are some of the similarities. Then trying to sort the company, who could help us build it, because at that time I could never put together a team.
How did you decide on sports memorabilia?
I felt like if I could just create a platform where you could empower the athlete so that he could control it, it really is the right thing to do. It’s about time that the athlete can leverage his own brand, and if someone else is going to sell your likeness, it should come directly from you.
That’s why I wanted to … really create something that, in my opinion, really transcends the relationship between athletes and their fans. Because when you think of memorabilia, it references a point and a time, whether that’s in your life or what you were doing at that particular time.
What’s been the hardest part of the tech journey?
It’s probably just getting people to listen sometimes. I think with any entrepreneur that’s probably the common struggle, that when you think of something, when you want to invent something, you just need people to listen. You need that feedback, because some people are going to say, ‘Hey, it’s a great idea.’ Then some people are going to tell you, ‘No, that’s a terrible idea.’ You’re able to evolve and to really create something great because of not only the good advice but the bad advice.
I would say that’s probably the struggle, just that it’s hard sometimes to get people to listen to you and believe as much as you do in the product you’re trying to build. I think it was hard for people to listen to me because, I’m a former athlete, right? I’ve never been in business for myself, I’ve never done anything like this. They’re looking at me as just, what are you doing? Obviously, I could build this product from the point of view of an athlete, but they’re like, ‘You’ve never been in business for yourself, so how are you going to really create something out of thin air that doesn’t exist and get people to adapt?’
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
The biggest struggle any entrepreneur faces is that you can only infuse so much of your own money into your product.
The best advice I’ve gotten on that front is people would talk about the power of being broke. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was broke, OK, that wasn’t the analogy, but sometimes you’re forced. What that can do is that can force you to make bad decisions. You can go either way, because there’s some entrepreneurs who let that affect them, and they build a product that’s not necessarily applicable to what they’re trying to do because they’re cash-strapped.
Someone once told me, don’t let that affect your decision-making process. You have to be very resilient that when you get to a point in your business where you need more capital, you still have to make sound decisions. I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind as, OK, I need the money but, Chris, make a sound decision. Don’t let that affect your next step. I would say that’s probably the best advice that I received.
During your playing years, were you seriously thinking about your post-NFL career?
I was thinking about tech. I was thinking about everything everybody else was thinking about. Investing in mutual funds, stocks, IPOs, franchises. I was thinking about everything everyone else was thinking about, but my wife [Karrie], we had a conversation one day and I was really hell-bent on doing this, and my wife was kind of on the fence.
It just hit me one day, and I just said to her — it just literally came out of my mouth — ‘Hey, we invest in other people’s businesses, other companies.’ I really felt, I was convicted, I really felt like why don’t we invest in yourself? Let’s take a risk on us. We can do this.
Instead of investing in the mutual funds and all the other stuff that is normal, I said, ‘Let’s just put the money into us and let’s take a risk. Why not? There’s a 50-50 chance it goes up, there’s a 50-50 chance it goes down.’ I put my money on myself. I’d bet on me any day.
What advice would you give to other NFL players or athletes about their post-NFL careers?
I would say, I think the opportunities are there now where they weren’t as much when I was playing. I think the NFL, the NFLPA [National Football League Players Association], they’re doing a much better job of allowing guys to sort of dive into other businesses, whether it’s internships, whether there’s a program for the opportunity programs that they put on.
I would say do as many of those as you can because you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to end up loving, but if you never try them once you’re done, those doors close. Every athlete told me that prior to me retiring: ‘Hey, you have these opportunities in front of you. People are more willing to listen to you now than they will be when you retire.’ I’ve experienced that firsthand.
I would just say, networking is really immersing yourself in other communities. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Do other things. Those opportunities could really turn into something else post-career.
You have two daughters (ages 2 and 5). What are you teaching them this early in life?
You really write your own story, and that you get out of it what you put in it. I also say that I do believe in luck, but you have to work really hard to get it. I continuously tell my daughters that there’s no reason why you can’t do that. You have all the opportunities right in front of you.
Entrepreneurship is real; you’re going to succeed and you’re going to fail by your own means. You are literally your own worst enemy as an entrepreneur. That’s the lesson that I teach my daughters. You’re going to get out of it what you put in it. If you don’t work hard, then the only person to blame is yourself.
Was your transition from football difficult?
I think for me, it wasn’t difficult at all. I think it was a little bit of a shock, in my opinion. I still have relationships and I stay close to the game. I’ve been afforded the opportunity where I can still go back to Cincinnati and walk into that building, and there’s no problem.
I’ve seen that I have a lot of colleagues or former teammates who can’t even go back into a building anymore. They treat them like a commodity, and I thought that was very, very sad and very tough to deal with for every athlete. That’s the thing that I think guys struggle with the most. I didn’t deal with it as much, but I did feel the fact that people didn’t respond as much. People weren’t as correspondent. Me being in my post-career, I just felt like athletes experience that, and I experienced it firsthand.
I was fortunate, and I said I’ll attach myself to something, such as officiating, at the time. I was fully immersed in that, but I had to step aside from that because this demanded every ounce of my attention, and you can’t do anything great if you’re not hands-on.
It was like I went from playing to directing to officiating and also from there into this venture. Both of those things, whether it’s officiating or this, it really was sort of, like, it allowed me to be flexible. I think that’s something that really attracted me about entrepreneurship is that, you know you work hard, you get to enjoy that. You’re on your own schedule. You’re your own boss. The ceiling is as high as you want. There’s an endless lot of opportunities.
It’s been good since I retired. It’s been very good. My wife has been great. Our daughters are young, and so we’re all about them. My life is really good. I think I was getting to the point, though, where I was going to be bored. If I wasn’t doing this, I can’t imagine the athlete that doesn’t do anything. He’s just bored.
What would you tell other entrepreneurs?
Chronicle every step so that you have the opportunity to look back. Because, shoot, where we were a year ago, we’re a completely different company. I think sometimes you have an idea as an entrepreneur, but it has to evolve. It may not end up looking like the end product, but you’ll get there some way, somehow. You’ll figure it out.
We were a completely different company from inception to now. Our product is all about the end user, and the end user for us is the athlete. Nothing works without the athlete, and so we had to build a product that we knew the athlete would use. The demand is already there, but you have to make it simplistic, you have to make it easy to process. When it comes to fulfilling these orders, the autograph signing, you have to make all those things simplistic for the athlete where it becomes a part of their schedule.