File under: much ado about nothing. Or perhaps: who gives a damn? Maybe: get over it.
I can’t be the only one bothered by the manufactured controversy over the Washington Wizards’ Black History Month “Inspire” campaign. In case you missed it: The Wizards (more accurately, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the Wiz, Washington Capitals and Washington Mystics) ran this campaign every day in February. It featured portraits and quotes of athletes and executives from every Monumental team spliced with pics and quotes from their favorite African-American historical figure.
As far as black history tributes go, it’s bland. The concept was moderately creative and some of the images are jarring (really, y’all should have left out the G-Wiz/Benjamin O. Davis mashup) but let’s not pretend we haven’t seen worse tributes to Black History. If anything, Monumental missed an opportunity by not labeling every employee with their corresponding titles. Every young basketball fan in DC knows who Garrett Temple is. There’s a good chance they don’t recognize any of the black folks working behind the scenes at Monumental, and many of them don't know an off-court career in sports is attainable.
Monumental should have properly introduced Mystics vice chair Sheila Johnson, one of the most successful black businesswomen of our time, or Lew Strudler, listed on Monumental's website as senior director of corporate partnerships (translation: the black guy responsible for big-money sponsorships). Both appear in the campaign, but it’s not clear who they are unless you recognize or Google their names.
That would have been a legit, albeit small, gripe with the ads. A bigger, more valid one would be in pointing out that as Monumental fetes black history, its ownership and executive ranks are overwhelmingly white. Besides Johnson, only one other African-American, Earl Stafford, is listed as a minority partner (pun intended). None of the 11 people listed as non-partner executives is black. It’s 2015, and this company is based in Washington, DC -- a gentrified DC -- but still the same city that is one of America’s centers of black wealth and professional advancement. There’s no arguing that you can’t find black people in town qualified to be executives or rich enough minority partners. A company like this, in a city like this, with these diversity numbers is laughable in any month. An ad campaign can’t rectify that.
Yet this campaign was entirely ignored, until this image showed up:
Then some folks on Twitter lost their minds, as folks on Twitter do. Yahoo, Sporting News, Vice, Black Sports Online and others jumped in. The Washington Post covered it. None wrote about the non-existence of black execs at Monumental. All commented on how lame they thought Leonsis was for being a rich, white guy who co-opted MLK, as if that’s new. As if, in DC, it doesn’t happen at every breakfast emceed by any congressman for the 28 days between Jan. 31 and March 1. iCan’t.
King once said that, “The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.” What bends the arc is our collective indignation exerted against injustice. Indignation is powerful and must be wielded carefully, even in sports, to avoid being vapid and dismissible. Indignation is what made Donald Sterling no longer tolerable in the NBA (although the Association tolerated his bigotry for decades, until there was a Michael Jordan as a owner and a Lebron James, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to rally players in protest).
But indignation over the pictures in a run-of-the-mill Black History Month campaign won't bend much in the Wizards' front offices.