How Trump’s Attack on the NFL Could Be a Catalyst for Social Change

President Trump and Vice President Pence continue their “divide and conquer” strategy to drive new wedges between Americans. The administration is trying to pit professional athletes — primarily African Americans ones — against their mostly white fan bases, their team owners and even against our own military. It is ironic, and regressive, given that the world of sports has often been on the frontlines of social change — even as it has been a bonding and healing agent for Americans. We have seen the unifying power of sports during events like the 1980 Winter Olympics “Miracle on Ice” and the aftermath of 9/11.

Trump’s political strategy continues to exploit the underlying reality that too many Americans — black, brown and white — are getting lost. Too much of our nation’s talent is getting lost. We see black and brown lives cut short by police bullets, sidelined in the criminal justice system, and stifled by inadequate K-12 schools. Even those who get to college, too often lose their way on the path to economic mobility. Working class white communities, too, continue to languish economically, making them more vulnerable to the death-spiral of substance abuse.

We need to continue to protest social and racial inequities, but only by addressing the underlying problem of lost potential will we restore hope in our communities, and restore confidence in the American Dream.

A powerful solution is right in front of us and, ironically, it draws from the world of sports that the President mocks and demonizes. Sports is the one area of our society in which those with talent and work ethic don’t get lost — regardless of race or economic background. There is a system in place to identify and develop athletic talent at all levels — recreational, amateur, and pro. Within one generation, we have progressed to the point where young Americans of all backgrounds can nurture similar athletic aspirations and find a clear path toward developing the genuine confidence they belong on the playing field. The system is not perfect, but it works because we have put a few core elements in place.

● We have made it clear what high performance “looks like” so athletes know what it takes to get to the next level.

● We provide coaching and skill development instruction to everyone, at every level.

● We surround athletes with accelerating networks of peers, mentors, and connectors.

None of these fundamentals exist, however, in the much more complicated world where 99 percent of us make a living and pursue economic mobility. In the professional world outside of sports, we are left to figure out on our own what high performance “looks like” and what it takes to advance. We invest in coaching only for those who have already risen to the executive suite — and generally only after they have a problem. The accelerating support network is a luxury available almost exclusively to white men who remind those at the top of themselves.

For the rest of us in the 99 percent world, here’s what it takes to fulfill our potential over and above talent and hard work: a high-performing white male near the top, who is someone we probably don’t know, must first find us; he must decide we are worthy of induction into his secret society, and he must share the unwritten rules for advancement. Only then will he coach us up to that performance bar, and share his network of relationships, which we all require to keep driving forward.

No wonder millions of talented, hard-working people are getting lost and falling far short of their potential. No wonder the privileged have become even more privileged, while opportunity and wealth gaps have widened. No wonder high growth companies that provide career opportunities and economic mobility to their employees have so little diverse talent progressing up the ranks, even though colleges are graduating more minority and lower income white students than ever before.

We can turn the corner, but only if we build a sports-like infrastructure to develop talent outside of sports. We can give everyone the winning playbook that demystifies what it takes be a high performer and advance. We can make first-rate coaching available and affordable at every educational and career transition point. We can scale support networks just like we have scaled social networks. This would transform our communities that are struggling and transform the talent pipelines of our institutions.

I am confident we can because it’s already working where we have tested it. My nonprofit organization, Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), is just one example. Every year we equip 1000 black, Hispanic, and Native American college students, as well as early and mid-career professionals with the winning playbook, coaching, and connections. Ninety-eight percent of our college student fellows land high-trajectory first jobs averaging $70K, bringing immediate economic mobility to their families, and 95 percent get admitted to top graduate schools. When mid-career managers receive MLT’s playbook and coaching, 75 percent get promoted within a year. We don’t guarantee our fellows success, but they trust that our approach maximizes their chances of accomplishing their goals, so they put in the work. When they see the results, they elevate their aspirations, develop the genuine confidence they belong at that next level, and they help others around them do the same. Anyone who has been an athlete would recognize these stages of the journey.

I challenge the athletes, entertainers, CEOs, philanthropists, education leaders, and politicians Trump is demonizing to join together to build out a sports-inspired infrastructure for those who are getting lost at the highest rate — minorities and working class white Americans. The athletes who are speaking out for racial equality through their peaceful protests are living examples of how the sports system can drive economic mobility, create visible role models, and increase philanthropy from inside our communities. This approach would fill a void that is intuitively obvious but for some reason has been hiding in plain sight. We have already demonstrated it works in a sizable test bed of the minority population, so a bold new strategy is far less risky than staying the current course.

Let’s commit now to giving every American the same chance in life that we provide in sports, so we can move beyond protest to real progress.


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