One man's vote for commissioner: Reggie Williams

Originally Published: July 5, 2006
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

Reggie Williams is being considered for the commissioner's position in the NFL. While I know that he is an out-of-the-box choice, I have known Reggie since the 1980s and hope that he is chosen to succeed Paul Tagliabue. I consider him to be an out-of-the-box candidate because he is not currently an NFL insider, and there has never been an African-American commissioner in any major pro sport.

Reggie has been an out-of-the-box person his entire life, battling and overcoming any obstacles in his path. I have no doubt that he can tackle the challenge of taking on the top job in the NFL with the same success.

Right now, he's battling his damaged knees. All that time as a player on the football field led him to his ninth knee surgery on July 3, and recovery from that is not the way he wanted to celebrate the Fourth of July. But nothing seems to be able to stop this man. I know he will be slower, physically, for a while, but the surgery won't slow down his brain or his guts. If the NFL calls him for a second interview, Williams' determination and confidence will be apparent to the people in the room, even if he's on crutches.

For more than two decades, I have watched other people be dazzled by that determination and that confidence. Reggie Williams knows he can do the job.

He has always faced skeptics. The kids in Flint, Mich., where he grew up, were tough on him. As kids often do, they teased him unmercifully for a profound loss of hearing, suffered at birth, which made communication difficult for him. He withdrew into his studies and developed his athletic gifts, while he worked on his ability to speak through therapy at The Michigan School for the Deaf in Flint.

Bo Schembechler, then the football coach at Michigan, was a skeptic, too. Schembechler didn't think he was good enough to play in Ann Arbor, and ended Reggie's dream of playing for the Wolverines.

He went on to star in the Ivy League; but near the end of his career at Dartmouth College, some NFL scouts were skeptical he could play pro ball. Chosen in the third round by Cincinnati, Williams played in Super Bowls XVI and XXIII. His 23 fumble recoveries are among the most in NFL history, and his 62.5 sacks are well up on the Bengals' career list.

Until Williams pushed aside the next set of skeptics and became a member of the Cincinnati City Council, no athlete I know of had ever held public office while he was still an active player.

I first met Williams when we both testified before a Senate sub-committee. Sen. Bill Bradley was attempting to get colleges and universities to publish graduation rates. They do it now as a matter of routine; but in the 1980s, grad rates were a murky -- and often scandalous -- secret. Most athletes were afraid to speak out about social issues. Arthur Ashe and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were among the very few famous African-American athletes willing to be heard on the subject of academics and athletics, but Williams stood tall in his push for increased academic standards for student-athletes.

It was not a fashionable position to take, but Reggie wanted all young people to be able to reach their full potential. He told the sub-committee that day that if a kid had athletic gifts, he or she needed to be a student first. You could see the admiration in which he was held by the Senators in the chamber. He was an orator, leading people. I thought that day that he could be a Senator himself. Or perhaps a minister leading his flock.

I met him again in the late 1980s at the opening of a new athletic complex at Dartmouth. I had been asked to speak at the ceremonies, which included a weekend of events featuring some of Dartmouth's highest rollers. Reggie had no communication problems whatsoever that weekend. I watched him go from table to table to shake the hands of many of Dartmouth's prestigious alums, and I saw the same admiration from them that I'd seen from the Senators. He was not Dartmouth's first African-American student-athlete; but very few Dartmouth grads, black or white, had gone on to play pro ball. And Williams was a city councilman in Cincinnati, where his 14-year career had finally come to an end.

Reggie Williams
NFL/WireImage.comReggie Williams forged his readiness for football management during 14 years as a Bengals' linebacker.
This Ivy League school was proud of the alum it saw that weekend.

Before he stopped playing, Williams won the Byron "Whizzer" White Award for humanitarian services from the NFL in 1985 and was named the NFL Man of the Year in 1986 and Sports Illustrated's Co-Sportsman of the Year in 1987. After his playing career, he joined the World League of American Football as the vice president and general manager of the New Jersey Knights -- making him, I believe, the first African-American to serve as GM of a professional football team.

He later became part of the NFL's executive staff and developed the first Youth Education Town (YET) in south central Los Angeles and Compton in connection with the Super Bowl, which became a prototype for future NFL contributions of educational and recreational facilities to Super Bowl host cities.

Currently, Williams is the vice president of Walt Disney Sports Attractions. (Full disclosure: ESPN is also owned by Disney.) When he took that job, Disney brass introduced him as one of only two African-Americans at the vice president level in the entire Disney company. Now, he directs more than 2,000 employees who run an incredible -- and inclusive -- series of events from one end of the calendar year to the other.

I know his staff well, because my office with the National Consortium for Academics and Sport was based there when we first moved to Central Florida in 1997. For four years, I had a close-up view of his leadership. I still take my students in the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program there each year to meet Reggie's leadership team as the capstone to my own class in leadership. The culture he creates there is that impressive. Nearly everyone with whom he works has bought into a shared vision, including those who have partnered with them as they have attracted multiple players in the sports marketplace.

For me, the most important and impressive characteristic of the work Reggie and his team do is their passion for young people. They are very profitable and very impactful in the sports world, while at the same time they use sport to help empower young people to believe they can achieve what they cannot see. Reggie builds bridges.

This week, Reggie told me, "The essence of success for Disney's Wide World of Sports is breathing passion into diversity every single day."

The NFL has made a commitment each year to do better regarding diversity in its hiring practices. The league now has seven African-American head coaches and five African-American general managers. Becoming the first major American sports league to hire an African-American commissioner would add an exclamation point to that progress.

Imagine Reggie Williams, NFL commissioner, breathing his passion into diversity every single day. Imagine him expanding the NFL's commitment to youth to a global basis as football becomes an international sport. Reggie's ultimate vision of the power of sport to effect positive social change is this: all sports and all kids. He is already realizing that vision on the fields of Disney's sports complex in Orlando while he continues to build a successful business model with an amazing team of leaders pulled together from a blank page.

Imagine what he could do if he could take over an enormously successful sports business enterprise such as the NFL. Williams has the world view that could help the NFL positively affect the lives of so many children who face some form of crisis on a daily basis. At its very best, sport can deliver dreams to those children.

I can imagine Reggie Williams delivering the NFL game, the NFL business and the NFL community in a way that will change the course of young people's lives.

I believe the NFL would be well-served and proud to have Reggie Williams as its next commissioner. He is the right man for the job.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com