August 20, 2021
From Athletes to Entrepreneurs
African American Success
Left to right: George Foreman endorsing the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine, manufactured by Spectrum Brands; Michael Jordan and Nike Air Jordan 1 shoes, part of a shoe endorsement deal said to be the largest in sports; Willie D. Davis in his studio for All-Pro Broadcasting, undated; and Mel Farr, Sr. at his car dealership, undated.
Professional sports has long been a doorway to not only athletic stardom, but also financial success, offering many, particularly in recent years, the chance at huge earnings and endorsements. These include two-time World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman; National Basketball Association (NBA) Champions Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry, and Lebron James; and golf champion Tiger Woods. Many former athletes also sought a career in which they could hone their entrepreneurial skills to achieve great success. 
Fritz Pollard, Brown University, c. 1915-1920 (left); and Fritz Pollard (standing) working with musicians as a talent agent, undated (right).
One early case in point is Frederick Douglass "Fritz" Pollard who, in 1922, established one of the first black-owned investment firms, F.D. Pollard & Co., just one year after becoming the first black coach in what would become the National Football League (NFL). Previously, as remembered by nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl Champion Harry Carson: “He [Fritz Pollard] was an All-American football player, quarterback, at Brown University [Providence, Rhode Island]. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”[1] Pollard subsequently signed with the Akron Pros where he led his team to the very first pro football title, earning him one of the highest salaries in the league: about $1,500 a game.[2] Pollard later formed and coached the football team, the Brown Bombers, in 1933 after the professional league was segregated. They showcased their talent for five years, with the NFL finally reintegrating in 1946. Pollard went on to establish the first weekly black tabloid, N.Y. Independent News, and founded coal delivery companies in New York and his hometown of Chicago. He also served as a tax consultant and talent agent, representing entertainers like Lena Horne and Paul Robeson.[3]
Miami Dolphin players on strike “for fair player contracts; for better pension,” 1987.
Bernie Casey (1939 - 2017), who played for the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams throughout the 1960s, told another story for many African American athletes: “It's a multi-billion dollar business… [But] for years they [professional athletes] got paid nothing… The owners… took all of the money… and said, ‘you should be glad to play, you're a pro… I'll give you ten grand [$10,000] a year.’ … it's changed so drastically.’”[4] In the 1950s, “The average player… was getting less than $6,000 per season… in 1970… owners agreed to a $9,000 minimum salary for rookies and $10,000 for veterans… The NFL strikes in 1982 and 1987 led to an explosion in salaries.”[5]
Willie D. Davis, Green Bay Packers, 1963 (left); and Willie D. Davis in an advertisement for Schlitz Malt Liquor, Ebony, 1970 (right).
Willie D. Davis, (1934 - 2020) two-time Super Bowl Champion and founder of All Pro Broadcasting, Inc. remembered: “You're talking… eighty-five hundred bucks for the season. You had to have a second job.”[6] This reality led Davis to earn his M.B.A. just before retiring from the NFL. He recalled: “One day I called Coach Lombardi [Vince Lombardi]… and I said, ‘Coach, when I started out in football… I didn't know that it was gonna turn out as well… I think I'm gonna drop out of the University of Chicago.’ … and he said, ‘The Willie Davis I know has never quit at anything’ … my last two quarters at the university, I was on the dean's list. Which… was one of the greatest achievements that I ever had equal to anything I ever did on the athletic field.”[7] Retiring from the NFL in 1969, “Davis founded Willie Davis Distributing in 1970, which distributed Schlitz along with other beer brands, and All-Pro Broadcasting, which now owns several radio stations, in 1976. Both were struggling, renamed entities that he turned around.[8] He sold Willie Davis Distributing at a profit in 1988, and All-Pro is now run by his son, Duane Davis. He also served on seventeen corporate boards, including those of Dow Chemical, American Express, and MGM Resorts International. Looking back, Davis said: “The first eight boards that I sat on, I was the first and the only black… some of that was driven by football… But I think the real invitation came when they discovered that I also had my… M.B.A.”[9]
Ben Davis, Detroit Lions, 1975 (left); and Ben Davis, 2015 (right)
Ben Davis, brother of activist Angela Davis, grew up helping his father run the service station he owned in Birmingham, Alabama. That instilled a strong entrepreneurial spirit in both him and his brother, Reggie Davis. Ben Davis went on to play for the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions, and he recalled this period in sports history: “You had to work in the off-season because the pay wasn't all that great. So, I worked in, in youth development… for the county… with Coca-Cola… in real estate, so I got a really broad exposure… and went to work with Xerox in the Office Products Division.”[10] After retiring from the NFL in 1976, Davis co-founded and served as president of Telecable Broadcasting of America (TBA), a cable TV provider in the Cleveland, Ohio area, one of the first African American cable TV companies in the U.S. Then, in 1986, in the middle of huge growth in the TV industry, he founded another cable TV company, as well as a radio station in Tulsa, Oklahoma (94.1 FM) three years later. 
Left to right: Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears, 1970; Gale Sayers, 2008; and the logo of Sayers, Inc.
With NFL Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowler Gale Sayers (1943 – 2020), after he earned his M.B.A., he initially served as assistant athletic director at Southern Illinois University, before moving “back to Chicago [Illinois] in 1983 and started my business [Sayers Group LLC]… I took a look at a couple opportunities in insurance and automobile dealerships. And… we decided on computers… they were just coming up.”[11] Thirty-eight years later, the company lives on with five other offices opening up across the country; Sayers having served as CEO until his death last year. He reflected: “The reason I really went back and got my degree was because… the average life of a football player today is three and a half years… you can't make enough money in three and a half years to last you the rest of your life.”[12]
Mel Farr, Sr., Detroit Lions, c. 1967-1973 (left); and Mel Farr, Sr. in his office, undated (right)
Two-time Pro Bowler Mel Farr, Sr.’s (1944 – 2015) second job while playing for the NFL similarly fueled his success later in life. In his interview for The HistoryMakers, he remembered 1973, his last year in the NFL: “I'd already been working at Ford Motor Company for six years in the off season learning the retail automotive business… I also went to school at night at the University of Detroit to finish up my [undergraduate] degree… I wanted to start my career as an automobile dealer.”[13] Then, “In '75 [1975] I purchased Mel Farr Ford in Oak Park, Michigan… and that's when Nate [Nathan] Conyers, Bill [William] Shack and myself--we started the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers [NAMAD].”[14] By 1998, it was the top African American business in the country and the thirty-third largest auto dealership in the country, grossing $596.6 million that year, before closing in 2003.
Hank Aaron, Atlanta Braves, c. late 1960s (left); and Hank Aaron BMW, Atlanta, Georgia, undated (right)
Former Milwaukee/Atlanta Brave and Major League Baseball Champion Hank Aaron (1934 – 2021) used his substantial income to become BMW’s first black dealer: “I went into the automobile business [Hank Aaron Automotive Group] and stayed there for a long time and approached it the same way I approached my baseball career… do unto others as you have them do unto you… I had four or five dealerships… We sold it… I was very successful, I'm thankful.”[15] In addition, Aaron owned nearly thirty food franchises throughout Atlanta, including Popeye’s restaurants and Krispy Kreme stores. 
Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers, undated (left); and Shaquille O’Neal, 2020 (right)
Four time NBA Champion Shaquille O'Neal, who holds both an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in education, took his earnings and invested first in the Five Guys' franchise where had a 10% ownership before he sold it to become a Krispy Kreme franchise owner. O’Neal has also owned several restaurants in Las Vegas and several Papa John’s franchises where he also served on the board of directors. O’Neal was also an early investor in Google and has owned forty 24 Hour Fitness locations. He credits Earvin "Magic" Johnson with showing him the importance and lucrativeness of being entrepreneurial, starting at age eighteen when O’Neal first entered the NBA.[16]
Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers, c. 1980s (left); and Magic Johnson Enterprises logo (right)
Magic Johnson has become a legend off the court with Magic Johnson Enterprises, an investment conglomerate now valued at an estimated $1 billion. Real estate entrepreneur Richmond McCoy spoke of Johnson during his interview with The HistoryMakers: “Magic Johnson… started this whole urban development business [Johnson Development Corporation] and business enterprises seven years ago [1994]. And, he indeed is starting a development fund to do projects in the urban corp.… And, we've talked to him about doing some movie theaters as well.”[17] Johnson did just that, and, along with owning 125 Starbucks stores, his investments include SodexoMagic, EquiTrust Life Insurance, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Los Angeles Sparks. While Johnson owns minority stakes in the Dodgers and Sparks, Michael Jordan is still the only African American to own a majority share in a professional sports team, the Charlotte Hornets. 
Oscar Robertson rebounding for the University of Cincinnati, 1959 (left); and the logo of Oscar Robertson’s Orchem Corporation (right) 
In 1981, seven years after leaving the NBA, Oscar Robertson founded Orchem Corporation which, as he explained, is a “specialty chemical company. We… make… almost anything you can think of that disinfects and cleans… we also own a document management company [Oscar Robertson Solutions]… We deal with cloud storage and archiving and records management.”[18] These companies continue to successfully operate out of Ohio, with the both industries set to expand, especially the specialty chemical market, expected to grow to $882.6 billion by 2028.[19]
Norm Nixon, Los Angeles Clippers, 1984 (left); and Debbie Allen and Norm Nixon, 2015 (right)
Norm Nixon, who retired from the NBA in 1988 after having played for the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, subsequently became a real estate investor and talent agency owner, representing “TLC, LL Cool J. I had Jalen Rose, Peter Warrick, Al Wilson… I had George’s restaurant, Odessa restaurant, quite a few restaurants in the early ‘90s [1990s]… So I was just entrepreneur-ing it.”[20]
Kobe Bryant visiting the New York Stock Exchange upon cofounding his venture capital firm Bryant Stibel, August 2016.
While some initially pursued business out of sheer necessity, the growth of entrepreneurial athletes will only continue. The late Kobe Bryant (1978-2020), for example, cofounded a $100 million venture capital fund to invest in media, technology, and data companies, as well as a media company, Granity Studios, which helped him produce the Oscar-winning animated short film, Dear Basketball. As corporate executive Glegg Watson noted: “That's how you build a race. That's how you build a community. You have to build wealth… They [black athletes] have the capacity to do that.”[21]
Game Changers and Breakout Leaders:
Willie D. Davis & Ben F. Davis, Jr.
Packers Lineman & entrepreneur Willie Davis speaks about his dream of becoming an entrepreneur
In honor of BusinessMakers: Breakout Leaders, we salute Willie Davis (1934-2020) former NFL Lineman for Greenbay Packers, entrepreneur, and corporate board member. Davis grew up in Louisiana where his childhood dream of being an entrepreneur took root.

In 1976, Willie Davis became President and CEO of All-Pro Broadcasting Company, where he ran four radio stations including KACE in Los Angeles, the number two adult contemporary station and WLUM, Milwaukee’s highest rated top-40 station. Earlier in 1968, he purchased the West Coast Beverage Company and served as its president for eighteen years and acquired smaller distributorships and led the company to steady growth, driving sales up from $2 million in 1970 to $20 million by 1988 while working as a commentator on the NFL telecasts for NBC in the early 1970s. Prior, Davis was drafted into the 1956 National Football League and played for the Cleveland Browns for two years before embarking on an incredibly successful career with the Green Bay Packer for twelve years and participating in Super Bowls I and II. During the last two years of his football career Davis earned his MBA at the University of Chicago.

Davis has served on the boards of the Sara Lee Corporation, the National Association of Broadcasters, Dow Chemical Company, MGM Mirage, Manpower, Fidelity National Financial, Mattel Toys, Schlitz Brewing Company, Fireman’s Fund Insurance, Alliance Bank, the Green Bay Packers, Occidental College and K-Mart. Davis is also an Emeritus Trustee for the University of Chicago and a Trustee at Marquette University. In 2001, Davis co-chaired and founded the Vince Lombardi Titletown Legends, a charitable organization created to assist various charities throughout Wisconsin. Davis was named the Walter Camp Man of the Year, was ranked 69th on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players and was given the Career Achievement Award from the NFL Alumni.

To learn more about Willie Davis, click HERE.
Ben Davis, Jr. speaks about his father, Bill Willis & Marion Motley of the Cleveland Browns, and more
In honor of SportsMakers: Game Changers, we salute Ben F. Davis, Jr., former member of the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions football teams and cable TV industry entrepreneur. Davis hails from a historically rich family which includes his father B. Frank Davis, the first African American to own a standard oil service station; his mother, Sallye Davis, an activist and teacher; his sister, Angela Davis, social justice activist and scholar; his sister, Fania Davis, civil rights attorney, activist, and scholar; and his brother, Reggie Davis, a businessman and teacher. Ben Davis describes his upbringing and Cleveland Browns players Bill Willis and Marion Motley, and Browns / Miami Dolphins wide receiver Paul Warfield.

In his rookie season as a defensive back for the Browns in 1967, Davis led the league in punt returns as well as in kickoff returns. In 1968, Davis started as a cornerback and led the Browns with eight interceptions. That same year, he also led the NFL in interception return yards with 162, the third best in Browns’ history and holds the record for seven consecutive games with an interception. A torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) benched Davis for one and a half seasons from 1969 to 1970, but he started for the Browns for three more seasons from 1971 to 1973. The following year he was traded to the Detroit Lions and played for them for three seasons before retiring in 1977.

After his NFL career, Davis joined the Xerox Corporation as a sales representative and in 1982, he co-founded and served as president of Telecable Broadcasting of America (TBA), a cable TV provider in the greater Cleveland area, one of the first African American owned and operated cable TV companies in America. Davis started another cable TV company in Jefferson Township, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, in 1986, which he later sold to the Centel Corporation. In 1989, Davis started a radio station in Tulsa, Oklahoma (94.1 FM) that he ran for five years before selling the station to Shamrock Communications. In 1990, Davis founded Britt Business Systems in Cleveland, which sold and serviced Xerox office equipment and he eventually retired in 2007.

To learn more about Ben Davis, click HERE.
[1] Harry Carson (The HistoryMakers A2016.015), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 1, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 1, Slating of Harry Carson's interview.
[2] Gary Waleik. “Fritz Pollard: The Small Running Back Who Broke Big Barriers,” WBUR, January 12, 2018, accessed August 16, 2021.
[3] “About Fritz Pollard,” Brown University Library, accessed August 16, 2021.
[4] Bernie Casey (The HistoryMakers A2005.229), interviewed by Paul Brock, October 4, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, Bernie Casey reflects upon the increase in black professional athletes.
[5] “NFL Salary History,” Career Trend, accessed August 12, 2021.
[6] Willie D. Davis (The HistoryMakers A2007.200), interviewed by Jacques Lesure, July 9, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 6, Willie D. Davis describes his offseason job as a substitute teacher.
[7] Willie D. Davis (The HistoryMakers A2007.200), interviewed by Jacques Lesure, July 9, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 2, Willie D. Davis remembers earning his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago.
[8] Michael Mink. “It's Been All Business For Packers Great, Entrepreneur Willie Davis,” Investors, January 21, 2017, accessed August 11, 2021.
[9] Willie D. Davis (The HistoryMakers A2007.200), interviewed by Jacques Lesure, July 9, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 5, Willie D. Davis remembers his service on corporate boards.
[10] Benjamin F. Davis, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2018.191), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 26, 2018, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6.
[11] Gale Sayers (The HistoryMakers A2008.124), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 24, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 5, story 4, Gale Sayers describes his computer hardware supply company.
[12] Gale Sayers (The HistoryMakers A2008.124), interviewed by Larry Crowe, November 24, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 4, story 7, Gale Sayers recalls earning a master's degree at the University of Kansas.
[13] Mel Farr, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2002.151), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 21, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Mel Farr recounts his last year playing professional football.
[14] Mel Farr, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2002.151), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 21, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Mel Farr remembers beginning his career as a Ford automobile dealer.
[15] Hank Aaron (The HistoryMakers A2016.064), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 1, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 4, Hank Aaron talks about his businesses and autobiography.
[16] Shaquille O’Neal, interview by Lee Hawkins, Shaquille O'Neal Discusses Investing, Franchising, and Donuts, Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2019.
[17] Richmond McCoy (The HistoryMakers A2001.047), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 9, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, Richmond McCoy considers the success of UrbanAmerica, L.P.
[18] Oscar Robertson (The HistoryMakers A2016.017), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 3, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 9.
[19] “Specialty Chemicals Market to Hit USD 882.6 Billion by 2028; Increasing Demand for Novel Compounds in Industrial Applications to Propel the Market, Says Fortune Business Insights™,” Globe Newswire, July 23, 2021, accessed August 18, 2021.
[20] Norman Nixon (The HistoryMakers A2019.110), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 15, 2019, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7.
[21] Glegg Watson (The HistoryMakers A2001.077), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 10, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4, Glegg Watson shares his thoughts on how black athletes use their wealth.