Sports Outside the Beltway

Reggie Williams for NFL Commish?

Richard Lapchick hopes the NFL gives serious consideration to former Cincinnati Bengals lineman Reggie Williams to replace Paul Tagliabue as its next commissioner.

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.


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.


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 don’t know much about the man but he certainly has an impressive resume. And, certainly, putting a highly qualified black man in that post would send a powerful signal.

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