There was nothing elegant about Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson’s attempt in the mid 1990s to buy the moribund Washington Bullets NBA franchise from Abe Pollin. “I made the appeal from a sociological perspective,” Johnson later told The Washington Post. “I told him, ‘Abe, you’re from the suburbs, I’m from the city. You’re white, I’m black. The city is mostly black, and the players are too.’ ”
The racial math may have made sense to Johnson, but Pollin didn’t bite. Throughout his career, Johnson has relentlessly traded off his skin color to get ahead—while at the same time, he’s been criticized by other African Americans for having little social conscience. In any case, eight years after trying to buy the Wizards, he has won a team of his own. Last month, Johnson made history when the NBA awarded him the Charlotte franchise to replace the erstwhile Hornets.
It wasn’t the racial sleight-of-hand that Johnson tried to foist on Pollin that carried the day, but the same thing that gets anyone a pro franchise: cold cash. Johnson paid the NBA some $300 million, more than twice the fee the last expansion franchise brought.
Johnson’s acquisition was just the latest evidence of a man elevating his money game to heights unseen by African Americans. Beyond this, it also showed Johnson, again, positioning himself as the point man for rich white guys who want to get a message out to minority America. When George W. Bush waged war on the estate tax and social security, Johnson lent an assist by framing both debates as civil rights issues. In joining the NBA’s elite club, Johnson is helping to insulate the league against charges of running a plantation. “I think that diversity in ownership was important to the NBA,” says Charles Farrell, head of Rainbow Sports, a division of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH coalition. The NBA, adds Farrell, “clearly said it’s time we have a minority owner in the NBA, where 85 percent of the players are African American.”
Johnson is a curious figure to play messenger to the people. He has repeatedly denied any social obligation to other black Americans, and his cable network reflects that belief. Criticism of BET has run the gamut from accusations of marketing stereotypes to union busting.
Bryan Burwell, sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and contributor to HBO’s Inside the NFL, says he has “very mixed feelings” about Johnson’s purchase of an NBA franchise. “I know it’s one of the greatest stories of the American dream that we can read about,” says Burwell, who’s African American, “but he also did some things that disturbed a lot of people. Incredible original programming, a place where black filmmakers could have gone—that didn’t happen [at BET]. My concern, now that he’s an owner, is, What kind of owner will he be?”
Yet despite such questions, the league turned to Johnson, if only because there is not a single African American who can equal his resources. “I don’t think there was a particular African American owner that came forward that had the means, the desire to be involved in the NBA,” Pollin told the Post. Johnson “is the first gentleman to have the means and desire.”
For black America, Johnson’s “means and desire” have often translated into maximum profit with minimum effort. BET made its millions primarily by stocking its lineup with music videos and some general entertainment shows. The network has generally spurned new programming, in favor of acquiring canceled black sitcoms and selling airtime to televangelists and other infomercial hucksters.
Beyond weak programming, BET has often found itself at odds with labor. In 1999, when the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists discovered that BET was paying its comics only $150 for appearances on Comic View (the industry standard was $500), 100 comics—including Richard Pryor and Jay Leno—signed on to an ad pointing out BET’s penchant for penny-pinching. BET didn’t back down, moving its production of Comic View from Los Angeles to Atlanta, in hopes of finding comics with less business savvy.
Johnson didn’t respond to interview requests from the Voice. But his views on social responsibility have occasionally surfaced. “What are my responsibilities to black people at large?” Johnson asked rhetorically in an interview with C-SPAN in 1992. “If I help my family get over and deal with the problems they might confront, then I have achieved that one goal that is my responsibility to society at large.”
Johnson for years argued that BET had to underpay its talent and couldn’t afford to do much original programming because of financial constraints. So, BET’s critics hoped that things might improve after Viacom bought the network from him in 2000. No dice. Viacom-era BET actually made the outlet skinnier by redoubling its efforts to acquire syndicated shows and canceling three of its non-entertainment shows: Lead Story, Teen Summit, and BET Tonight With Ed Gordon (the newsman who wound up grilling Trent Lott).
Johnson had invested a paltry $15,000 to get the cable channel off the ground in 1979. He sold it in 2000 for $3 billion. Johnson’s own net worth is estimated at some $1.2 billion. According to Newsweek, in 1999 alone BET’s net profit was $85 million. Despite his rocky relationship with many other African Americans, Johnson is now their sole representative on the highest rungs of America’s economic ladder.
For the NBA, Johnson is a double coup—not only is he a deep-pocketed owner, but he adds to the NBA’s well-earned reputation under commissioner David Stern as the most progressive major sports league. “No one’s color-blind, certainly not David Stern,” says Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at Penn’s Wharton School of Business. “This is an issue that has remained on Stern’s plate. The name that has always come up has been Bob Johnson. Most people say it really only makes sense.”
But Shropshire, who is African American, says the jury on Johnson is still out: “The debate within the African American community is about the kind of product he put out. He has a national black network and he’s put out videos and infomercials, and recently he’s cut out news. Does it relate? I think this is one of those situations where criticism in the African American community is more focused than in the broader community.”
What is clear is that Johnson will not be able to run his NBA team like he ran his cable channel. At BET, he enjoyed a virtual monopoly over black programming; in the NBA, he’ll have to compete and win. “Will he be the kind of owner we can proud of?” asks Burwell. “Will he be a maverick like Mark Cuban? Will he be like the Maloof brothers out in Sacramento? Or will he be like Mike Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals, where all he is doing is cashing in?”
Burwell adds, “For a great CEO who runs just a regular business, what’s the most important thing? Satisfying the stockholders. That doesn’t work in sports. If you are the Cincinnati Bengals and you’re making money hand over fist, but you have sucked, you aren’t a good owner. And if he is a lousy sports owner, he will hear about it, and black folks who are good basketball fans will let him know.”