Chief Executive Officer
Jocelyn Benson had a distinguished career before she ever became CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE). She started her career at the Southern Poverty Law Center investigating hate groups and hate crimes. Benson later joined the faculty and later became dean at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. This is where she met Stephen Ross, an alumnus of the law school. Yes, that Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins and one of the most influential businessmen and philanthropists. It was at this moment where Ross approached Benson about coming to lead RISE. Ultimately, Benson wanted a career in civil rights advocacy and she saw this as an opportunity to use sports as a way to advance social justice and civil rights work.
Ross started RISE in 2015 as an organization “dedicated to harnessing the unifying power of sports to improve race relations and drive social progress.” Ross reached out to the commissioners of each sports league and the heads of the major media networks to join the board of directors. This immediately provided credibility to the organization and major power within the space. Benson noted, “It is a historic collaboration of sports business leaders to use the power of the industry to improve race relations.”
RISE provides educational resources to athletes- at the high school, college and professional level. At its core, RISE is informing athletes and the general public about equality issues around race. The entire curriculum is developed in-house using best practices from around the country. The curriculum is experiential and informative by nature, and RISE strives to build leadership skills in student athletes through the lens of race relations. Benson said, “Our hope is that we can attract high school students to our 10-week program that focuses on implicit bias and micro-aggression. We teach them the basics, and as they go to college and turn pro, the curriculum becomes more advanced to truly relate to the audience at hand.”
More than 5,000 thousand student-athletes have gone through RISE’s curriculum, including hundreds of athletes at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Benson said, “We want to expand throughout the country. We’re in 14 states and will continue to expand because we need to educate future allies at a young and formative age. We research best practices to determine what works and what doesn’t work so we know how to train student-athletes to be better activists.”
In addition, every NFL rookie will go through a RISE program with an eye toward informing community leaders on how to advance social change. What makes this critical is that all of the skills are transferrable to any area. Benson continued, “Our athletes must buy into the idea that they are leaders in the community and that they are looked up to as heroes.” A second key initiative is the RISE town halls that occur throughout the country. These also occur at large events, such as the Super Bowl or the NBA All-Star Game. These town hall meetings provide an outlet for collegiate and professional athletes to have a conversation about the work going on in local communities.
As a 501(c)(3) organization, RISE encourages investments from individuals, foundations and corporations. Funding has come from Ross, but the organization is focused on building a sustainable revenue source. RISE is looking at sponsorship activation events that a team or league could own, as well as the possibility of attaching a name to the curriculum. Since the entire curriculum is free of charge, it will be imperative for RISE to identify sources of revenue.
RISE was created at a critical time as our country is at a crossroads. Social activism is on the rise, and athletes have begun stepping up like never before. Benson related, “My first day was the day that Colin Kaepernick took a knee on the field. Even before then, you had the four NBA superstars’ ESPYS speech and countless other examples of athletes stepping up to tackle social issues. Following Kaepernick’s protest, four Miami Dolphins players took a knee during the national anthem. We reached out to them to have a conversation about what would come next and how to make sure that their desire to advance social change would have an impact. It was more than just symbolic – we worked with those four players to develop a town hall meeting in conjunction with law enforcement, local activists and the team to improve police relations in the area. It all grew out of that moment and culminated with another town hall at the world’s largest stage: the Super Bowl.”
What makes RISE such a unique organization is the power and credibility provided by its champions. Benson stated, “We try to share best practices across the leagues and fan bases. Since league schedules are staggered throughout the year, we’re able to take what we learn from one league and apply it to another to ensure we keep the balling rolling forward.” Athletes are the unifiers who bring people together to provide solutions. Since the organization focuses on the athlete, RISE is able to narrate these stories through its media partners. According to Benson, the biggest success she’s seen is the number of lives changed through the curriculum. “We’ve been able to meet young people before they go through our program, and we’re able to see their attitude shift. These athletes understand how important it is to work together across divisions to be successful in life and on the field.”
One of the proverbial challenges that a non-profit faces is how to persuade an athlete to give time and resources. For RISE, this comes a bit because of their connections within the industry. The lessons learned off the field or court can be directly applied to being on the field. Benson said, “Athletes come from different backgrounds, so it’s important to learn to work through their differences in order to win a game. We see this as a driving factor in addition to the morality that surrounds these issues. In addition, boards of directors and businesses that are diverse are more likely to be successful. The economics of sports will improve if organizations promote diversity.”
When looking into the future, Benson didn’t hesitate to say that she expects a growth in what we saw in 2016. She hopes that RISE will have curriculum in every state in the country and that the organization will be working with teams and athletes in each community. “As perhaps the need grows for leaders to bring different types of people together, more leaders will step up in the sports industry to fill that need. What history has shown is that sports can be a leader in race relations. I hope that by doing this, we can lead the effort over the next five to 10 years to position ourselves as leaders in advancing social change and bringing people together to celebrate what unites us.”