Opinion: Role of businesses, sports are changing during polarizing timesMay 31, 2022
May 31, 2022
It’s an honor to serve as chairman of this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, which annually brings together business, civic and government leaders from Michigan and the rest of the country.
Seven years ago I arrived in Detroit to embark on a new career. My journey began with a conversation with Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Mark Barnhill, his partner at Platinum Equity. On a blank sheet of paper, they drew a series of concentric circles. At the center was the Pistons. The circles represented the many opportunities that radiated outward by utilizing the team as a community asset. Tom wanted the Pistons to make an impact.
The upshot of that meeting was that I joined the Pistons organization as vice chairman and ended my 35-year career as a player agent in Los Angeles. Suddenly, I had new purpose. I was no longer a so-called super-agent; I was what Tom called a “change agent” with a mission focused on executing his vision for the franchise.
Running the organization has enabled me to combine my interests in sports, business and philanthropy. To my delight, our team has accomplished some great things. Most significantly, we moved the franchise out of the suburbs and back to the city, where we have actively participated in Detroit’s revitalization.
The most visible aspect was agreeing to play our games in a new downtown arena, but we made much more than a game-day commitment. We moved the entire franchise downtown, building a new training facility and headquarters in the heart of Detroit, in a partnership with Henry Ford Health. That allowed all our employees to become embedded in the community and involved in urban life.
We also partnered with another anchor institution, Wayne State University, to build a new arena that serves as the shared home of Wayne State’s basketball programs and our NBA G League development affiliate, the Motor City Cruise.
Perhaps most importantly, the Pistons have engaged with many civic and charitable organizations, committing millions of dollars to improve the lives of the region’s youth and provide them with a foundation for a better future.
These concentric circles of contact and impact, radiating out from the basketball team at the center, are what Tom meant when he described the organization as a “community asset” with a unique opportunity to be impactful.
To be clear, a sports team is ultimately judged by winning, which is why we have taken steps to overhaul basketball operations and restore the franchise to competitive greatness. The process is difficult, and there is no guarantee of success. Losing is painful and deflating, and the repercussions can ripple across entire organizations.
Our roadmap to sustainable success requires rebuilding through the college draft and being strategic in free agency. Which is what we are doing. The Pistons now have a solid nucleus of young talent to build around — players like Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey are part of a long-term solution that will lead the Pistons back to contention.
But success on the court is sweetest when balanced alongside success in the community. We believe that corporate statesmanship is part of the long-term solution not only for a revitalizing Detroit, but also for our increasingly divided country. Sports is a microcosm of society, and a public testing ground for many of the racial and socioeconomic issues facing our country.
It is also a platform that can unite people and serve as a vehicle for change. At a time when our loudest, meanest voices seem to grow in power and prominence, we can no longer afford to be silent; inaction is not an option. It’s our belief that companies should play a more visible public role in social and political issues.
It’s our belief that businesses whose leaders publicly stand up for shared values and advocate for issues of consequence to their employees, customers and other stakeholders generally see positive impact to their reputation. It’s our belief that corporate leaders have an obligation to speak out on matters like equity and climate change, and then back up statements with tangible actions.
In the months since the homicides of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other people of color at the hands of police, many of our players have spoken personally and poignantly about the grief, trauma and shattered trust Black Americans are experiencing. Rather than surrender to their collective anxiety, they and other team employees have channeled their pain and outrage into plans of action for everything from voting rights to police reform.
Two years ago we turned our practice facility into a voting center that enabled Detroiters to register and vote onsite. We have also launched programs that encourage local police to engage in open, honest dialogue with community leaders and Black youth.
The theme of this conference is the changing role of business in polarizing times. I came to Detroit mindful of Tom Gores’ vision to be impactful not just in Detroit sports, but in initiatives impacting business, education, community and economic development, civic involvement and revitalization of Detroit, its surrounding communities and Michigan as a whole.
As vice chairman of the Pistons and chairman of the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference, I feel duty-bound to use sports to bring our political, business and civic leaders together, to develop greater empathy and build relationships so that we can have a more civil society and better address the challenges and adversity we face while creating opportunity, growth and prosperity in our city and our state.
Arn Tellem is chairman of the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference and vice chairman of the Detroit Pistons.