The New Color Line

The big shocker at last week's NFL draft came when Ricky Williams, winner of the Heisman Trophy at the University of Texas as college football's premier player, wasn't the first running back chosen. For a guy who hasn't even played his first NFL game, Williams has already been involved in more than his share of surprises. A few months ago he stunned the league when he dropped his agent from an established firm and became the first pro footballer to join rapper Master P's new sports-management group. In a deal sealed over sweet-potato pie at Master P's Baton Rouge, La., mansion, Williams signed on in front of a large ensemble of family and new friends. "That night it was all about family, not business," Williams told NEWSWEEK. "These people are going to be down for me through the good and bad--just like family. That's the fit I needed."

There were rumors--denied by the Indianapolis Colts, which passed on the Texas star--that Williams's draft slip was related to his new "family," who showed up en masse at one of the key NFL rookie showcases. But if some of pro sports' conservative owners are uncomfortable dealing with new faces at the table, they'd better adjust in a hurry. For the first time, large numbers of younger black athletes are opting for representation by fellow African-Americans. Just this season NBA stars Allen Iverson, Vin Baker and Ron Mercer have all dumped superagent David Falk for black reps. And they're not just signing with celebrities like Master P, Puffy Combs and Johnnie Cochran, who are courting athletes, but with unheralded lawyers, M.B.A.s and accountants as well. "For me it came down to having someone who understood me and what it means to be a black man in America," said New York Jets star Keyshawn Johnson, who signed with fellow South-Central L.A. native and USC alum Jerome Stanley before the '96 draft. "When I drive through my community, I want to feel I've given back 100 percent."

While black athletes have dominated major sports, especially football and basketball, for decades, many veterans admit they believed--or were convinced--that it was better to go with an established white agent. Less established African-Americans, the reasoning went, didn't have the savvy and experience to deal with sports' white power structure. "You still have guys out there who think whites can get them a better deal," says L.A. Lakers forward Robert Horry, who switched to black agents Carl and Kevin Poston a few years ago. "They need to wake up."

Iverson said his departure last month from the NBA superstar roster at Falk's FAME agency was primarily a matter of personal style. The former NBA rookie of the year is now interviewing three black agencies. "I'm looking for a comfortable match," says Iverson. Several Falk clients have complained that there isn't a single black agent at Falk's firm. Falk, who claims that 20 percent of his staff is black, defends his efforts for his large NBA client roster. "I've never had a problem relating to my clients," he says. "It's shallow to insinuate that this has anything to do with race."

But it's naive to pretend otherwise. "To Allen and many of these young guys out there today, being down with them is everything," says Henry (Q) Gaskin, a black Reebox executive who frequently lives and hangs with Iverson. "It's all or nothing-- no middle ground." There was no middle ground for tennis's brilliant new sister act, Venus and Serena Williams, either. "I hired all black [management] people," says their dad, Richard, "because I wanted them to know that their race was capable of doing anything it wanted."

So many successful athletes come from families with absent fathers that, black agents say, there is an urgent need for older male mentors. "The transition from urban culture to mainstream fishbowl is tough," says Stanley, Keyshawn Johnson's agent. "Black agents can navigate things like how to dress, speak and groom in a way that can be less offensive and that can make a world of difference in an athlete's career." Stanley also steered Johnson to major business ventures in L.A.'s inner city, hardly standard investment vehicles in white firms.

If Mike Ditka, the New Orleans Saints coach-general manager who drafted Ricky Williams, was distressed at the prospect of having his new star mentored by Master P, he hid it behind a fat cigar. And Williams was delighted that his new family, so reminiscent of the folks he grew up with in Louisiana, will be just an hour down the highway. "Most guys are only interested in money," says Williams. "They're not thinking about giving back to their roots.'' Pass the millions--and the sweet-potato pie.

Generation Next: They Gotta Represent Ricky Williams isn't the only rising black star who's recently chosen African-Americans to watch over his career. Other athletes who've hired black management include: