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Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality hires Diahann Billings-Burford as new CEO

‘We’re going to … help give athletes a platform’

The Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), which was founded by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to help bridge the nation’s racial divide, has hired Diahann Billings-Burford as its new CEO.

Speak with Billings-Burford even briefly and you get the sense that this no-nonsense, African-American, Ivy League-educated, self-described “Brooklyn girl” is well-prepared for the challenge.

RISE uses an alliance of sports leagues, organizations, athletes, educators, media networks and sports professionals to promote understanding, respect and equality. Billings-Burford succeeds Jocelyn Benson, who served as CEO for two years and is moving on to run for political office in Michigan.

Billings-Burford, who formerly held positions in New York City government and at Time Warner, steps into the position as the NFL grapples with the new civil rights movement in sports and athletes across professional leagues are making major contributions in social activism. That means there’s even more opportunity to partner with athletes in effecting positive change in communities of color, Billings-Burford said.

“With RISE, we have this ability to galvanize people across all races and all classes and, in particular, people across tons of sports leagues in the United States to address racism, to address social justice and improve race relations,” she told The Undefeated. “We’re going to be a vehicle to do that, and to amplify that, to help give athletes a platform.

“I love that we’re seeing so many more athletes empowered and educated. We’re going to help in that space. We’re going to help in the platform space and really figure out what are some things we can put in front of them to move the needle on these topics. That’s a big order. But I think RISE is up to doing all of that.”

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is a member of the RISE board and chaired the search committee that selected Billings-Burford. “She has had experience not just in the front office and not just in the boardroom, but in the schoolyards and the streets and in the neighborhoods with community groups, diverse community groups of all types,” Tagliabue said in an interview. “She had to deal with situations where you could not assume that one size fits all. You had to listen to different points of view. Different groups with different interests.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Yale University and a law degree from Columbia University, Billings-Burford went on to head NYC Service, a division of the mayor’s office, engaging New Yorkers in a variety of volunteer activities. NYC Service helps New Yorkers connect to service opportunities, identifies volunteers to address the city’s needs and promotes service. During her time at Time Warner, Billings-Burford served as executive director, cultural investments and vice president of the Time Warner Foundation. She led the companywide college internship, employee community engagement and community investment programs in New York City. She also managed the grant-making and operations of the foundation.

Based on her personal experiences “and having juggled difficult topics both at the mayor’s office and in the public sector, [the position at RISE] is something that I’m for sure prepared to do,” she said. “Our country has been grappling with race almost since its inception. It is such a complex issue.

“It impacts literally everything we do in this country and even beyond it. I wouldn’t say that anybody who’s seeking to really have an impact, and we’re going to have an impact at RISE in this area, and anybody who understands, race, racism and racial justice could think that this is going to be an easy thing to do. But I think I’m prepared to help lead this organization do the difficult thing.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.