At the Detroit Lions team practice on a sunny summer afternoon, the petite woman with blond hair coiffed just so turns plenty of heads as she strides across the field looking as if she owns it.
Which, in fact, she does.
She is Martha Firestone Ford, the 89-year-old widow of William Clay Ford Sr., who died at age 88 in 2014 and left her — among other things — control of the Detroit Lions.
On this day at team headquarters, Ford is paying one of her regular visits. She chats in a conspicuous way on the sideline with Jim Caldwell, the head coach, and Martin Mayhew, the general manager.
Several factors make this Motor City scene peculiar and unique. Not every National Football League team owner is as visible. Few teams have even partial female ownership (Ford is one of just two women listed as full owners among 32 franchises). And Ford’s Lions are the only team to have both an African-American head coach and an African-American general manager.
Left: Jim Caldwell, head coach of the Detroit Lions. Right, Martin Mayhew, general manager.
With this sort of diversity at the top, it’s understandable that the Lions in June received a “Closing the Gap” award from New Detroit Inc. for “advancing race relations.” A few months before, they earned a special citation from the Fritz Pollard Alliance, named after pro football’s first black coach in 1920. The alliance encourages minority hiring.
When asked about the New Detroit award, Ford says: “It just means we pick the best people, whoever they are.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the team went an encouraging 11-5 last season, Caldwell’s first in Detroit and Ford’s first in her current circumstances.
How times have changed — and not just with the Lions winning in double digits for only the second time this century and making the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
In 2003, the NFL fined team president Matt Millen $200,000 for failing to interview a minority candidate in filling a head coaching position. (The Lions say they invited several, who turned down face-to-face interviews.)
That was the first and only (so far) discipline under the “Rooney Rule,” an affirmative-action policy championed by owner Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After 2003, under three more white coaches, the Lions won 55 games in 11 seasons. But Mayhew — in the organization since 2001 — was promoted to general manager after Millen was fired. Last season, he hired Caldwell, the team’s first black head coach.
Caldwell’s record was the Lions’ best since Wayne Fontes’ 12-4 in 1991 during the Silverdome era. (Curiously, Fontes also was considered a “minority” coach because his father was Portuguese.)
Of Caldwell, Ford says: “I think so highly of him. I think he’s absolutely the most wonderful coach.”
Of Ford, Caldwell says: “She knows football. She’s on top of everything.”
One thing she tops is a management team of many female and minority people in power positions on both the bench and in the executive boxes.
Teryl Austin, who is African-American, is the defensive coordinator and a logical candidate for a head-coach opening on another team.
Cedric Saunders, also African-American, is senior vice president of football operations.
The chief financial officer, the recently promoted Allison Maki, is female.
The senior vice president for business development and strategy, the recently promoted Luis Perez, is a Hispanic male from Cuba.
The senior vice president for marketing and partnerships is Elizabeth Parkinson, a woman.
“You look at the faces that walk in our building and it’s incredibly diverse,” says Tom Lewand, a white male who is team president. “Different races and ethnicities. Different ages. Different geographic backgrounds. It makes for a much more robust environment, a lot more talent, and a lot more thought leadership. … I do think it reflects our community.”
Diverse as the staff may be, the focus is always on the head coach of any color. To the public, Caldwell projects a guarded politeness and President Obama-like calm. He is one of six current minority head coaches and one of 17 hired since 2003.
When he started coaching as a graduate assistant in 1977 at Iowa after playing four years there as a defensive back, Caldwell recalls: “There were not any African-American head football coaches in Division I [college], nor were there any in pro football. And, so, obviously we’ve come a long way.”
As coaches often do, Caldwell calls sports a meritocracy, where “there’s opportunity out there for everybody and things are moving in the right direction.” NFL diversity means more than his team. “I think there are 71 women that are holding positions of vice president or higher,” he says of the league.
Given that white males in the past may have at times favored their own kind in some businesses, including sports, is Caldwell worried that there may come a backlash, a feeling by some white players that black bosses are favoring their own? “I don’t think so,” he says. “I don’t think there will be enough examples for them to point at in that regard.”
To the same question, Lions wide receiver Golden Tate — an African-American from Notre Dame who flourished under Caldwell — says: “I would hope not. We’re all brothers.”
Lewand barely considers the possibility of reverse discrimination. “I don’t see a whole lot of people focused on who’s playing favorites or who’s not playing favorites,” he says. “We have good people with a common agenda.”
It would be good to hear Mayhew’s views about such topics, for he inherited a team that went 0-16 in 2008 and reached the playoffs in 2014. But he declined to be interviewed despite many attempts. He is a most interesting man. When he played for Washington, as a rookie, he snuck off at night to Georgetown law school.
Shortly before the Lions drafted Matt Stafford with their No. 1 choice in 2009, Stafford met with Mayhew. The quarterback told The New York Times (the same writer as this article): “He’s a very intelligent person. I think he’s more of a listener.”
In the same report, Mayhew — a former cornerback who blended well with high-profile teammates on several teams — said of himself: “I don’t think I’ve ever been a big ego guy … I’ve also dealt with the pressure of being in the spotlight and having that target on my back every week. It’s kind of the same way now.”
On the race question, he replied then: “It’s just part of where we are. We’ve progressed a lot. Opportunities come, and you have to make the most out of them. I plan on making the most out of this.”
All this befits the son of Ronald Mayhew, an elementary and middle school principal who encouraged education and religious faith in family in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“I’m not bragging, but we had certain rules and standards to live by and it worked,” Ronald Mayhew told the Times in 2009. “There was no child abuse, but there was a lot of tongue-lashing. I said to him, ‘Think for yourself; don’t follow the crowd.’ ”
Like Mayhew was, Rashean Mathis is an African-American cornerback and has logged some 13 seasons. Like Mayhew, he sees the progress and the bigger picture from experience.
Mathis notes that advancement often comes with help from others, citing Caldwell’s apprenticeship under the African-American coach Tony Dungy in Indianapolis. “Everyone is on the back of someone else,” he says. “The mentor. And our first lady is the owner. The world is turning. You can see that times are changing.”
Tate was more specific. He grew up in Tennessee and his elders told him of their youth when the local sheriff said they were not welcome in some stores and restaurants.
“I don’t like to hear about those things,” Tate says. “The United States has a black president now. Hopefully, we can move away from the racism and discrimination and sexism.”
Maki, the chief bean counter, oversees a business worth $960 million, according to the annual Forbes Magazine valuations reported last August. That ranked 30th in the league, ahead of only Buffalo and St. Louis. Dallas led with a valuation of $3.2 billion. The Lions — successful last season — are likely to move up in impending new valuations.
Maki has worked for the team for a decade and says resistance to having a female executive has declined even in those years.
She mentions that she is the only female CFO among the four Detroit sports teams. Does the increased presence of Ford have an effect?
Maki answers carefully: “It’s commendable that she’s stepped in and shown herself engaged in this business. We do interact with her on a regular basis.”
Parkinson’s business-side duties include cutting deals with local restaurants to market their food at Ford Field and providing professionally produced pregame shows on the plaza outside.
“I’ve been sought by the NFL, other teams and leagues specifically for my perspective and instinct,” she says. “It’s an honor.”
Neither Maki nor Parkinson implies that Ford is sparking a feminist movement within the franchise. But Parkinson adds: “Mrs. Ford is an intelligent, engaged owner. She is very savvy, knowledgeable, and supportive. She also has a great sense of humor.”
Ford, who turns 90 in September, is an intriguing element in this bedrock franchise. In past years, as her husband aged, their son William Clay Ford Jr. took a major role.
But now, she is listed as “owner and chairman” and he is listed as one of four vice chairs, along with his three siblings. Although Ford stresses she consults all of them on major decisions, she leaves the impression that she’s now the boss.
She attended all home and road games last year and showed up at league meetings.
“It’s wonderful, I’ve loved it,” she says. “It’s a big part of my life.”
Her involvement grew, she says, “ever since my husband died. Before that I kind of, you know, he was the one that was the owner.
“So I let him do my calls.”
Mayhew hired in under her husband’s ownership of the Lions and Caldwell’s arrival coincided with Ford’s first year in charge.
Keeping score of all this in Washington is John Wooten, chairman and co-founder of The Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation.
Wooten played offensive guard for the Cleveland Browns during the 1960s and recalls by phone that Lions President Matt Millen said in 2003 that he could not find any qualified minority candidates to interview back then. That’s changed.
“We give them, every team, a list, every December,” Wooten says.
Speaking about the current Lions’ management makeup, Wooten said: “What they’ve done has been totally outstanding. Any and all work should be totally open to the best man or woman.”
Wooten also notes that the San Francisco 49ers have the NFL’s highest-ranking executive of color in newly promoted team president Paraag Marathe.
Will the NFL ever see a black owner? “I think there is a possibility,” Wooten says. “I’m not sure I’m going to see it in my lifetime.” He adds that he never thought he’d see a black president, either.
Should an NFL team get a black owner, what franchise might it be? Considering that teams are often closely held by families, it is relevant that Ford’s granddaughter — Eleanor Ford, daughter of William Clay Jr. — two years ago married an African-American man, Joseph Cobb, who is the son of celebrity TV news anchor Carmen Harlan.
Long ago in Detroit — and in the clubby worlds of sports ownership (not to mention in the Grosse Pointes) — such a marriage would have been shocking for its racial component.
In their case, well into the 21st Century Motor City, it was simply among the details.
Caldwell, who was also asked about future black ownership, replies: “I’m certain there will be.”
Mathis, the defensive back, gives a thoughtful look and ponders the question. “I don’t know,” he says of ownership. “It’s a brotherhood.”