What is ABIS? The Voice for Racial Equity in Sports | Felicia Hall Allen and Gary Charles

The mission of The Advancement for Blacks in Sports (ABIS) is to connect and inspire people to boldly advocate for racial, social, and economic justice for Blacks in sports. Gary Charles (Founder and President) and Felicia Hall Allen (VP – Basketball) join Dr. Debby Stroman (VP – Racial Equity Research) to discuss that mission, how and why they all connected, and what they hope to achieve for today’s college athletes.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Welcome to If You Only Knew with Dr. Debby Stroman. I am so excited to have two superstars with me today, Gary Charles and Felicia Hall Allen. We are talking about the Advancement of Blacks in Sports. Gary, welcome. Felicia, welcome. Let’s start off with how you got started in sports. Did you all have sporting careers?

Tell me your connections. I’m going to start with you, Gary, as the founder of ABIS.

Gary Charles: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me on. Yes, I started in sports, I believe, when I was 12 years old. We had moved out to Long Island, New York, you know, from Brooklyn. We were in a suburb. My mother was not going to you staying in the house, so not only did I play sports, but I played basketball, football, baseball. I ran track, and I bowled. So, there was never a time where you were going to be home. So yes, I played sports all right.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Excellent. Felicia?

Felicia Allen: I think my grandmother was ahead of her time. Like, when I was in fifth grade, I started playing basketball.

Not because I was good, but God gave me long arms and legs. And I thought, you know what? I might as well do something with it, but my grandmother was always a sport fanatic, and we watched everything from the Wide World of Sports to Muhammad Ali to gymnastics. And I mean, we were just huge, too – even ice skating.

So, I’m really fortunate and blessed that by the time I got to high school, I learned how to chew gum and, and play basketball, and got a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa and played for hall of fame coach C. Vivian Stringer.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Wow, that’s a great connection.

In fact, I think we’ve talked about this, that we are all connected with coach Vivian Stringer. I mean, just a pioneer, just an angel to us. Gary, what’s your connection to coach Stringer?

Gary Charles: Well, I went to an HBCU school. I went to Cheyney State, now it’s Cheyney U. And when I was there, coach Stringer was the women’s coach, and coach John Cheyney was the men’s coach. So yeah, so coach Stringer was an unbelievable person.

The girls were really good. I can even remember a time when we were playing pickup basketball, as men we were choosing the girls to be on our team. That’s how good they were back then.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Well, we’re still that good.

Felicia Allen: There you go, there you go.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Felicia, any particular life lessons? ‘Cause I know, I mean, her book is wonderful. Any particular lessons that you want to share with us about being under the tutelage of coach Stringer?

Felicia Allen: Stringer’s book is entitled “Standing Tall,” and she always talked to us about how if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything, just all of these lessons that her father who was a coal miner and her mother who worked until – I don’t even remember her mom never working, but just, she was the epitome of what womanhood looked like for me. She was married, had children, so we were able to see the balance between what a family life looked like, having a husband who could love her. One of the things that she really instilled in us was that we should never accept crumbs for anybody. That we were not second class citizens. That we were ambassadors for the state of Iowa. She taught us to not make it – about not making assumptions about who people are, and just because people don’t look like you doesn’t mean they’re not on your team and that they’re not rooting for you. Sometimes we make assumptions about that. And she said, “Allies come, and champions and advocates come, in all shapes and sizes. But what I really appreciate about her more than anything else is just how she taught me to dream, and I respect the fact that we were able to learn how to use our habits to our advantage and that everything we want, we could have access to if we were intentional and consistent with the habits that we created.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Oh, that’s great advice. I was introduced to coach Stringer as being a youngster outside of Philadelphia, and we would go to Cheyney State as campers and I learned how to swim there, all the sports, everything. And knowing those great, great Cheyney women’s basketball teams and then watching, of course, her move from different schools and have success. And then I was able to connect with her about three years ago – I was up at Rutgers doing a presentation – and was able to stop by and spend time with her, so that’s a great connection that we all have. Now, I’ve seen you two in action over the past month in the development of this amazing organization, the Advancement of Blacks in Sports. And I see you have that drive, you have that assertiveness, what is necessary to make something happen. And we’re talking about racial justice in sports.

So Gary, can you tell us how it all got started?

Gary Charles: Sure. I saw the George Floyd, you know, killing, and I felt like I was watching a lynching. It was just, it just hit me like hard. And obviously this thing that’s happening has hit us in different ways, but I don’t know why this one really affected me.

So, I put out a video that went viral in regard to that, and I challenged coaches to do something about this, that it was time for us to stop talking the talk that it was time for us to walk the walk, so I just started to organize coaches around the country to try to make things happen. And through that process, I was able to meet, you know, Felicia Allen and through coach Stringer who, when I asked her to come on, she said, “You need to reach out to Felicia Allen.” That was the third time I had heard the name. And I said, “OK, there has to be something to this.” So, one of the best things I’ve ever done was to reach out to Felicia, so that’s how we all got, you know, got started.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Well, I don’t want to gloss over the fact of your outreach.

Now, you’re sitting here as a humble gentleman saying, “Oh, I just made some phone calls. I put out a video,” but, as I say, you’re the man. I mean, you’ve got a lot going on in boys and men’s basketball. So, tell us a little bit about – even how about the Las Vegas tournament. I mean, just so much that you do in this space, working behind the scenes.

Felicia Allen: Hey, Dr. Deb, he’s like the godfather of grass roots.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Yes.

Gary Charles: So, yeah, I’ve been around about 32, 33 years. Sonny Vaccaro signed me the first shoe deal through Adidas. And he gave me – one thing he said to me, “Gary, we’re going to start through the grass root to try to get the top players to sign.”

Through that process, I had met Kobe Bryant and his dad. Kobe was just a phenomenal young man, and I convinced Sonny that this was the young man that if you needed down the line, and I told him that he wanted to do it out of high school. And that was kind of like unheard of, so to speak, at the time. So four a year, Kobe’s dad and I were talking and meeting at each other’s house.

He lived in Philadelphia, so it was like a two and a half hour drive, and this was before cell phone. But that’s how you met, you know, personally, and we would go back and forth or we would do it convertly, so it wasn’t new. And then at one point Sonny even moved to New York. People though Sonny was moving to New York because of the Felipe López and Lamar Odom was coming up afterwards, because Lamar played for me.

They had no idea because of Kobe. And we would literally go to the Villanova games to go watch the game and go watch Carrie Cheadle, but Kobe lived five minutes away. So, that was under the banner of we came to was Villanova, but people had no idea. And I think once we signed Kobe, Nike felt compelled that they needed to start a grass root program organization.

And, and I don’t think these young people understand Kobe paved the road for a lot of them and a lot of jobs.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Well, I’m glad you’re not having to be covert in terms of the Advancement of Blacks in Sports, because you connected with the right people. I’m so excited to be involved. Felicia, can you tell us more about.

The operations of ABIS and our goal and, and what we’re, what we’re doing in this space?

Felicia Allen: I think, you know, what’s really been exciting, I think that Gary Charles really has been the master recruiter and putting together an all-star caliber roster of people to support him in this vision. It is totally a collective.

I think that it was brilliant that Gary said that a lot of times, the spotlight is on coaches. Coaches are the ones who elevate, train and develop the young people who we look up to as icons and stars in our world, but they are the teachers. And so, he started with the teachers. And before you ever get to college, or matriculate to the NBA, major league baseball or the NFL, you have a grassroots coach. You have a recreational league coach and that’s who Gary Charles has been and where he dedicated and committed his life, so he pulled together some of his buddies from all across the country, from LA, to Chicago, to New York, Atlanta. I mean, literally he touched all points of America, and then he reached out to some college basketball coaches that he knew and women’s basketball coaches, and we’ve expanded to baseball and track and talking to folks about boxing and golf. And so, one of the things that Gary had shared with our group during the formative stages is that this was bigger than all of us, which meant that it was bigger than one sport.

And so, there was going to be collective action at the grassroots, college and professional levels. And our aim for the Advancement of Blacks in Sports really is to create an equitable and inclusive culture where we can be advocates for racial, economic, and social justice and all aspects of sports.

And one of the things that our group talks about often is that we’re not looking for compliance, we want people to be committed. And when you’re committed to something, that means that legislation, policies, practices and the law has to change. And so, we’re seeking systemic change.

And we believe that that comes about as a result of a number of people collaborating and changing the laws on the books and the ways that we do things and the way that things are being enforced, so I’m excited to see how we continue to develop.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Well, you know, it’s interesting because the three of us have strong basketball backgrounds, but Gary, you were really intentional that we open it up to all sports because we know these barriers to access and the experience oftentimes that Blacks are receiving in the sport industry, means that we need change. When you said, you know what, I’m just not going to be all about basketball. Tell us about your thought process in saying that we need to open it up to all sports.

Gary Charles: You know, as I mentioned, I played a lot of sports, you know, growing up, and there were issues in every single one of them.

So, I just felt that we were closer than we really realized when it comes to the issues we have at the different sports. So we couldn’t call ourselves the Advancement of Blacks in Sports and just leave it up to just basketball or just football, right? Because you know, like, my daughter was a dancer and I watched her dance from the age of three to the age of 19, you know, so to speak.

So I felt that it was important that we included all the other sports because collectively, there’s strength in numbers. So I thought let’s get everyone together. Let’s discuss this. OK? Let’s see if we can do this together, and that was important to me.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Well, truly it is the dream team I’m looking at, you know, just thinking about some of the people that we have with us on the executive committee, from coach Dawn Staley, South Carolina, we’ve got coach Dave Leitao from DePaul, coach Nikki Fargas from LSU. We’ve got Bo Porter who is one of the leaders in this space of major league baseball and affecting change. So Felicia, can you tell us about the mix and how the ABIS is actually going to make change happen?

Felicia Allen: I think that we wanted to be intentional about having several touch points so that we could impact, again, all aspects of sports. And so from the grassroots level, Gary recruited the top AAU program from Nike, the top AAU program from Under Armour and the top AAU program from Adidas. So in Los Angeles, we have Etop Udo-Ema with the Compton magic. We have Keith Stevens who has the Nike program, and we have Terrell Myers, who’s with “We Are One,” with Under Armour. And then I think from there, we looked at some of the collegiate programs. Leonard Hamilton is probably the most successful and accomplished African American men’s basketball coach, but we didn’t want to just focus on power five schools. Jackie Smith Carlson, who’s the chair of the Women of Color Coaches Network and is that Furman University. We have Guy True, who’s a former employee of the NCAA in their enforcement department, as well as he was a director of player programs with the NFL.

We have Kimberly Morgan who ran track at Baylor University and then worked in the minority and inclusion department at the NCAA and later as a director of development with USA Track and Field. You know who I have really gotten excited about, Gary, Heather Palmore is the general counsel for the group, and Heather’s reach is so expansive. She has opened the door for us to have conversations with like Susan Taylor, the former editor of Essence Magazine and Kim Davis, who is the executive VP for strategic planning around minority and equity inclusion for the National Hockey League. But Heather also brought to the table Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney who has engaged with our group. And then Gary, through a longterm relationship with Michael Housefield, who’s a human rights attorney, he actually won the case against the NCAA for Ed O’Bannon. And so now we have this name, image, likeness conversation that we feel like we’re at the forefront of.

And Dave Leitao is a former chair of the Old Black Coaches Association and he’s one of the executive and senior leaders. Nikki Fargus from LSU has brought Robin Roberts to the table, and she’s gotten excited about the fact that we’re not just touching one sport, but we are attempting to bring in all sports.

So when we started to talk about a dream team, we said we wanted a dream team at all levels of the game. So you probably have heard me talk a little bit about every single level of the game – grassroots, college and pro – that’s the only way to create all stars, but we know, you know, who’s gonna, that’d be the secret sauce to this? Our research team which is led by none other than Dr. Deborah Stroman. So we have a racial equity research team, and they will be the ones – you Dr. Debbie, and Dr. Ari Martin at LSU, and Dr. Scott Brooks at Arizona State and their global sport Institute, and none other than the man himself, Dr. Richard Lapchick at Central Florida. We feel like the work that you all will do will really illuminate and amplify the racial divide and the disparate and disproportionality of just inequity that has been around and has become the status quo.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Yeah, and I wanna make sure I recognize Dr. Allister Roski and Dr. Joseph Cooper as well, but it’s more than us. And that’s the idea behind ABIS you might see our names on a website or hear us speak in a podcast, but behind every person there’s probably another 10 to 20 behind them. And so, being able to reach out to some of the most outstanding academics researchers across the country to be a part of the research team has been a blessing for me. Now –

Felicia Allen: Hey, Dr. Deb, I gotta say this because as much as we talk about, you know, being buttoned up and, and polished, I really like the fact that Gary also said, and this was really interesting, but he said, let’s make sure we get people who have names that are recognized no matter where you are. So he has been able to bring in one of his childhood friends, Chuck D from public enemy and everybody remembers them. And then Tracy McGrady, you know, was a great basketball player. Gary’s known him since he was 15 or 16. So I’ve been really excited to see the number of people who are coming in, you know, folk who are engaged in golf and tennis and boxing. This is going to be big,.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Very, very big. Now, we know what’s going on. Gary, can you tell people – how do they get involved? What should they look out for in terms of the launch of ABIS

Gary Charles: Take a look at the website, get some information, get to know us, OK? And we feel excited. Take that opportunity to go in and join our group because we’re going to try to do some big things and make some changes around here.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Well, I know we’re talking about the systemic barriers.

We’re talking about how legislation, whether it’s NCAA, whether it’s state, whether it’s federal, how that is affecting us, but also the student athlete on the ground. Felicia, can you speak more to the student athlete experience and how we want to assist how we want to help partners, institutions, the NCAA with this work?

Felicia Allen: I think that, so we have several different targets, so what we call keys to victory, and the student athlete is certainly at the core and at the center of much of our work. So our different keys to victory will focus on education and grassroots and community outreach. We will specifically focus on the student athlete, economic sustainability, and then racial equity and the state of Blacks in sports. So as it relates to the student athletes specifically, so much is made of creating more equitable opportunities for coaches to get jobs or athletic administrators to get jobs, but we said one of the things that we wanted to be different about us is we want to also make sure that student athletes, upon graduation, that they are connected to internship opportunities or postgraduate opportunities. They, we want, we want to do that by being intentional about their career building. So everything from resume writing to mentorship programs to creating opportunities for them to gain real work experience and maybe even participate in job fairs. As it relates to the grassroots program, we wanted to be intentional with having boots on the ground in local communities and looking at how we can empower support and connect grassroots leaders.

And then from an education standpoint, we totally believe that Black history is American history, and that it should be a part of curriculums, and that’s important. We want to make sure that we provide access for prospective student athletes. So like many other groups, we want to eliminate standardized tests.

We want to eliminate that as being a barrier, but I’ll tell you one of the things I’m really, really excited about that we’re doing. Is that we want to look out for everybody in our community, so economic sustainability, and economic justice. We look at the number of student athletes who compete for football national championships or in the final four or on the track and field, and we see a number of African American student athletes; however, when you start to look at who the NCAA conference offices and universities are awarding vendor contracts to, very very, very, very few are Black owned businesses. And we want to see some of those vendor contracts, at least 25%, be awarded to Black owned businesses.

And so, there’s a lot for us to get excited about because we’re talking about impact for Blacks in every community across America that has a grassroots program, a college program, or some sort of professional sports league programs, coaches and administrators, as well as student athletes, pro athletes, and just citizens at large who love and embrace and support sports.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Wow. That is a great, great platform. Again, I am so blessed and honored to be a part of the team. Now ,you two have a lot going on. When this is all over, and you’re sitting in your rocking chair, watching your favorite team play. What do you want to be remembered for? And Felicia, I’ll start with you. What do you want to be remembered for when this is all over?

As an attorney and one of the leaders of ABIS.

Felicia Allen: I’d like to have a legacy that outlives me. My personal mission in life is to help make other people’s dreams come true. In my bathroom, I have this saying, and it says “To the world, you may be just one person, but to one person, you might just be the world.”

I am so honored that Gary Charles invited me to be a part of his vision, and what I hope is the way that women have title nine, I’m hoping that we will be able to create some sort of national legislation that will outlive us and impact Black boys and girls, men and women, for generations to come. That’s what I want, I believe that we all have an opportunity to do good. I think Muhammad Ali said that service is the rent you pay while here on Earth. And ultimately, I just want to hear God say, well done my good and faithful servant. It was more about serving his people than it was about elevating me.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Thank you. Gary, the founder of the Advancement of Blacks in Sports, when this is all over and you’re sitting in your rocking chair, what do you want people to remember you for?

Gary Charles: You know, it’s amazing because all of us have accomplished a lot, but it always comes down to a couple simple things that you really remember or you think about. I was born in Haiti. I didn’t see my father for, I believe it was three years, because he came to New York to try and make a living for us, which he did, brought all four boys up.

And we ended up with a, you know, with a sister. I’ve never forgotten that because he could’ve easily just forgotten us, but he didn’t. So because of that, there was always one thing in my mind, and that was to be around to raise my kids. I’ve got three girls and one son, so I would only want be remembered for this: I was a good dad. That was I was there, you know, for my kids, you know, the whole time. That’s why I didn’t – I turned down the job to be Kobe’s agent. That’s why I turned down the job in other areas. I worked on Wall Street for many years, which, which made some of my decision easy, you know, so to speak. But at the end of the day, my driving force was my kids still, still is.

So, when I’m rocking on that chair, I’m want my grandkids to be able to sit down next to me. You know, say, thank you. Thank you for my, you know, my mom, thank you for my dad, OK? That’s really what keeps me going.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Well, thank you so much to both of you. Thank you so much for your leadership, with the Advancement of Blacks and Sports, for your work in your respective fields, how you’re making a difference for so, so many. And I’m excited about what we’re doing.

People, if you’re interested, at all ages, we welcome you to join us. We are looking for people who are interested in making a difference, a commitment. And so we are ABIS. We are the voice for racial equity in sports. Thank you so much, Mr. Charles –

Felicia Allen: Hey, Dr. Deb, I would also like to say we are the game beyond the lines and, and the background for your business, the Center of Sport Business Analytics, you say to look beyond the score and Dr. Debbie Stroman, we want to say thank you to you because we believe that through your work and through this podcast and other places where God has planted you, that you have allowed everybody to look beyond the score to focus on what really matters and that’s equal and fair treatment for all people.

And so, we’re grateful to have you are part of our ABIS family.

Dr. Debby Stroman: Thank you so much. Continue to success. Let’s go.

Felicia Allen: Let’s go. This train is moving.

Gary Charles: Let’s go.

Full Episode Transcript

If You Only Knew…with Dr. Debby Stroman is edited and produced by Earfluence, and brought to you by The Diversity Movement.

Intro and outro music provided by Soteria Shepperson.

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