Oct. 16, 2015
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Stephen M. Ross wants to see change RISE up from his vision for equality and understanding.
Ross, a major benefactor to the University of Michigan, his alma mater, hopes to make a social impact with The Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, known as RISE. He founded the nonprofit organization this year and also serves as its chairman.
"I was inspired to establish RISE because the sports community is uniquely positioned and empowered to spark dialogue and drive action that advances race relations now and for the next generation," said Ross, chairman and founder of Related Companies and owner of the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
RISE, based in New York, plans to develop strategic partnerships with the support of sports leagues, organizations, media networks, sports professionals and educational institutions.
A number of current and past Wolverine coaches and student-athletes have already taped initial Public Service Announcements for RISE -- including football coach Jim Harbaugh, men's cross country coach Kevin Sullivan, soccer forward William Mellors-Blair, women's gymnast Talia Chiarelli, 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard and basketball's Jalen Rose and Trey Burke.
Ross said: "I've had a long relationship with University of Michigan -- going back to my days as a student -- and I have always appreciated the opportunity to partner with the University. From the very beginning, the University was interested in and supported RISE's mission and we welcomed the opportunity to pilot our programs at U-M.
"As we continue to expand across the country, RISE looks forward to partnering with additional institutions of higher education, along with high schools and youth athletic organizations."
The Wolverines have embraced Ross and his initiative.
"Steve has a lot going on in business and has donated so much to the sporting community here at Michigan," said Mellors-Blair. "So, for him wanting to put this forward and put the RISE initiative in place speaks volumes towards his character. For him to do that shows how much he wants to stomp out these concerns using the power of sport."
Sullivan said: "I think that says a lot about someone who doesn't have to necessarily take a different view but is willing to step out and be a leader, and helping to make a lot of people a lot better."
Mellors-Blair was raised in Nottingham, England, and played two seasons at Georgia State in Atlanta before transferring to Michigan. He said living in Europe and the South provided him experiences related to seeing the need for acceptance, equality and diversity.
Stephen M. Ross
"Obviously, I was down South," said Mellors-Blair, who spoke recently while at the Stephen M. Ross Academic Center for student-athletes. "I lived in a predominantly black area, but we did take a few tours out to northern Georgia, which is predominantly white. And historically, in the South, there has been a divide between black and white people. It still shows; it's a prevalent issue down there.
"But with Stephen Ross trying to implement this initiative, he wants to combat that as his prime issue to get everyone on the same page and get them together instead of having this prejudice which exists today."
RISE is developing a meaningful curriculum and resources to provide tools for those desiring to identify, resolve and prevent racially-insensitive behaviors and situations.
"I don't know how long it will take for that to come about," said Mellors-Blair, "but RISE will be a great start for that by bringing it to light. I'd like to thank Mr. Ross."
His mother, Karen Mellors, is white and his late father, Winston Blair, was black.
"I grew up in a predominantly white area," said Mellors-Blair. "And, honestly, I haven't experienced racism in my sport or where I'm from. So, I never experienced it first-hand. But I know people who have. And when you are trying to compete for your team or your school, having that racial prejudice is really hard for an individual."
Mellors-Blair recalled programs in England called "Let's Kick Racism Out of Football" and later, "Kick It Out," that were backed by the major soccer leagues.
"Players wore black and white wristbands that were crisscrossed," he said, "and ever since then it's been better."
Sullivan, who competed in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games for his native Canada, said the exposure he gained on the international level impacted his views on being all-inclusive.
"RISE is about this -- about being open-minded and being accepting," said Sullivan, "and realizing that just because you live your life one way, that's not the only way to live a good life. There are a lot of really good people who do things in a different way, and we don't need to be critical or intolerant of that. We should embrace how other people live their lives as examples of how we can make ourselves better people."