If Edward Rogers referred to Masai Ujiri as 'arrogant,' he gave the game away

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Edward Rogers attends a Rogers Communication Inc. meeting in Toronto in 2019. According to a Toronto Star report Monday, Rogers fought against Masai Ujiri being retained as head of the Toronto Raptors. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Edward Rogers attends a Rogers Communication Inc. meeting in Toronto in 2019. According to a Toronto Star report Monday, Rogers fought against Masai Ujiri being retained as head of the Toronto Raptors. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Six years ago I tried to initiate a move between departments at the Toronto Star, from business, where newsroom leadership sent me in 2011, back to sports, where I had spent most of my time and energy.

The sports editor was on board, and so, it seemed, were senior managers. But before we could make the trade, another decision-maker summoned me to his office to say he was blocking the move for two reasons. First, he said, companies don't let employees dictate their jobs. Didn't matter that I hadn't forced anyone to accept my proposal. I simply proposed it.

Beyond that, he said, I hadn't proven I deserved to move from a role I tolerated to one I would enjoy.

"Maybe," he said. "You're just not that good."

"Maybe," I said. "But have you ever read my work?"

"No."

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Of course he hadn't. If he knew my work he wouldn't have questioned its quality. When he asked, half-rhetorically, what I would offer the sports department, I ran it down to him.

Breaking news, game stories, and features with equal skill. I spoke near-fluent Spanish, the only bilingual journalist on the baseball beat the two years I covered it. I created the sports business beat at the Star, was comfortable on camera, and also the creative force behind Sportonomics, the video series syndicated in more markets than I could count. I also mentioned the National Newspaper Award. For sports writing. Just in case he still questioned my credentials.

His response was crisp, unambiguous, and ironic.

"You're quite full of yourself," he said.

I don't recount that story to win sympathy, or to dunk on my haters. I share it because I can imagine what Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri must have felt during the corporate drama the Star reported Monday. Imagine being the architect of the most successful run in franchise history, negotiating a new contract last summer, only to learn Edward Rogers, then-chair of Rogers Communications' board, actively tried to prevent Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment from re-signing you.

Imagine overseeing the club's only NBA title, and most importantly for people at Edward Rogers' level, a four-fold increase in franchise value, only to have Rogers dismiss you, according to the Star story, as "arrogant" and undeserving.

I don't have to imagine that hard because, like a lot of friends in corporate North America, I've lived a version of that scenario. Not saying I'm the Masai Ujiri of sports writing. A good day at work for me is a story with no misspelled names. A good day for Ujiri is an NBA championship, or persuading former president Barack Obama to hang out at Scotiabank Arena.

But Ujiri and I both know life at the business end of racial micro-aggressions, and recognize the burdens they impose on a long list of people. My friends and I often joke that Black people in corporate settings deserve at least five extra vacation days to decompress from the backhanded racism we encounter at the office, or as compensation for our unpaid labour as de-facto diversity consultants. The Star reports that when Ujiri learned the depth of Edward Rogers' disrespect, he considered taking a whole year off.

So we can, and we should, consider what racial micro-aggressions cost employees of colour in terms of time, energy, mental health, career advancement and salary. But we can also ponder what organizations lose when decision-makers poison the work environment for high performers who happen not to be white.

Hubris is part of the brand

Before we continue…

Of course, this is about race. The word "arrogant" gives the game away. If Edward Rogers disliked simple overconfidence, he wouldn't hang around the C-suite, where high self-regard is a job requirement. And he certainly wouldn't jet to Mar-a-Lago to pose for pictures with Donald Trump.

Even people who like the ex-president, and who buy his lies about a rigged election, wouldn't confuse him for somebody humble. The hubris is part of the brand.

When white people deploy the word "arrogant," they're aware of the racial freight it carries. That's why they use it. It's a label they apply to Black people who are good at their jobs, and who know it.

If you defy the limits (mostly white) decision makers set for you, outshine white colleagues who can't do what you do, and know your skill set makes you unique, brace for backlash. Where a white person with similar tools and attitude is confident or self-assured, you're arrogant or uppity or full of yourself.

One attribute. Two interpretations. Two standards.

If we're calculating the costs of subtle racism, factor in the good people organizations alienate when micro-aggressions spread unchecked, or filter into the process of hiring, firing, promoting and retaining talent. Consider who leaves, and who stays to rise in the company hierarchy.

To make it plain, ask yourself if you would trade Masai Ujiri for Edward Rogers. Before you answer, review Rogers' track record in high-profile personnel decisions.

In 2015 he decided to oust longtime Blue Jays president Paul Beeston. He didn't tell Beeston, but called White Sox executive Jerry Reinsdorf to inquire about poaching then-general manager Ken Williams. Except Beeston's circle of close friends includes Reinsdorf, who quickly called Beeston to tip him off about Rogers' plot.

Last week we learned Rogers concocted a plan to replace longtime CEO Joe Natale with CFO Tony Staffieri. Except Staffieri butt-dialed Natale, who answered his phone to hear Staffieri and other executives discussing the coup. Staffieri has since quit. Natale remains with Rogers.

And this week came the Ujiri news.

According to the Star, Rogers opposed paying him $15 million US a year, called Ujiri to tell him he wasn't worth the money, and tried to prevent a new deal.

Ujiri makes tough decisions that yield big results — the season after firing head coach Dwane Casey and trading fan-favourite DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors won the NBA title. He also helped build a system that lets the Raptors transform draft-night afterthoughts like Fred VanVleet and Chris Boucher into big-time contributors. He's like Daryl Morey, or the dozens of other cult-of-the-undervalued-asset executives making big money in pro sports front offices, except he actually has a title.

And Rogers? He hires and fires according to his whims, with half-cooked plans prone to backfiring. It's like Donald Trump meets Wile E. Coyote meets succession planning.

Thankfully for Raptors fans, Rogers only owns 37.5 per cent of MLSE, which means other stakeholders were able to shield Ujiri from the anvil Rogers tried to drop on him.

Blue Jays fans aren't that fortunate. Rogers Communications owns the team, and Edward Rogers is the chairman, with final say on big financial decisions, like how much money to offer free agents. It's a big responsibility this year, with Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien set to hit the free market, and no other major stakeholders to save Edward Rogers from his worst instincts.

If you're a Raptors fan, grateful for a few more years of Ujiri, send a Blue Jays supporter your thoughts and prayers. They'll need both.

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