M. Quentin Williams | Why retiring O’Ree and Clemente numbers is good business sense

M. Quentin Williams, founder and chief executive of non-profit organization Dedication To Community, explores the business upside if the NHL and MLB were to retire the numbers of former legends Willie O'Ree and Roberto Clemente across their respective leagues

It is one of the biggest clichés we have, “Actions speak louder than words,” and it is probably no more relevant than it is today. We have seen so many individuals, organizations and brands speak to the importance of action strategies as we address the things that divide us.

And for many, the words have been hollow. But for a growing number of people, there is a much greater push to invoke change through social good by listening more beautifully and implementing policies and practices that embrace diversity, belonging, and equity.

“Shut up and dribble” will never be acceptable again, nor will it be okay for companies to just say that they are committed to bringing change to society – locally, regionally, and globally – without actually putting the dollars and programs in place to drive the change.

M. Quentin Williams

Our organization, Dedication To Community (D2C), has been about creating positive cooperative change with groups in cities around North America for over a dozen years, and it has been an honor to be an active participant in the face of such challenging times. We work with a growing number of law enforcement groups, municipalities, youth sports organizations, colleges, teams, and brands to promote active listening, storytelling, and proactive calls to action in order to build a road to success.

And by the way, that road is not just good for the community, it constructs bridges for business as well – perhaps giving access to consumers who may have been hesitant to engage with an unfamiliar brand or individual.

We view human interaction as a key component to growth on every level, especially in a time when it is easy – and for some, acceptable – to hide behind a keyboard or a cell phone, and point fingers. Blame is easy. Building is challenging.

It is with that mindset of learning, bridge-building, and uniting that I saw two recent campaigns with a lot of potential, but they have yet to be executed. These campaigns, no doubt, would be extraordinary projects to educate society and create opportunities for business in and around the sports we love, and they both involve legends of sport in the Americas.

One is Willie O’Ree of the National Hockey League’ Boston Bruins, and the NHL’s first Black player. The other is the late Roberto Clemente of Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates. And both deserve to have their uniform numbers, 22 for O’Ree and 21 for Clemente, retired across their respective sports.

Thankfully, one of these legends, O’Ree, is still with us, but Clemente was snatched away at a young age, giving us an even greater understanding of his meaningful work while we had him here on earth for that short time. The supporters for both are weighing a more concerted effort now so that both get their due, in the form of recognition on the ice and the field, and in the eyes of anyone who touches a hockey stick or a baseball bat going forward.

I must admit, even though I was a student-athlete at Boston College and followed professional teams religiously during my time in Boston, I was not aware that O’Ree’s number had not been retired – even by the Bruins, who now plan to do so early next year.

Then there is Clemente, a Baseball Hall of Famer and noted humanitarian whose story and impact transcends sport. He is a hero to millions of Latinos, but has since his tragic passing in 1972 while delivering relief to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, he has become somewhat of a historic footnote.

I came across both of these shortcomings in the last few months as we expanded our social impact programs more deeply in the sports arena. Entrepreneur and filmmaker Bryant McBride, one of the trailblazers who is pushing for greater diversity in the NHL, introduced me to his great film Willie, which tells O’Ree’s story and is now being told with the help of the NHL leadership to myriad young people across North America.

Then there was the recent announcement by LaVida Baseball, a well-respected platform that tells the stories of all Latinos tied to the game, to create “The Year of 21,” a multi-platform content initiative designed to uplift and engage millions through the legacy of all things Clemente.

Both are worthy efforts which started outside the walls of the NHL and MLB. And, hopefully, this push of new content telling these important stories will help these two legends get their due – much like Jackie Robinson – by having their numbers permanently retired by every team in their respective sports.

While these efforts would mean a great deal to the legacies of O’Ree and Clemente, it would also make great business sense. The unifying ability that their stories would have on the masses would undoubtedly bring more people of diverse backgrounds together to learn how to evolve properly in our fast-shifting society, and I believe this would give corporate brands another impact outlet as they seek ways to rally around unification platforms.

These moves, if implemented by the NHL and MLB, would send great messages to generations of people of color who are looking for inspiration and who may now see even more opportunity to engage in the sport of hockey, along with a growing Latino population that will be better positioned to tie back to the roots of baseball. In both instances, a possibility exists for larger and more diverse audiences.

I must say that neither of these moves will be easy, and there will be the usual back-channeling and soft-selling, with the hope that maybe there are simpler alternatives to a wide-scale number retirement. But at a time when I see D2C working to bring communities together every day, this act even with its challenges, would speak volumes. And the message would be clear: that diversity, belonging and equity are vital to our progress as a people.

Some may use another cliché to divert attention from the opportunity. “What’s is a number?” they may say. It’s just a symbol. But in this case, the numbers that adorned the jerseys of Willie O’Ree and Roberto Clemente are much more than a few digits on the back of a jersey, or on an outfield wall or a dasherboard. They are symbols that acknowledge the most important of pioneers and show how listening, storytelling, and bringing community together can take us beyond a game.

O’Ree and Clemente. 22 and 21. Numbers with an endless return on investment for generations to come.

Actions speak louder than words indeed.

M. Quentin Williams is the founder and chief executive of Dedication To Community, a national non-profit organization focused on educating and empowering communities