It took a few long seconds, but I pressed the cancel button on the fax machine, scratching a multimillion-dollar deal and career-defining opportunity. As I handed him back the agreement, I replied, “Not in a million years.”
Seeing the expression on my face, he responded, “I don’t mean it like that. I’m just attracted to how well you know football.”
In the same way that the NFL’s female-marketing initiatives have served only to titillate the male fan, my knowledge of football and my business acumen had seemingly served only to titillate this particular player. “The only reason to hire me is because I’m an excellent attorney and I understand this business. I will never sleep with you. Sorry, I cannot represent you.”
I walked away from a coveted client and kept my dignity.
I’m guessing that when Sheryl Sandberg wrote her feminist career manifesto, Lean In, this wasn’t the type of workplace dilemma she contemplated.
I had better luck with Antwan Barnes, now a linebacker for the New York Jets, but I definitely had to do much more work than a man would have had to in order to gain his trust. “Defensive coordinator of the Jets in 2000? Who won the Super Bowl when linebacker Mike Jones made the game-saving tackle in the last few seconds?” He demanded a sort of trial by fire when I first signed him on. Like, how could this little lady in pink know anything about the game?
But when I calmly ticked off the answers to his questions, he shook his head in disbelief and nodded. “You really believe that you can be my agent?” he asked. “Get me into the NFL? I mean, you never played. You’re a girl.”
I knew it was coming, but I still had to take a long, deep breath before responding, “And you never played for the NFL, either. Right?” He sheepishly agreed, and I was ultimately able to rattle off enough facts, figures and insights to convince him that I knew the game and the business.
But even when life as an agent was good, my personal life paid a price. As if we’re not already inundated with tales of how hard it is for professional black women to find love, imagine telling your boyfriend that your travel mate is a 250-pound professional athlete? It hasn’t always made for smooth relationships. And to be completely honest, it takes a lot of composure on my end to keep professional boundaries with a male athlete who has a body to die for.
All of this is partly why, in 2011, I changed paths to represent professional athletes as an NFL marketing agent in business affairs unrelated to their teams. While my race and gender still make me a minority in my new area, the distance from the football field itself and its accompanying culture has meant fewer biases to battle and much-needed peace of mind.