Eyes on the prize: Russell Okung aspires to be first black NFL owner


COSTA MESA, Calif. — Russell Okung is not a typical NFL player.

Signed as the Los Angeles Chargers‘ new left tackle this past offseason, the blindside protector of quarterback Philip Rivers invests in technology businesses, negotiates his own NFL contracts and is focused on finding a solution to help his hometown of Houston recover from Hurricane Harvey.

And one day, Okung dreams of becoming the first black owner of an NFL franchise.

“I’m always thinking about it because it’s a goal,” Okung said. “I’d love to be one of the first players to become a black NFL owner if possible. Obviously I have to stay focused on what’s happening right now, but it’s an aspiration of mine for sure.”

Of the 92 professional franchises among the NFL, NBA and MLB, there’s only one black owner: Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets.

“Ultimately, having a black owner who also was a player creates a showing of empathy toward racial and gender problems across society,” Okung said. “The NBA, which also has minority and majority owners from diverse backgrounds, has created an approachable environment that people can look to and feel welcome regardless of current social issues. They stay in front of it because they have leadership that understands crucial situations.

“From a macro level, having other minority owners makes sense as dollars and revenue will shift to OTT [over the top content, or media through the internet] the next generation of viewers. People in America are increasingly from diverse backgrounds with needs that are different. Diversity in thought from an ownership level could help the NFL understand changes in culture, support international reach and newer viewership technologies.”

Okung signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the Chargers this past offseason, including $25 million in guaranteed money as the team’s left tackle.

So far, the former Oklahoma State standout has played to his potential. The Chargers’ offensive line has given up just two sacks through two games, tied for best in the NFL. Los Angeles hosts Kansas City on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).

“He’s done a good job for us,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. “I like to say he’s good as advertised. He’s done well in protections, been good in run blocks and has been a good leader.”

Okung said during his time with the Seattle Seahawks he became interested in the technology field. Raised in a Nigerian household that stressed education, Okung said he was a computer geek as an adolescent, focused on learning code and taking apart computers.

“I realized that I never heard of Silicon Valley, nor did I know what it was,” Okung said. “And I did not understand that area, how much that area contributed to our economy, our work force and, shoot, the future of the U.S., if not our world.

“After that, I knew I wanted to be involved if I wanted to do something significant in terms of leveraging my platform and my influence to change the communities that I was involved in. And because of the perceptions of those communities, I knew that technology would be the way.”

Okung co-founded the Greater Foundation with Oklahoma State teammate Andrew McGee to help give at-risk youth exposure to technology.

And he sits on the advisory board of OneTeam Collective, an athlete-driven accelerator that targets companies that want to tap into sports-tech businesses.

Pet projects for Okung include Loftium, a company that he’s an investor in that leverages the Airbnb platform to help millennials buy new homes, and Rep The Squad, a company that allows fans to rent NFL jerseys for a monthly fee.

Along with Okung, other investors in Rep The Squad include Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate and Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.

Fellow offensive lineman Kenny Wiggins noticed Okung’s unique approach to the game and his career.

“It’s crazy how he does his own contracts and the technology stuff that he’s involved with,” Wiggins said. “I mean, that’s way above my mental capacity. It’s just different. It’s good. I like having him around. He’s a breath of fresh air.”

Okung raised eyebrows throughout the league by negotiating his own contract. Some NFL observers snickered when Okung negotiated a one-year deal with the Denver Broncos worth roughly $8 million.

However, Okung had the last laugh. The one-year deal allowed him to hit the market again, and he signed a lucrative, multiyear deal with the Chargers this past offseason.

“I definitely think it’s going to happen for a lot more guys than people think,” Okung said about other players negotiating deals. “There are guys who are literally sitting without an agent right now, purposely, who want to go the same route. And I’m happy for them.

“It may not make sense for everybody, but it made sense for me as a person who wanted more control of their future and more accountability for the things that happened when it comes to the business of football. I was willing to take on that risk, and I think other people feel the same way.”

J.I. Halsell, a former NFL agent and salary-cap specialist for the Washington Redskins, served as an adviser for Okung as he represented himself in negotiations.

“I’ve been on both sides of it, and 95 percent of the players need an agent because they don’t have the skill set or the tools, or even the wherewithal to go about represent themselves,” Halsell said. “It just so happened that Russ falls in that other 5 percent who do possess that skill set.

“And he understands that given the position he plays at left tackle, a premium-paying position, and he’s a former top-10 pick, so there is going to be a lot of scrutiny when he makes that decision. But I told him that it just kind of comes with the territory when you’re going against an established industry.”

Halsell said Okung could have the right makeup to be part of an NFL ownership group someday.

Halsell compared Okung to other professional players that have gone on to have success in the business world, including Denver Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway and Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson.

“He’s got great business acumen,” Halsell said. “His niche — and this is a great niche as we move into the future — is technology. And I told Russ, keep doing what you’re doing in that particular avenue. Because if you’re successful in the venture capital/technology world, then you’re going to have the resources and meet the people that you need to be with in order to make that dream of being a sports owner come to fruition.”

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