I recently renewed my membership in the American Tennis Association (ATA), the nation’s oldest black sports organization, but I must confess my enthusiasm was nowhere near as high as it was when I first joined in April of 2016.
Since then, I have experienced one disappointment after another, including never having received a membership card. But this post isn’t about my personal peeves.
Instead, I want to call your attention to a simmering controversy that threatens to blow up this organization that was formed in 1916 when blacks were barred from competing at the highest level of the sport in tournaments sponsored by the United States National Lawn Tennis Association, forerunner to the United States Tennis Association (USTA), now headed by a black woman.
At the center of the discord are plans to build a national tennis center in South Florida that would provide a permanent home for the ATA and the recent creation of an ATA Hall of Fame and announcement that Richard Williams, father of tennis greats Venus and Serena, would be its first inductee.
Emotions could come to a boil when members convene during the ATA’s centennial national championships tournament July 29-Aug. 5 in Baltimore, culminating a yearlong celebration of the organization’s 100 years of existence.
One board member already has resigned in exasperation over what he and others feel is the “hijacking” of the ATA by its former executive director Albert Tucker and former president Franklyn Scott.
“I can no longer abide the dishonesty, misinformation, fraud and apathy that the current administration has undertaken over the last year or two,” Robert Davis said in his May 27 resignation letter. “The ATA is on a collision course that will cause it to implode.”
In February, Davis filed a grievance calling for the removal of newly-elected ATA President Willie Emerson. That complaint followed a separate grievance filed by Edwin Amos, a longtime board member who represents the Midwestern Tennis Association.
At the heart of their concerns is the use of the ATA’s name and legacy by the American Tennis & Education Foundation (ATEF), an independent non-profit that was incorporated in South Florida in 2013 by Tucker. Tucker and Scott have forged a bond to build a national training center that would house ATA headquarters and provide a permanent site for the annual tournament. They have struck a deal with the city of Miramar to build the complex on parkland.
In his complaint, Amos charged that Emerson and the ATA’s executive committee has repeatedly violated the organization’s constitution and bylaws and “has allowed the ATA’s name to be used by the ATEF in an out of control marketing campaign that is not accountable to ATA.”
The ATA’s Dispute Resolution Committee found merit in Amos’s complaints and in June made several recommendations accordingly.
I reached out to everyone on the 10-member board of directors, as well as all five members of the executive committee, for some answers. Most deferred to ATA President Emerson.
Emerson said via email he would be happy to talk about the centennial tournament. “Other than that, I have no comment.”
Meanwhile, recent news releases have fueled the ire of Davis, Amos and others who say the ATEF is misappropriating the ATA’s name.
On May 18, online magazine Tennis.Life, based in South Florida, posted an article headlined: “Venus and Serena to donate $1 million to the ATA in honor of father Richard.” The article said the ATA was building a tennis complex in Miramar, Fla., that would house the ATA’s headquarters and a black tennis museum. The article also announced the creation of the ATA Hall of Fame and that Richard Williams would be honored as the first inductee during a ceremony at this year’s national tournament.
There are some curious aspects of this story. First, the ATA is not really building anything. Secondly, there already exists a Black Tennis Hall of Fame – Richard Williams was recently selected for induction as a contributor – that under original plans was to have a home at the new tennis complex. And thirdly, the only person quoted in this story was Tucker, who is a vice president for multicultural business development at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Following that article, an Atlanta-based marketing firm issued a June 8 press release on the Williams ATA Hall of Fame induction. And on July 17, it announced “on behalf of the ATA” that the ATA would proclaim Aug. 2 as Richard Williams Day in honor of his induction at a gala event on that evening. The release urges tournament participants to show support by wearing Richard Williams T-shirts, being sold for $34.95 with proceeds going to the Williams Tennis Foundation.
Strangely, the only quote from current ATA President Willie Emerson in either of those press releases was lifted from his message on the ATA website. The primary source was former president Scott, a Philadelphia dentist, who now is chairman of the ATEF. Scott is identified as president of the “ATA Education Foundation.”
Richard and Venus Williams congratulates Serena after she wins 2012 Wimbledon women’s singles title.
Davis and Amos point out no such group exists, and therein lies what they contend is deception by Scott and Tucker to raise funds using the ATA’s name to build their tennis complex. They say there has never been a board vote designating the American Tennis & Education Foundation as the charitable arm of the ATA as Scott, Tucker and Emerson claim it to be. Nor, they say, has there been any discussion, much less a board vote on the creation of an ATA Hall of Fame and selection of Richard Williams as its first inductee.
In fact, it appears the only board vote on anything linking the ATA and ATEF was on a Feb. 17 Memorandum of Understanding establishing that the ATA would receive 5 percent of the proceeds from any fundraising activity on behalf of the ATEF project. Among its recommendations on the complaint filed by Amos, the Dispute Resolution Committee calls for that percentage to be increased to 25.
“They’re misleading people about the whole nine yards,” said Amos, a tennis pro in Columbus who is in his second stint as an ATA board member.
“It is shameful,” said Davis, whose involvement with the ATA goes back to the junior development program under Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson.
Davis also is founder of the Black Tennis History Museum and director of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame that was founded in 2007 by Dale Caldwell, an entrepreneur and lifetime ATA member and a USTA board member.
Scott acknowledged that he hired the Brainchild Associates in Atlanta to handle publicity for the tournament and Richard Williams induction because of his close relationship with Williams. He contends he has the authority to speak on behalf of the ATA because of his affiliation as chairman of the ATEF.
ATA Treasurer Roxanne Aaron defended the ATEF and its mission.
“I don’t see any blurring of the lines,” she said. “After 100 years, we have an opportunity to do some things to have a tennis facility in Florida.”
Both Scott and Tucker, who are lifetime ATA members, acknowledged their longtime goal has been to build a national tennis complex that would provide a permanent home for the ATA and its national championship, as well as a training site to help develop young black tennis players. They say the ATA lacks the business structure to take on such a project, so they had to establish a separate 501c (3) foundation. They also say everything the ATEF does will be to the benefit of the ATA.
“At the end of the day, the ATA will have a whole new level of respect,” Tucker said. “Why are these guys freaking over this nonsense?”
“My involvement with the ATA from the start was to find a way to support our children with a tennis academy and a home of our own,” Scott told me.
Scott maintains the ATEF was intentionally set up to be the charitable arm of the ATA, but he also concedes there was no board vote authorizing it during his three terms as president. “There’s nothing being hidden, nothing behind the doors.”
Davis and Amos say they have no qualms with the proposal for a national tennis center. And they credit both Scott and Tucker with having done a lot for the ATA. But they feel the distinction between the two organizations should be transparent.
They also question why should the ATA help raise funds for the ATEF’s national training center in which it would have no ownership when the ATA’s own coffers were so bare last summer that the organization had to rely on a donation from Scott for stamps to resend election ballots.
Concerns regarding the relationship between the ATA and ATEF began almost immediately after Tucker filed the incorporation papers in 2013. Sallie Elam, the ATA’s first vice president and longtime tournament director, is listed as treasurer of the ATEF.
In an April 2014 email, Tucker emphasized to board members that the ATEF was a separate, independent organization not beholden to or governed by the ATA. Nor was there a financial relationship, he said.
But it was Tucker’s power point presentation at last year’s general meeting during the national championships that startled Davis, Amos and others. Tucker revealed the project he was asking the ATA to help raise money for would be called the ATEF National Tennis Center, “to be developed, owned and operated by ATEF.”
Maurice Green, a lifetime ATA member and five-time ATA national champion, told me he could not believe what he was hearing. He said he couldn’t help but wonder what was in this for the ATA.
“It was the first time I’d heard it called the ATEF training center,” Green said. “I asked, ‘When did we suddenly change the name?’”
Green and others also question the propriety of Tucker’s involvement.
“There is clearly a conflict of interest when considering Mr. Tucker’s direct involvement with the affairs of the ATA, his role in the ATEF, and his position with the Ft. Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.,” Davis, Amos and Green contended in a letter they wrote to ATA president Emerson in October. “To his credit and in all fairness to him, in this role, he has done an admirable job in ‘dressing up’ and providing funding to the ATA National Championships. That said, keep in mind that his efforts in this regard have generated millions of dollars in economic revenue for Broward County.”
Tucker, who was influential in getting funding for the ATA national championships held in Fort Lauderdale for the past five years, told me he stands to gain nothing personally from the tennis center other than the satisfaction of seeing the ATA finally have a home.
“I’m conflicted because I do have an interest; I believe in black,” he said.
Personally, I feel Scott and Tucker have admirable goals. But I also believe their critics have very legitimate concerns.
As for the ATA, this is an organization in desperate need of visionary leadership and a new game plan if it is to survive another 100 years. Its only function is hosting the annual national tournament. The organization basically has been living off its legacy, as noted by the authors of “Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.”
“The existence of a tennis organization that is ninety-one years old and led by African Americans is laudable,” the authors wrote. “The reality of that organization being of such diminishing influence that African-American youth in a sports-mad nation barely know it exists is unfortunate.”
The book was published in 2007. Sadly, not much has changed.