The chief executive of RISE, a nonprofit whose mission statement says it aims to "eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations," acknowledged Friday that the organization will face major challenges retaining the support of professional athletes after it was revealed this week that its founder, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, plans to host a fundraiser luncheon for President Donald Trump.
Diahann Billings-Burford, who has been RISE's CEO since September 2018, told ESPN's The Undefeated on Friday afternoon that the nonprofit is having "difficult conversations" focused on the potential massive hit to RISE's credibility with black athletes, who have previously supported the group's programs.
In spite of that, Billings-Burford was adamant that Ross must be involved with RISE going forward.
"This is a decision I personally wish Steve had not made," Billings-Burford told The Undefeated of the Trump fundraiser. "And he is a person that, from his track record, has made decisions that I very much agree with. [But] I don't want to make decisions without him, because even in the challenge he is very much a part of the solution.
"We're going to get through this, and we're going to figure out what's right."
News of Ross hosting the Trump fundraiser surfaced earlier this week. In response, Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills, who has been active in RISE programs, called out the motivations of Ross on Twitter after finding out about the luncheon, writing on Wednesday, "You can't have a nonprofit with this mission statement [and] then open your doors to Trump."
Stills stood by his criticism of Ross a day later, telling reporters he is no longer comfortable working with RISE.
Billings-Burford told The Undefeated she understands why Stills and other pro athletes might look at RISE differently now. Trump has been the focus of several race-related controversies, including his public criticism of NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic oppression and police brutality.
"I totally understand, empathize -- I don't know what word is more powerful -- [with] the disappointment and criticism toward Steve for making this decision," Billings-Burford said. "I would have to lack perspective to not understand why this decision would not make athletes hesitate to work with RISE."
Ross has openly supported and donated to Trump's campaign for years. In a statement issued early Wednesday evening, Ross said he has been friends with Trump for 40 years and that while they agree on some things, "we strongly disagree on many others" and that he has never been "bashful" about expressing his opinions to the president.
"I always have been an active participant in the democratic process," Ross said in the statement. "While some prefer to sit outside of the process and criticize, I prefer to engage directly and support the things I deeply care about.
"I have been, and will continue to be, an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability, and I have and will continue to support leaders on both sides of the aisle to address these challenges."
Ross' businesses are facing calls for a boycott because of the planned Trump fundraiser. Would RISE remain viable if professional athletes, effectively, boycott it? Billings-Burford says she believes it would.
"Could we go forward with less athlete engagement, professional athlete engagement? Yes, we certainly could," she told The Undefeated. "But we do think there's real value in having committed, professional athletes engaged with us fully. Absolutely. In some ways, we're built on that."